What do you do if you get a question in a media interview that you don’t want to answer or can’t answer…a question that comes at you rather like a wayward missile fired in a test?
I don’t know what media training Prime Minister Theresa May has had, but if she had asked us how to answer a tricky question, we’d have suggested a different way to respond to Andrew Marr quizzing her on what she knew of the failed Trident missile test – a way to lessen the chance of being asked a tough question not once but four times.
Apparently Henry Kissinger once said, “If it’s going to come out eventually, better have it come out immediately.”
If you don’t, what you risk is what seems to be happening now: what she knew and when is beginning to emerge in dribs and drabs.
A day after the Marr interview we’ve now been told, via a Downing Street spokeswoman, that May had been briefed about the test when she became prime minister.
But, alas for the spokesperson, that has not sunk the issue, because the media were still not told whether the PM knew the missile had misfired.
So here’s another maxim worth noting: journalists don’t stop covering the story just because someone won’t talk to them. In this case, they won’t stop covering it, just because someone won’t answer that last key point.
Instead, reporters pursue the story with greater fervour, because when an interviewee or organisation appears to be building a defensive wall, reporters simply reach for longer ladders.
Perhaps we’ll get an answer this afternoon when the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon addresses MPs. But if that happens, it will look as though the truth has been dragged out, rather than given openly and freely.
This is at best putting the matter into damage limitation territory. It’s a no-win situation.
But we’re not saying interviewees should answer every question a presenter or reporter asks. Absolutely not. But what you should do – and the Prime Minister did not do – is say why you can’t answer.
There might be a host of plausible reasons, such as commercial sensitivity (you don’t want to help your rivals), financial reporting rules, or it relates to something outside your area of expertise.
These work even better when preceded by the empathy response, e.g. “I can completely understand why you’re asking me that, but…”
So what should Theresa May have said?
She could have tried the “security defence” – so, “That clearly relates to a matter of national security, which I obviously cannot discuss, but what I can say is…”
However, that only works here if the success/failure of tests has not been commented on publicly in the past…and they have.
She could perhaps have bought herself some time: “This is a matter of national security and one I want to discuss further with senior military advisers first, but I will be commenting on it later.” It’s not ideal, but at least it’s not ignoring or reframing the question.
In reality, and given the way what-the-PM-knew-and-when has dominated the headlines, the best answer, if true, would surely have been to say, “Yes, I was told the test had misfired, but let me explain why I believe it would have had no bearing on the vote to renew Trident in the summer…..”
I suspect that’s the quote we’ll soon be hearing.
But how much better it would have been had the PM landed that one yesterday, instead of veering horribly off course with some misfired messages, which only put the media and opposition parties in a state of heightened alert.
How Mrs May probably wishes that Marr interview had been just a test and not for real…