The nation – or at least the Radio 4 Archers fans within it – has been gripped by the series’ courtroom storyline this month. Much of this drama has been created by the barristers’ questioning, with both much loved and despised characters experiencing a “grilling”.
It’s been a useful reminder of how, like a skilled boxer landing a well-placed and exquisitely timed punch, a cleverly chosen question can floor the person on the receiving end.
For this skill – and several others – barristers and good journalists have much in common.
Indeed top lawyers and the best journalists can spend hours considering the one question that could expose the implausibility or even dishonesty of a witness/interviewee.
Only a couple of days ago the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, came unstuck when Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan asked, with devastating simplicity, if she knew who the French foreign minister was.
It was a rare “Yes/No” question. Journalists use these sparingly, preferring questions that prompt longer answers, but in this case it was used to good effect – either she would know it or she wouldn’t.
And she didn’t.
(The TV and radio presenter Jeremy Vine once wrote that when he worked on Newsnight, they would spend many production meetings trying to come up with the one unanswerable question.)
Yes, just one is all it takes, as Michael Howard or George W. Bush would probably confirm.
Meanwhile, let’s return to The Archers trial – in one episode last week Pat Archer was giving evidence and was asked to confirm the words daughter Helen used when she made a threat against her husband, Rob Titchener. Pat confirmed Helen had said, “I swear I’ll kill him”. Before she could explain the context in mitigation, Pat’s told by the cross-examining barrister to stick to the facts.
It’s a hugely damaging moment.
Similar damage can be caused in media interviews too, particularly print ones. Let’s say a reporter says to you, “This is shocking news for your company and a terrible insight into the appalling way your business treats staff isn’t it?”
All it takes is for you to say something along the lines of, “Well, I suppose to some degree it is, but….” and the journalist, who might be very ambitious and keen to get a good story in the paper after a fallow spell, will feel completely justified in writing the headline, “Shocked Company XYX admits to appalling treatment of staff”.
Of course journalists and lawyers have another skill in common: they often have to forensically analyse complex issues, about which they may have no previous knowledge, and come up with a line of questioning that will go, like an archer’s arrow, to the heart of the matter.
Their jobs can seem even more similar when you compare a journalist working on a late-breaking story with a barrister receiving a late brief: both have to do the best they can with what’s available.
Plus, they both need to make a quick judgment about their interviewee or witness – are they telling the truth, what might they be trying to hide, what are they NOT saying? Finding all that out can feel like a game of chess.
One of the best examples of this came from a barrister: apparently, while questioning a claimant, who wanted damages for an injured arm, the barrister asked, “How high could you raise your arm before the accident?”. The claimant raised the limb in question.
Let’s hope, in the months to come, Rob Titchener is similarly skewered.