Sky News this morning broadcast 10 minutes of live television from the banks of the River Thames at Wraysbury in Berkshire that brought together a government minister and an angry resident. The local resident demanded to know why the authorities had provided no help, as homes have been flooded and the river level continues to rise.
The Sky News presenter at the scene, Charlotte Hawkins, immediately and skilfully sensed that this was a moment for her to stand back and let the Minister and the resident have the airtime to themselves.
The Minister was the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond. The local resident had been up all night with others trying to help local people. She was firing on all cylinders, reflecting the deep-felt anger of many people across the country about the role of the government and other authorities in the way they’ve handled the floods.
It was an occasion that could have left Mr Hammond high and dry.
As it was, he emerged from this live television encounter fairly unscathed and there were two or three reasons for that.
Firstly, Mr Hammond is rare among politicians in that he generally speaks a language that most people understand. He doesn’t churn out politico-speak. By comparison, on last night’s BBC Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman upbraided the head of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, for coming out with the jargon phrase “stepping up to the plate”. Not many rescue workers are turning up to help people on the Somerset Levels and announcing their arrival with the words, ”We’re here to step up to the plate”. By contrast, Mr Hammond comes across as a man who actually meets real people from time to time.
Secondly, he was quite evidently listening to what the local resident had to say, even when she was attacking him forcefully. Mr Hammond was not trying to interject all the time. Nor was he patronising towards her.
Finally, he thought quickly on his feet. The resident pointed out that the village of Wraysbury had been promised help from the Armed Forces but that it had not arrived. Mr Hammond explained that he, as Defence Secretary, was not in a position to impose himself upon the civil authorities that are ultimately in charge of dealing with the flood crisis on the ground (not that there’s much ground left). Yes, he said, the army was available but their deployment had to be at the request of the local police Gold Commander (who invents these titles?). The local resident accepted this point.
Then, at the end of the interview, Mr Hammond invited the local resident to go with him straightaway to meet the local Gold Commander to find out what was going on. That was a masterstroke.
I hope Sky News follows them. That could be even more gripping television.