“…mate, we’re doctors, not professional spin merchants, leave that to politicians”.
That’s how one doctor responded to my tweet criticising Johann Malawana, chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee, for his interview on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday morning.
I’d argued his performance was poor, compared with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s, which had been broadcast a few minutes earlier.
Putting aside Hunt’s case for seven-day working and what junior doctors should be paid, the Health Secretary sounded calm and in control throughout. Malawana did not.
But it’s a serious mistake to put Hunt’s “success” down to “spin”. What he did that Malawana failed to do was to use a few very simple media training techniques to enhance his performance, not to define it.
Doctors – or any experts for that matter – should never think their expertise alone will suffice to create an effective media interview. If anything, that vast body of knowledge can be a hindrance.
Just as I could not step into an operating theatre without training, doctors should not step into our theatre without mastering some of the techniques of the trade…unless they always want to be at a disadvantage.
So what can the BMA and others learn from Hunt’s performance?
1. Land the first punch. For some reason this was not a head-to-head interview – both Hunt and Malawana were interviewed separately. Crucially, Hunt went first. If he’d chosen to do this, it was a smart move, because he gave the interviewer, James Naughtie, plenty of ammunition to fire at Malawana.
2. Don’t succumb to interruptions. Interruptions are part of the cut and thrust of a media interview – after all, the journalist needs answers to key questions in just a few minutes. But there is nothing wrong in saying politely, as Hunt did, “If I could just finish this point…”. The audience will be sympathetic to this. Malawana, on the other hand, seemed rattled by the interruptions and was diverted from his message.
3. Keep calm. Journalists will often try to ramp up the drama with an increasingly aggressive and hectoring tone. The smart interviewee will not respond in kind, but instead stay calm and controlled – as Hunt did. Again, Malawana didn’t and stumbled through some answers, sounding increasingly wrong-footed. Ironically, it was Hunt who seemed to have the better “bedside manner”. The BMA’s man appeared instead to allow his clear exasperation with Hunt’s strategy to come out through his voice.
4. Use third parties to support your case. It’s hard to think of anything more compelling for a journalist/audience than the words, “Don’t just take my word for it…” or, “If you won’t believe me, at least take note of the eminent Prof X, who says…”. Hunt used this tactic a few times, even explicitly, when he said “Listen to independent voices”. Firstly, he quoted Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director for NHS England, and then referred to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. The latter reference was a masterstroke, coming as it did after Naughtie challenged him to respond to an open letter to Hunt today from hundreds of consultants in emergency medicine, who are backing junior doctors. This clever response didn’t happen by accident; I have no doubt Hunt had anticipated the tricky question and framed his response long before he stepped into the studio. Preparing for what is on the “news radar” is crucial.
5. Consider the audience. Hunt repeatedly focused on what his proposals would mean for patients and doctors – this was not an either/or approach. There was also the suggestion that doctors might not like what he was suggesting, but, well, he’s only doing what Tory voters have demanded by voting them into power, or, as he put it, the Government is “delivering a manifesto promise”. It would be a naughty Government that breaks a promise now, wouldn’t it?!
6. Keep it simple. Hunt concluded by saying, “This ought to be something that reasonable people can sit around the table and talk about”. Who could argue with that, (even if it’s perhaps not the reality)? It sure sounded good! But when asked if he could do that too, Malawana prevaricated or went into a long explanation – albeit possibly with very good reason – leaving many listeners with the impression that the obstetrician would not or could not answer the question. Unlike in the theatre of surgery, in the theatre of the media, perception is (almost) everything.
Some critics have said Naughtie went easy on Hunt. He didn’t. He was fair and balanced across both interviews. Jeremy Hunt had done the media interview equivalent of sharpening his scalpels and scrubbing up as thoroughly as possible to ensure the best possible surgical outcome. And it worked.
Meanwhile, Johann Malawan has said that “sound bite politics is not a meaningful discussion; what we need is a professional negotiation”. Maybe. But you make your case much stronger if you take the public with you. After all, they’re the ones with the biggest stake in all this (and the ones who pay junior doctors’ salaries). A powerful media interview can rally the public to your cause like nothing else.
But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Jeremy Hunt – he understands that better than anyone.