Yesterday there was a memorable interview on Channel 4 News…memorable for the wrong reason: the interviewee, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat thought he was coming on to talk about one topic (pensions charges), while presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy thought the MP was there to comment on BHS and its pension gap.
Of course such confusion is nothing new – last month was the tenth anniversary of possibly the most famous case of an interview mix-up, when business graduate Guy Goma turned up at the BBC for a job interview and found himself quizzed live about Apple.
The key difference between these interviews is Goma attempted to answer the questions, while Tugendhat refused to be drawn on the BHS issue.
So was the MP right to stand his ground and is that the correct approach to take in a media interview?
Let’s look at how the interview unfolded:
Tugendhat began by suggesting he was not the man to comment:
“I haven’t been following the BHS case I’m afraid. I sit on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and I’ve been working on pension charges…”
And he stuck to this line:
“I’m not able to talk to you about the BHS case at all…I’ve been working on other things today.”
At this point Guru-Murthy sounded tetchy: “I’m not asking you in detail about British Home Stores and what happened today; I’m asking you in general terms – doesn’t it reveal something rather whiffy about the way British business works?”
Now, while most of us would surely have some sympathy for someone who has been invited on to talk about one thing, but is then asked about something completely different, that’s not really the case here and the BHS story has had enormous media coverage. Couldn’t you reasonably expect an MP, with a knowledge of the financial services industry and pensions in particular, to give a comment here?
By not uttering even a general response to this question, Tugendhat risked some viewers questioning his awareness of what’s going on in the wider business world, of wondering whether the “Westminster bubble effect” was at play.
So what can you do when you’re bowled a “curved ball” question like this? Well, it’s perfectly possible to acknowledge it briefly and then move on to safer ground, rather than refuse to comment.
For example, perhaps he could have said, “Clearly there are many question to be answered about the BHS pension and the select committee’s interviews both this week and next week should help achieve that. I’m also focused on a pensions controversy today – pensions charges…”
But instead he said: “You should have asked somebody who knows about BHS I’m afraid. I was very clear to your producer that I can talk about pensions and about asset management, but I haven’t followed the BHS case today, because I’ve been working on other things.”
I don’t know the background to how he came to be on the programme, but if he told the producer he “can talk about pensions” it’s perhaps reasonable to think that on a day when colleagues were asking questions about BHS, an MP – apparently a former journalist and management consultant – might be able to have a general view on the the retailer’s pension situation.
The key point for all media interviewees here is not to think of your interview topic in isolation. In practical terms this means that if, say, you’re a headteacher, who is being interviewed about education reforms on a day when there is a major announcement about public service pay scales, don’t be surprised if you’re asked your view on that too.
Replying, “I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to talk about education reforms,” will do you no favours.
Far better to respond, “Like all public service workers, I shall want to look at this more closely to see how it affects me and my staff, but our main focus today is how education reform etc…”
You’ve not avoided the question, you’ve stayed in control and you’ve moved seamlessly on to your main topic.
When we demonstrate this on our media training courses, at the point when we say, “You’ve not avoided the question…” a delegate invariably chips in, “You mean like politicians do!”.
I don’t think yesterday’s pensions interview would have done much to dispel that view…