“You’re teaching the enemy tricks”. As a definition of media training, it was pretty devastating.
It was even more devastating when delivered to my face by my boss, the then Head of TV News at the BBC, Tony Hall, a man whose company I enjoyed and whose opinions I respect – and a man on whom so many hopes now rest.
But I have always felt that on this occasion Tony was wrong, on two counts. Since when have interviewees – the people broadcast news relies on to deliver expert knowledge – been “the enemy”? And as far as “tricks” are concerned, an interviewee who relied on them to get out of trouble would be hung out to dry by any competent interviewer. Politicians who use tricks to avoid the question, by raising a “more important” issue, stretching their answers to breaking point, or directly attacking the interviewer, play straight into their questioners’ hands, and the audience can spot their tactics a mile off.
My gentlemanly dressing-down by Tony Hall came about because at that time, unconvinced about the longevity of my newsreader’s career, I had decided to develop a side-line as a media trainer. Years later, in fact 36 years after joining the BBC, I finally made the leap – from poacher to gamekeeper, as some would have it – and helped set up HarveyLeach.
After years of interviewing experts whose knowledge was extensive but whose delivery was woolly, opaque and stumbling, I knew there was a problem. Very few of them have any idea how to distil a career’s-worth of knowledge into a three-minute interview that will be intelligible to the man in the street. They come into the studio weighed down with detail and totally unprepared for a fast-moving news interview which can all too easily turn into a hit-and-run accident.
For anyone who has not practised it, handling an interview effectively is a genuinely difficult task. In front of a microphone or camera, outside your comfort zone, in the hands of a broadcasting professional, it is little wonder that palms sweat and brains freeze.
The solution falls into the “not rocket science” category. It simply requires practice in a realistic setting. Providing the realistic setting is the job of a professional media trainer, someone who has been there and done it, who knows exactly the questions journalists will ask, and has a teacher’s ability to analyse the results.
The result of the training should be not an enemy who has learned tricks, but an expert able to share his knowledge in a way that is interesting, relevant and above all clear. Which is precisely why media training has a wider value, helping professionals express themselves more effectively in all areas of their working lives.
Unfortunately the view that Tony Hall voiced so succinctly all those years ago still persists. When I recently approached a frontline news presenter about his availability for helping with some media training, the response was an email which had fear etched into every sentence. His message was clear – “please don’t ask me, I can’t talk about this, it could cost me my job”. Yet a few hours of his expertise and experience could have helped an interviewee deliver information in a clear, compelling fashion. Isn’t that the aim of all news broadcasting?
One other thought occurs. BBC chiefs over recent years must surely have used media training themselves, in order to prevent embarrassing gaffes, come across in a convincing fashion and avoid damaging the reputation of the Corporation. Ah, wait a minute…