The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, had a good old dust-up on the Today programme this morning with John Humphrys over new rules coming into force today on welfare benefits. The Daily Mail, among others, quickly picked up on the story:
Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith today accused the BBC of launching a ‘politically-motivated’ attack on government plans to cap benefits.
In an extraordinary on-air blast, the Work and Pensions Secretary accused the Corporation of using ‘lots of little cases’ to claim that limiting welfare payments would not get people back to work.
The confrontation live on Radio 4’s Today programme marks a significant escalation in the political row between Mr Duncan Smith and the BBC over reforms to the benefits system.
We’ll put to one side the “government v. BBC” story, as well as the politics involved in welfare benefits. There are, however, two small tips we can offer Mr Duncan Smith with regard to interview techniques.
The interview was preceded by a clip from a previously-broadcast interview with a lady called Rebecca who explained how she would be affected by new benefits curbs. Again, we won’t get involved in the rights and wrongs of what she said, but here was a real person telling a real story. She came across in a warm and friendly way. She explained how, if she had to move out of London as a result of cuts to her benefits, her local community would suffer, as she was a choir leader and a Sunday school teacher.
Then Ian Duncan Smith popped up. In referring back to the clip from Rebecca, he referred to her as “that woman”. This is an error made by many interviewees in similar circumstances. It comes across in a very cold and impersonal way. The same thing often happens when people appear on phone-in programmes and are responding to telephone calls, emails or tweets from listeners. It can be interpreted by the listener as though the interviewee has not bothered to take on board what the listener has said or written and regards them and their comments as being simply irritating.
Another way in which Mr Duncan Smith might have improved his interview technique was in not repeating negative language used by John Humphrys in his questions.
Two questions from Humphrys referred to the government “hitting her” [Rebecca] and “punishing people”. On both occasions Duncan Smith repeated this language as he denied the charges.
The problem is, the listener heard the phrases twice over – once from the interviewer and then repeated by the interviewee. So, if the listener missed it the first time, they got it the second time. If they heard it on both occasions, this negative phrase was repeated in their minds twice over – more chance, therefore, of it sticking.