The media reported that Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson “turned the tables” on Radio 4’s Today presenter John Humphrys yesterday.
She was there to be interviewed about new rules to prevent sexual harassment at Westminster.
As the interview drew to a close, she suddenly asked him if he had apologised to Carrie Gracie over off-air remarks he had made about the gender pay gap.
This “ambush” was widely viewed – at least on social media – as a triumph.
Well, I disagree and would advise interviewees not to copy her tactic.
1. It can backfire spectacularly.
Okay, so it wasn’t that spectacular in this case, but it certainly wasn’t the “slam dunk” victory I suspect Swinson was hoping for. That’s because when you ask a journalist a question, you know nothing (or little) about them, so you cannot anticipate their answer.
I think Swinson was expecting a very different response. But, far from having to admit he’d not apologised to Gracie, he replied he’d emailed her immediately after the exchange and she’d replied!
And if that wasn’t enough to burst Swinson’s balloon, Humphrys was able to boast he’d at least answered her surprise question. (Answering tricky questions is, let’s face it, not something politicians are renowned for doing.) What’s more, he declared the question irrelevant. Ouch.
He had a point: remember, Swinson was being interviewed about new rules to prevent sexual harassment at Westminster. The Carrie Gracie debate is about the gender pay gap. They’re two separate issues, not to be conflated.
2. When journalists are conducting interviews, they are 100 per cent in their comfort zone.
It’s what they do, day in, day out.If I’m interviewing a brain surgeon in a hospital, I would not feel entitled to grab a scalpel towards the end of the interview and perform a craniotomy.
Swinson might once have worked at Viking FM, but why should she suddenly feel entitled to start doing a broadcast journalist’s job?
3. The journalist has the last word.
This is especially obvious with presenters conducting live interviews – they are the ones ruled by the second hand of the clock and it is down to them to bring the interview to a close. In this case, Humphrys wrapped up the awkward exchange with the withering comment that such questions thrown in at the end of an interview are usually “…slightly more relevant, because this is entirely irrelevant. However, there you are, I’ve answered your question. Jo Swinson, thank you.”
I sincerely hope no interviewee feels emboldened to “do a Swinson” next time they face a journalist. If they view her tactic as a victory, I suspect it will soon be regarded as a Pyrrhic one. It certainly seemed so to me.
Either way, I look forward to the next Humphrys-Swinson interview.
But not I suspect, as much as Mr Humphrys is looking forward to it…