Oh Ken, Ken, Ken…what were you thinking? Or perhaps, Mr Clarke, you weren’t thinking at all and that explains why today’s little off-air chat with fellow Tory veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind at Sky News’s Westminster studios about the Tory leadership candidates became news in itself.
If we asked political journalists who would get their vote as an excellent interviewee, I reckon Conservative grandee Clarke would be their favourite. He’s affable, highly experienced, knowledgeable and can be relied upon for incisive comments and a colourful phrase. Put simply, he gets it.
So it’s all the more surprising he and Rifkind didn’t foresee the danger of chatting in a studio after being interviewed.
When we run our media training courses for companies, we always advise them to think very carefully about where to take journalists if they’re inviting reporters to their offices. This is because a canny hack will always check out what’s on flip charts, noticeboards and the names in the visitors’ book on reception and possibly use that information.
And it’s the other way round when the interviewee goes to a TV or radio studio. It’s naive to think that the interview only begins when you’re in the “hot seat” in the studio, when the red “on air” light goes on and the interviewer says, “So what’s your view on….?” In other words, you could be considered “fair game” long before – and after – the “official” interview.
The golden rule used to be, “Don’t say anything in the presence of a journalist that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of a national newspaper the next morning”. That was always a good rule of thumb for those who might have been tempted to go “off message” in the bar at a conference, or speak too freely to a reporter as they accompany them to the lift, following a lengthy and convivial face-to-face interview about their company’s rosy future.
But, thanks to the widespread use of digital tools and 24-hours news, the rule should probably now be, “Don’t say anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want the world to know about in minutes”.
Why? Because we all have “broadcast channels” at our fingertips, thanks to the likes of Twitter and Youtube and it’s these that have given the Clarke/Rifkind story added momentum. It’s a classic social media story – funny, embarrassing, rather voyeuristic, but above all, topical.
So if you’ve been daft enough to scribble some keywords on your hand before a major broadcast interview or someone’s taken a photo of those confidential documents you were carrying into a shareholders’ meeting – entitled, “Post-Brexit: relocating the business from London to Frankfurt” – both scenarios can rapidly turn into news stories without a journalist or cameraman being present.
But once the media pick up on them, they’re instantly amplified. (Sky News presenter Kay Burley quickly tweeted a transcript and flagged up when the Clarke/Rifkind chat would be broadcast and further tweets and retweets boosted the story’s momentum.)
OMG you are definitely going to want to watch our programme on @skynews at 2pm Safe to say, you're never alone with a microphone…
— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) July 5, 2016
Here are some more nuggets from the Clarke/Rifkind exchange pic.twitter.com/JApXZiwBGd
— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) July 5, 2016
So should we feel a little sorry for these two politicians? Wasn’t this a private conversation? Take another look at the clip – you’re seeing it because there must have been a camera right in front of Clarke, and who are all those people behind him, typing away? (Clue: it’s a newsroom.)
I might feel some sympathy if this had been their first interviews, but they’ve probably done more than most journalists in the building!
Never forget, reporters are really the reverse of the three monkeys – we see the bad stuff, hear the bad stuff and then speak it, as we pass it on to our audiences. And we can’t unhear it or unsee it, and if we unspeak it, then we might as well pack up and go home.
This could be a rare example of the “old guard” letting its news guard down….but I doubt Clarke and Rifkind will be the last to fall victim to a little media monkey business.