Boris Johnson’s reaction to the working-over he received at the hands of the BBC’s Eddie Mair provides a useful insight into where your head should be when you have an encounter with an aggressive or persistent interviewer.
Mair’s grilling of Johnson – dredging up past alleged indiscretions – could not have been more brutal. It even included the accusation that Boris was a “nasty piece of work”.
Boris’ father immediately weighed in to defend his son, describing Mair’s interview as “the most disgusting piece of journalism I’ve listened to for a very long time”. For a moment it looked as though the Johnson dynasty was about to go to war with the BBC.
But then Boris popped up to defend Mair, saying he’d done a “splendid job” and that he was right to hold him, the Mayor of London, to account.
Boris could have reacted the other way, both in the interview itself and afterwards.
During the interview he could have directed mounting indignation towards Mair, challenging his right to ask the questions he did.
He could have have walked out of the interview halfway through.
In the wake of the interview, he could have unleashed a furious burst of vitriol upon both Mair and the BBC.
Instead, Boris – by adopting a fairly laissez-faire approach – has to some extent shifted the post-interview goalposts in his favour.
The past “misdemeanours”, as some have described them, which were the focus of much of Mair’s questioning, have now been partially supplanted as the news story by Boris’ laid-back reaction to the interview.
He’s now come across as the man who took the interview in his stride, who’s admitted it wasn’t his finest hour and who accepts that news interviewers, when they step on the gas, are just doing their job.
The lesson in this for anyone being interviewed on a controversial topic is as follows. If you think of your interviewer as ‘the enemy’, this could well work to your detriment – – seriously so. Every reply you give, every piece of body language you display, will betray hostility towards the person putting the questions to you.
To the viewer, it will appear that the interviewee is seriously troubled about being questioned. If they are so strung up about answering a few pressing questions that they they display irascibility towards their interviewer, then what’s going on? That’s the question the viewer ask will him or herself. What is the interviewee hiding? Do they know they’re guilty? Are they on dodgy ground and are terrified in case the questioning uncovers this?
By taking a relaxed view of his interview – both on and off-screen – Boris has simply said to the public: “Yep, it wasn’t a good interview. I cocked up. We’ve all got human failings. I’m like everybody else.”
In the end, it might all end up boosting rather than diminishing Boris’ standing in the eyes of many.
Boris’ epitaph on the whole Mair interview: “If a BBC presenter can’t attack a nasty Tory politician, what’s the world coming to? It was an Oscar-winning performance”.
That’s the frame of mind to be in when you are in the hot seat and under fire and as you enter the studio to confront your inquisitor.