There’s a saying among journalists that when it comes to interviewing politicians, we start with the mindset of, “What ‘porkies’ are you going to try to tell me, you b***stard?”
This might seem harsh, but I wish I had a pound for every delegate in a media training session who has said, “What I really hate is when politicians won’t answer the question and talk only about what they want to talk about”.
So those journalists feel their cynical approach to an MP interview is justified.
This justification can only have been strengthened after BBC TV’s Newsnight on Tuesday when Jeremy Paxman interviewed junior treasury minister Chloe Smith, who had been put up to explain the Government’s decision to delay the 3p tax rise on fuel.
From the start Paxo’s questions were met with obfuscation:
Paxman: “When were you told of this change of plan?”
Smith: “Well, as a minister in the Treasury and indeed dealing with fuel matters, this has been under consideration for some time.”
So, no answer on the all-important “when”.
This is the interview equivalent of flashing the proverbial scarlet cloth at a stampeding tonne of beef. And if you don’t address a specific question, don’t be surprised to hear it again…and again, each time with more fervour.
Of course there may well be times when for good reasons (financial regulations, commercial sensitivities etc.) you cannot answer the question, but you must say why you can’t answer it. Smith didn’t have a good reason, or at least not one that would wash with the British public.
Instead she wriggled and then fell back on that Cameron special, “I’m not going to give a running commentary on…”
(The Prime Minister had sidestepped answering why he could not comment on Gary Barlow’s tax affairs with that one last week, after criticising Jimmy Carr for his.)
Alas, it was not going to work as a kind of “Get Out Of Jail Free” card for Chloe Smith.
What she got was the opposite – corporal Paxman punishment.
That said, Smith showed some signs of some knowledge of media interview techniques, but these alone would not save her, when clearly there was a lack of essential preparation and knowledge of important detail.
In her defence, this may have been down to lack of time. But there’s an answer to that: don’t do the interview or if you do, explain why you can’t give specific information; above all don’t try to wriggle or throw Paxman off the scent.
This was one of those rare occasions when no interview would have been better than that interview.
Any good corporate comms person should have realised that putting a 30-year-old Treasury boffin up against the wiliest of political interviewers was a daft idea.
This had all the predictability of watching the little porker, who built his house from straw, when the four-legged carnivore comes calling.
Sure enough Paxman, the wolf in wolf’s clothing, well and truly kebab-ed the parliamentary piggie.