It was never going to be an easy interview, but when Patrick Moore popped up on French TV channel Canal + to support an American agrochemical company and offered to drink one of its herbicides, things went spectacularly wrong.
Although not a paid lobbyist for Monsanto, Dr Moore was arguing that glyphosate, the main ingredient in its Roundup weed killer, is not particularly dangerous.
“I do not believe that glyphosate in Argentina is causing increases in cancer,” he told the programme Special Investigation. “You can drink a whole quart of it and it won’t hurt you.” Clearly delighted by this bold statement the interviewer asks: “You want to drink some? We have some here.”
To this Dr Moore replies: “I’d be happy to actually.” But then immediately adds: “Not really, but I know it wouldn’t hurt me.” So, let’s get this straight – he’s happy to drink it but he’s not really. When invited again Dr Moore adds: “I’m not stupid.”
Perhaps not but unfortunately many people believed that the good doctor looked rather stupid – especially when he cut the interview short, called the reporter a ‘complete jerk’ and walked out.
What to do when the interview gets personal and how to handle personal questions is an issue that often crops up during our media training sessions. Very often interviewees have their company line and their key messages clear in their heads. They’ve practiced saying them and they’ve anticipated any difficult questions.
But then, during the interview, apparently out of the blue, a question comes in about their personal experience or their own attitudes. You might, for example, be appearing on behalf of a major energy company – so would you be willing to have a power station, a nuclear plant or a wind farm, for that matter, built next to your home? Similarly, would you eat the product that you’re promoting yourself?
In a truly horrendous Watchdog interview, what was the first question that Anne Robinson asked Eileen Downey, the boss of the company that owns Pontins, one of whose sites had had been subject to an exposé by the programme? Was it about dirty sheets or mouldy towels? The outrage of unhappy guests or the state of the rooms? No. “Mrs Downey where did you go for your holidays this year?” asked Robinson innocently.
You can see the momentary panic and confusion in Ms Downey’s face as she flicks a look at the camera and spits out: “I went to Majorca.” This then gives Robinson the opportunity to ask whether Ms Downey herself experienced blood stained sheets and holes in the sofa, as it was alleged some Pontins guests had.
For journalists the personal question put to an interviewee is very much about the all-important human element. You might be talking about essential subjects such as infrastructure, healthcare or finance but a reporter will always want the human angle and asking an expert about their own experience of the issue ticks the human box.
As anyone involved in media skills training will tell you, handling these questions successfully takes some thought and preparation. Blurting out an answer or developing one while you’re speaking – even if it’s essentially accurate – can be risky.
Matt Barnett, the then CEO of Barclays, caused outrage when he admitted, in answer to a question from the Commons Treasury select committee, that he would not use a credit card to borrow money “because it’s too expensive.” Mr Barnett said: “I do not borrow on credit cards. I have four young children. I give them advice not to pile up debt on their credit cards.”
Cue cries of hypocrisy and allegations of “bare faced cynicism.” A BBC report added: “Matt Barrett candidly criticised his own product, suggesting that the astute consumer would do well to steer well clear of it.”
Very often the personal angle is a pretty obvious one for the journalist to take.
If you were a government minister going on the radio to urge people to do voluntary work, for instance, wouldn’t you be prepared to talk about your own pro bono activities? Not if you were Francis Maude, former Cabinet Office minister, when promoting the last government’s Big Society initiative.
“What volunteering do you do?” asks Eddie Mair on the PM programme, which you can listen to here.
“Golly, what do I? That’s a really unfair question, cold,” says Maude desperately casting around for an example. Unfair? Not really. Unexpected? Definitely not.
As with any successful interview, preparation is essential to handle the potentially disastrous personal question. If you’re going to promote a product or defend an issue work with your comms team to identify how the subject might be turned to focus on you directly. If, like Matt Barnett, you’re going on to talk about finance then be ready with an answer to any question about your own pensions, savings and spending habits.
Similarly, if you’re representing the NHS you should be prepared to answer a question about the last time you visited a hospital or went along to see your GP. Perhaps you’re from a housing association. In that case you’d better be set for a question about whether you’d live in a particular development.
As anyone who has done a media training course knows preparation is essential, as is being ready to move away from a difficult or unwelcome question back to your key messages.
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