When a media interview ends with a journalist uttering the phrase ‘I’m not here just to give you the questions you want’ you can be pretty sure things have gone horribly wrong.
If we tell you that this particular example also features an attempted walkout then you know we are entering interview disaster territory.
The latest extraordinary example of ‘how not to do it’ has been produced by a politician, but for once it is not one of ours.
Instead, it was Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell who delivered a memorably disastrous interview.
Mr Borrell turned a far-ranging interview on DW’s Conflict Zone programme, which you can see here, into what social media users tend to describe as ‘car crash’.
The interview with journalist Tim Sebastian, which focused on the fairness of trials of Catalan pro-independence politicians, was hard-hitting from the start.
And it only took a few minutes for Mr Borrell to show his discomfort and displeasure at the line of questioning.
He said: “If you continue like this I will stop this interview. You are not interrogating me, you are interviewing me. You are not the police. I am not the subject of any kind on enquiry from you. So put the right questions and let me talk. Let’s start again.”
A short time later, Mr Borrell told the reporter his interview was ‘biased’ and accused him of ‘continuously lying’ before removing his microphone and bringing the interview to a premature end.
But the story does not end there as, following a consultation with his aides, Mr Borrell returned.
And the unease about the questions remained. At one point he said to the journalist: “I’m really surprised how badly informed you are. You don’t know anything about what you are talking about. How ignorant you are. Incredible.”
And it finished with this memorable exchange:
Sebastian: “Minister, good to have you on Conflict Zone.”
Borrell: “Thank you to you. But next time, I would appreciate it if you could put the questions in a less biased way.”
Sebastian: “I’m not here just to give you the questions you want, Minister.”
So what can we learn from this fiery encounter?
Know the journalist
Tim Sebastian is an experienced journalist with a reputation for asking hard-hitting and uncompromising questions. He’s twice been named the Royal Television Society Interviewer of the Year.
And he works on a programme with the same reputation - it's even called 'Conflict Zone'.
Only a very small amount of research would have been needed to show that this was not going to be a straight forward interview for Mr Borrell. Yet the footage we have seen would suggest that none of this simple preparation had been done.
I wonder whether Josep Borrell ignores Tim Sebastian's memorable interviews with most important statesmen, and that he won several awards for his work.— Hedwig Janés 🎗 (@HedwigJanes) March 28, 2019
We stress on our media training courses the importance of knowing the journalist you will be speaking to, trying to find out what they have covered and what approach they take.
Similarly, spokespeople should also research the organisation the journalist works for. A reporter from the Daily Mail, for example, is likely to ask very different questions to a reporter from The Guardian.
We also stress to delegates on our media training courses the importance of remaining calm and composed when they find themselves under pressure.
Not only are they more likely to retain the sympathy of the audience, but showing frustration, annoyance, aggression and insulting the journalist ensures an interview will be memorable for the wrong reasons.
The loss of composure in this interview turned it into a ‘must see’. But people are not really talking about what Mr Borrell said. They are instead focused on his lack of self-control and inability to handle tough questions.
If you’re crying about #Brexit politics.. take a deep breath and look at the current Spanish minister of foreign affairs in front of @dw_conflictzone cameras, complaining about the questions he’s being asked, and threatening to leave... (10’40”) https://t.co/BizgguaW3K— dani prieto-alhambra (@prieto_alhambra) March 28, 2019
Arrogant Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell "making friends" worldwide. Walking out of an interview with respected journalist Tim Sebastian because in his mind he asked the wrong questions. @dw_conflictzone https://t.co/GEbRUabTvS— Janne Riitakorpi (@JanneRiitakorpi) March 28, 2019
This interview is something else. The Spanish foreign minister doesn't even try to answer some fair questions re Catalonia and gibraltar, and just resorts to petulant abuse of the interviewer— Joshua Kirby (@joshualeokirby) March 29, 2019
https://t.co/FEz5ixovwW Josep Borrell on Conflict Zone
Absolutely remarkable interview in which @JosepBorrellF is grilled on Catalonia, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, #Gibraltar...and reacts by accusing his interviewer of being biased, ill informed, a liar... At one point, he even storms out. Watch. 👇🏻 https://t.co/ziZY6xmXB0— Brian Reyes (@brian_in_gib) March 28, 2019
Even if your interview is going badly, or you are unhappy with a persistent line of questioning, walking away needs to be avoided – it is the ultimate display of annoyance in an interview.
Perhaps Mr Borrell thought that as his interview was a pre-record that particular clip would not be used and that the broadcast would start from when he sat back down.
But that doesn’t happen. These types of incidents are always shown because they are dramatic, unusual and make for compelling television.
It’s a journalist’s job to ask questions. Typically a spokesperson will encounter some they are happy to answer and others which they would prefer not to be asked.
The key to those tough questions is preparation.
It is crucial that pre-interview preparation tries to anticipate the difficult questions and wider issues which could come up in an interview.
Once you have anticipated the questions then you can plan how you would respond to them.
If you know you are about to face a particularly challenging interview – because you’ve done the research on the journalist as we outlined earlier – then it may be worth having a rehearsal.
Ask a colleague to put you or your spokesperson in the firing line with a mock interview that asks all the difficult questions that have been anticipated.
It may turn out differently from the real thing, but it will give you a feel for responding to questions under pressure.
Not only has Mr Borrell’s interview attracted widespread criticism and ridicule and been the subject of this media training blog, but it has also been turned into a comedy sketch. And that has to be humiliating for any spokesperson.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.