General election 2019 – the media training gift that kept on giving

We have largely stayed clear of looking at the interviews produced by our politicians during the general election campaign.

But now that we have cast our votes and the campaigning has finished, we can say that it was the media training gift that just kept on giving.

From politicians losing their composure and seemingly forgetting they were on camera to the inevitable number muddles and hot-mic disasters, the election provided us with plenty of case studies for our media training courses.

In fact, there seemed to be far more chaotic and damaging interviews than good ones.

Here are the interviews that stood out for us for all the wrong reasons.

 

Hot mic shambles

Many politicians have fallen foul of the hot mic. The most infamous example of this was Gordon Brown and his ‘bigoted woman’ disaster.

This year, the seemingly traditional election hot-mic episode was provided by Conservative candidate Lee Anderson.

Michael Crick, from the Mail Plus – a digital version of the Daily Mail – was filming Mr Anderson as he went door-knocking.

But when Mr Anderson made a phone call, which he said was to do with some leaflets, he forgot his microphone was on and was caught calling someone up to stage them for the cameras as a friendly voter.

He said: “Just make out you know who I am, that you know I’m the candidate but not a friend, all right. I’m at the carpark, have a quick look, yeah? All right, I’ll see you in a minute.”

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, the set-up went even more awry when the resident described Anderson’s plan for social housing tenants to be housed in tents and forced to wake up at 6am to pick vegetables as ‘too soft’. He instead recommended a ‘cat o’ nine tails’ and putting them in a ‘pink tutu’.

To complete an embarrassing episode for Mr Anderson, he had earlier replied ‘no comment’ to questions from the journalist about his controversial proposal.

 

Numbers muddle

It wouldn’t be an election without an excruciating on-air numbers muddle.

And this time it was Labour’s Dawn Butler who produced the gaffe during an interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC.

Ms Butler claimed there were 3,000 rough sleepers in the London borough of Brent, an assertion that Mr Ferrari doubted.

When he asked her for the national figure she said she didn’t know and this caused the pressure to ramp up.

He said: “So you're pledging to end rough sleeping but you don't know how many people you've got to help?”

Ms Butler replied, after a long pause: “I don’t know all the figures and all the numbers.”

“Don’t you think you should have been armed with those figures?”, Mr Ferrari asked.

When Ms Butler claimed that homelessness was not part of her brief, Mr Ferrari said: “So why are you talking about it?

“What I find incredible Dawn Butler is that you say 3,000 people sleep rough in Brent, well the last figures we have from 2017 is that there was 4,751 people sleeping rough in the whole of England, of which 3,000 were in Brent! Are you sure you've got your figures right?”

Ms Butler later took to Twitter to admit she had “made a mistake.”

 

Lack of composure

Labour chairman Ian Lavery provided a great example of how not to handle difficult questions when he was asked why the National Union of Mineworkers had paid off his mortgage.

Michael Crick, who is about to join the Media First team of tutors, asked the politician about the payment 15 times during an interview for Mail +.

The interview came days after Mr Lavery featured in a campaign video that accused the Tories of ‘stealing the miners’ pension fund’.

When he was asked if he had a ‘bit of a cheek’ appearing in the video with the money he had received from the union, Mr Lavery said: “Instead of coming here making this personal, concentrate on what the Labour Party have got to offer.”

As the question was repeatedly put to him, Mr Lavery became increasingly angry and accused the journalist of ‘interrogating him’.  He asked Mr Crick how much he earnt, told him to be ‘grown-up about things’ and asked him to change the line of questioning before walking off.

I’ll leave the media training advice for this one to Michael Crick. He said: He should have known in advance what I was likely to ask and worked out a reasonable reply. He had been tipped off that we were waiting for him.  His bad-tempered, bullying response only promoted an almost wholly negative reaction on Twitter.

 

Forgetting you are on camera

When Boris Johnson made a cut-throat gesture during an interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC, it caused many to speculate that he was unhappy with the line of questioning on social care and wanted it stopped.

The printed media also picked up on it:

Prime Minister makes cut-throat gesture in middle of LBC interview Metro

Boris Johnson makes cut-throat gesture during voter’s call about social care Mirror

Mr Ferrari later took the blame for the incident, claiming that he was telling other people in the room to be quiet.

He said: “Someone was talking in my ear. We now have throatgate. It was aping my signal which was telling someone in a rather brutal fashion to be quiet.”

However, the key media training lesson here is that many interviews now take place on camera and that body language is just as crucial in this format as it is in television interviews, particularly when dealing with difficult questions.

 

Evasive

Many spokespeople have suffered during an Andrew Neil interview and his forensic questions.

But Jeremy Corbyn must surely have hoped for more than finding himself competing with Prince Andrew for worst interview of the year when he faced the BBC questioner.

The Labour leader’s interview will probably be best remembered for his refusal to apologise for the hurt and distress caused to the Jewish community, even though he was asked to on four occasions.

But there were other bits which also stood out. Like this exchange when Mr Corbyn was pushed on how Labour would fund the £58 billion compensation to so-called ‘Waspi women’ over their pensions and tried to do everything possible to avoid answering the question.

Neil: Where do you pay for it?

Corbyn: First of all let’s deal with the issue…

Neil: No, I know the issue and I understand the issue.

Corbyn: But you might, but I’m not sure all our viewers will.

Neil: But I’d like to know - let’s assume it’s a great issue and you’re right. How do you pay for it?

Corbyn: It’s a moral case. Those women…

Neil: Yeah. How do you pay for it?

Corbyn: Those women were short-changed by government. Short-changed in 2011 by the change in pension rate. I met a group…

Neil: I’m accepting that Mr Corbyn. I’m asking you – it costs £60 billion, how do you pay for it?

Corbyn: Can I explain why?

Neil: No, I’d like you to explain how you pay for it.

Corbyn: Let me explain why.

Neil: No, I’d like you to explain how you pay for it.

Corbyn: Let me explain why.

Neil: Explain how you’ll pay for it.

Corbyn: We’ll pay for it because it has to be paid for.

Neil: But how?

Corbyn: It has to be paid for. It’s a moral debt.

Neil: How will you pay for it?

Corbyn: It’s a moral debt that’s owed these women.

Evasive stuff. Mr Corbyn seemed testy, argumentative, and ill-prepared for this encounter. And there was plenty of bad body language on display, particularly the eye-rolls when faced with difficult questions.

But at least he was brave enough to face Mr Neil.

 

Ill-prepared

We always stress the importance of preparation during our media training courses.

One person who needed to hear that particular lesson was UKIP’s new interim leader Patricia Mountain.

During an interview with Sky News, she failed to name a single seat the party was standing on. And she was unable to give any details about the party’s pledge on immigration.

When asked a question about whether the party was racist, she said it had an Indian candidate, but then added she wasn’t sure of his ethnicity.

And in one memorable response, she referred to “other racist parties” before correcting herself.

Social media seemed to enjoy the interview with several comparing her performance to Catherine Tate’s Nan character.

 

The pesky personal questions

Personal questions have a habit of tripping spokespeople up.

Perhaps the best example of this from the election came when Boris Johnson was asked how he was ‘relatable’ to ordinary people during an interview with BBC Breakfast.

Mr Johnson seemed surprised by the question and struggled to put a response together.

He said: “The best answer I can give is that of course I’ve had a very happy and wonderful life in many ways. My parents gave me fantastic opportunities and what I want for every child in this country is for them to have a sense they can achieve their full potential.”

But when presenter Naga Muchetty pushed him on what makes him relatable, Mr Johnson described the question as ridiculous and said “that’s a matter for other people. I can’t possibly say I’m relatable.”

After being shown some footage of his unique mopping skills and asked how people could ‘connect’ with him, an irritable Mr Johnson said: “I love this country and I want to serve it. I think it’s an amazing place and you ask me ‘am I relatable’, I’ve not the faintest idea.

“It seems like the most difficult psychological question anyone has ever asked me.”

 

Silence proves not to be golden

Labour candidate Jane Aitchison produced one of the more excruciating interviews of the campaign.

Being interviewed by Emma Barnett on BBC 5 Live, the candidate for Pudsey found herself in the unenviable position of having to defend a colleague’s historic tweets.

After being asked whether Zarah Sultana should be allowed to stand when she had previously tweeted she would celebrate the deaths of Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu, Ms Aitchison tried to deflect the question by suggesting it was nothing worse than Conservatives had said about the Grenfell tragedy.

When the question was put to her again, she stayed silent for around 12 seconds – something Ms Barnett later described as the longest silence of her career - where if it was not for the background noise, listeners would have been forgiven for thinking the radio had packed up.

Perhaps, Ms Aitchison was using the uncomfortable silence to carefully consider a response that would steer her away from trouble?

Well, not exactly. Ms Aitchison delayed answer managed to compare Tony Blair to Hitler and she subsequently had to issue an apology.

media training lesson here is that journalists will sometimes use silence to increase the pressure.

Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Fred L Zimmerman once advised journalists to use the pause in an interview because it makes spokespeople ‘uneasy’ and that they may ‘blurt out something crucial’.

This may not have been crucial, but it was humiliating.

 

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. 

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