“If you are going to simply ignore the questions, I think we’ll leave the interview there"

Those were the words of Nick Robinson as he cut short one of the most memorable recent interviews.

When I say ‘memorable’, it was for all the wrong reasons.

The Today programme presenter was interviewing Alexander Stafford, a former Parliamentary aide to Boris Johnson – and you can hear it here (at 1.47.50) for as long as the broadcaster makes it available.

And the Conservative MP was keen to criticise Keir Starmer’s decision to appoint Sue Gray – who led the investigation into the partygate scandal – as his new chief of staff.

In fact, he was so eager, his answers had no resemblance to the questions he was asked.

Don't have time to read this blog? You can listen to it here:



Here’s an exchange which came after the politician suggested the appointment cast doubt on the allegations of Downing Street lockdown-breaking parties:

Robinson: “Correct me if I’m wrong. Sue Gray didn’t unlock the bottles of wine, she didn’t deliver the suitcases of alcohol, she didn’t deliver a fridge to Downing Street. In what way does it discredit the allegations in partygate?”

Stafford: “Because we need to work out who she was actually working for? Was she working for the British public? Or was she working for a job interview for Sir Keir’s office?”

Robinson (interrupting): I just asked you who held the parties – was it Sue Gray?

Stafford: “We need to see what was her motive.”

Robinson (interrupting): “No, I’m not asking you a question about Sue Gray, Mr Stafford. I’m asking you about the parties. Did Sue Gray have anything to do with having parties in Number 10?”

Stafford: “Did Sue Gray have any information that she passed on to Keir or try to look at information in a particular light.”

As the presenter grew increasingly frustrated with this approach, he tried a different line of questioning – should there be a new investigation into partygate?

Mr Stafford again tried to answer a different question before he was interrupted by the exasperated presenter.

“Mr Stafford, you’re not a regular on the Today programme,” he said.

“But we have a habit here, which is I ask a question, and you at least make some appearance of trying to answer the question, rather than simply ignoring it.

“So, I’ll ask it again, do you want a fresh inquiry into the partygate allegations?”

Ouch.

But the warning had little impact.

And, as Mr Stafford attempted to evade the question again, the interview was brought to a premature end.

As my 11-year-old would say, “he just got bodied”.

It was an interview – albeit brief by political standards – that grabbed the attention of journalists and  social media.

Nick Robinson ends interview with moaning Tory for refusing to answer Partygate questions Mirror

'Stop Ignoring The Question': Nick Robinson Monsters Tory MP Over Sue Gray Partygate Row Huff Post

 

But what media training lessons can you learn from it?

Preparation

Well, firstly, it is a reminder of the importance of preparation.

We don’t know if the Rother Valley MP expected some form of an easy ride in the interview.

But he seemed unprepared for difficult and uncomfortable questions.

If you are questioning the impartiality of the person who led the partygate investigation, you will likely be asked if a fresh inquiry is needed.

Another likely one would have been whether he has similar concerns about the police investigation into the Downing Street parties – you may remember the Metropolitan Police issued 126 fines.

We’ll never know, although we can probably guess, how Mr Stafford would have answered that one.

During our media training courses, we always stress the importance of spending time anticipating challenging questions and considering how to respond to them.

More often than not, the tough questions can be predicted.

 

Evasive

The interview is also another reminder of the damage that can be caused by trying to avoid difficult questions.

It is something we have often stressed in our media training blogs.

Evading questions and providing answers that don’t relate to what has been asked annoys audiences and frustrates journalists.

It makes spokespeople seem untrustworthy, slippery, and cowardly.

And invariably, you lose control of the interview because the journalist repeats the question you want to avoid.

Media trainers often get the blame for these sorts of interviews.

But during our training courses, we stress that spokespeople must answer the question.

Once they have done that, they should use the bridging technique to try to control the conversation and get back to their message.

 

Aggressive

When a spokesperson is obviously ignoring the questions, it becomes easier for the journalist to be aggressive.

They know the audience gets frustrated with these types of interviews and are likely to be on their side if they ramp up the pressure.

In this interview, Mr Robinson cut off Mr Stafford after just a couple of minutes, having already highlighted his evasiveness.

Not only does that help make the interview memorable. But it also gave Labour’s Lucy Powell, the other interviewee for this segment, more airtime – a media interview own goal for the ages.

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Perhaps the only saving grace for Mr Stafford was that last week was a packed field for disastrous media interviews.

Isabel Oakeshott, the controversial journalist who published thousands of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, ended a tetchy radio interview early after becoming increasingly frustrated with the line of questioning.

Ms Oakeshott cut short the interview – carried out on video conferencing software – halfway through a question about her journalistic ethics.

And she had already accused Time Radio presenter Cathy Newman of being unprofessional, complained that “I’ve come here to talk about the story”, and threatened to “terminate the interview”.

You might have expected a journalist to realise this approach would not work well.

Maybe she provided Mr Stafford’s media training.

 

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 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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