The key lesson to learn from the astonishing interview you asked us to look at

It is always great when you lovely readers and our social media followers let us know about interviews that you would like us to focus on in this media training blog.

And one that was recently brought to our attention is pretty astonishing.

It happened on Sky News when Health Secretary Matt Hancock was being interviewed by Kay Burley.

After discussing coronavirus, the interview, as is often the way, began to move on other topical issues.

And Ms Burley asked the politician for his thoughts about the, as it was then, possible appointment of Tony Abbott as a UK trade envoy and whether he was suitable for the role given some of his views.

After a couple of questions, Mr Hancock produced an answer that has been shared widely on social media.

Here is the key exchange, which came after the health secretary had praised the former Australian Prime Minister's experience for the role.

Burley: Even if he is a homophobic misogynist?

Hancock: Well, I don’t think that’s true…

Burley: I’ve just told you what he has said. I’m sure you don’t support some of his comments. He is a homophobe and a misogynist.

Hancock: Well, he is also an expert in trade.

Burley: So, one plays off against the other. Is that really what you are saying Health Secretary?

Hancock: What I am saying is we need experts in different areas and someone who is the former Prime Minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade. It doesn’t change my views.

Burley: So, we can forgive his comments about women, about letting the elderly die of COVID-19, about his views on the gay community? We can forgive all of that because he is good at trade?

Hancock: Well, I’m doing everything in my power to prevent a second wave and protect people from coronavirus.

Burley: Health Secretary, that’s not my question.

And it went on.

It is all a bit of a mess, but the stand out part – and the one that led to some social media humiliation and painful headlines - was the “well, he is also an expert in trade” response. This is a clumsy answer that implies he agrees with everything the journalist has just said about Mr Abbott, but that those things can be overlooked because of his apparent expertise.

It is also a short response – something we point out on our media training courses is always dangerous – and allows the journalist to take control and quickly fire in another uncomfortable question.

Matt Hancock defends trade role for ‘homophobe’ ex-Australian PM Toby Abbott Daily Mirror

‘He’s an expert in trade: Hancock defends ‘misogynist’ Daily Mail

And then, of course, a little later, we had the crude attempt to try and steer the conversation away to something else.

He didn't even attempt to use the bridging media training technique. He just answered a completely different question. And, as we are seeing happen increasingly often, the journalist pulled him up on it.

But this isn’t even the most astonishing thing about this interview.

What staggers me about it – and what I believe is the key media training lesson - is that the Abbott issue wasn’t an unexpected grenade of a question suddenly hurled into the interview without warning.

It was only a few days earlier that one of Mr Hancock’s Cabinet colleagues had similarly floundered when faced with questions about the Australian’s views.

Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, may well still be having nightmares about her interview performance when asked about the potential appointment by ITV reporter Harry Horton.

In a memorable exchange, Ms Truss made numerous attempts to evade the question only for Mr Horton to pose it again. And it ended with her labelling it “an irrelevant question” – it is never a good move to criticise the question.

If you haven’t seen that interview yet, it is well worth a couple of minutes of your time.

But the key thing is that surely a government adviser somewhere must have seen this interview and thought ‘we can’t let that happen again’ and begun to prepare a better way of responding to the Abbott question.

It is not as if the issue was going to magically disappear or journalists were suddenly going to stop asking about it.

A key part of media interview preparation, particularly when you are doing several interviews or public appearances over a short period – or if you have multiple spokespeople facing the media - is to look at what has gone well, what could be improved and adapt messages and responses to likely difficult questions accordingly.

We touched on this recently in our blog about Huawei and its repeated struggles with questions about its independence from the control of the Chinese government.

And it is worth repeating. There was a week between the Truss and Hancock interview debacles – that is ample time to identify Mr Abbott’s potential appointment as a challenging issue for interviewees and work out a better response than “he’s also an expert in trade.”

Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 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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