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It appeared to be a relatively simple question.
But four failed attempts to dodge the question resulted in the interview being ended prematurely as the journalist bemoaned the lack of a ‘straight answer’.
The disastrous interview happened when Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson appeared on Good Morning Britain.
Having spent some time discussing his new anti-poaching scheme, the interview fell apart when Mr Williamson faced questions about his ‘Trump-esque’ approach to Russia in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning.
Presenter Richard Madeley had asked the politician whether he now regretted telling Russia to ‘shut up and go away’.
What followed was a series of exchanges where Mr Williamson chose to completely ignore the questions and instead tried to praise health workers who had treated the poisoning victims, about Britain being unified over the issue and how the country was working with global allies.
During one of several interruptions, a clearly exasperated Mr Madelely said: “You’re telling us what we know. We know what happened in Salisbury, we know how atrocious it was, we know how close these people came to death. The question is – I’ll try it one more time – do you regret using very casual, Trump-esque language like ‘shut up and go away’? Please don’t tell me what happened, because we know what happened. Do you regret using that language? That is the question.”
Eventually, he gave up saying: “Right, you’re not going to answer, are you? OK. All right, interview terminated because you won’t answer the question. It would be helpful if you answered a straight question with a straight answer.”
According to The Times, this was the first time a British interviewer had terminated an interview on the grounds that a cabinet minister had avoided a question.
It resulted in a lot of damaging headlines and social media traffic:
Richard Madeley cuts off defence secretary for dodging questions The Guardian
Gavin Williamson has interview ‘terminated’ by Richard Madeley after dodging questions on Salisbury attack The Telegraph
Gavin Williamson gets ‘terminated’ Spectator
Blimey, not often you see an interview terminated by the host because a politician isn't answering questions. You can literally see the horror on Gavin Williamson's face pic.twitter.com/5lBVSjyzgU— Shehab Khan (@ShehabKhan) May 29, 2018
And such was the fall out it formed a topic for debate on BBC Question Time where the panel was asked ‘should politicians who can’t answer a straight question have their interviews terminated?’
Questions can’t be ignored
On our media training courses, we tell delegates that they cannot evade or ignore questions on issues they do not want to talk about. We stress it is vital that they at least address or, better still, answer the question they have been asked before moving on and trying to steer the conversation to more positive ground.
As Mr Madeley suggested after ending the interview, all Mr Williamson really had to say was ‘no I don’t, I think it was an appropriate expression’ or ‘on reflection I should have been a bit more formal’. Having briefly answered the question he could then have looked to steer the conversation away from a subject he was clearly uncomfortable discussing.
Be wary of the ‘while you are here question’
Mr Williamson’s interview was carried out from an enclosure at the West Midlands Safari Park where he was announcing a new anti-poaching initiative with Malawi.
But after speaking about that initiative, it was the final question and its subject change which tripped up Mr Williamson.
Mr Madeley later explained his decision to terminate the interview saying: “We gave him five minutes talking about his bloody project to save elephants in Africa. Now it’s our turn. You know, the quid pro quo, and he’s not playing the game so, OK, go.”
Many spokespeople have been tripped up by final questions in the past and the end of an interview can be a particularly dangerous time for spokespeople.
We tell delegates on our media training courses to be aware that a tricky question could still be coming even if they think the interview is drawing to a close and has gone well.
We also stress that spokespeople spend time in their interview preparation anticipating the wider issues which could be brought into an interview via a difficult final question.
Don’t underestimate the journalist
It’s probably fair to assume that Mr Williamson and his advisors did not anticipate that Richard Madelely would be a tough interviewer.
Standing in for the typically harder-hitting Piers Morgan, Mr Madeley is better known for gentler daytime television programmes and has often been mocked as a real-life Alan Partridge.
But he showed his teeth in this interview and humiliated the Defence Secretary.
The interview has done wonders for Mr Madeley and he has described cutting Mr Williamson short as ‘the most popular thing I've ever done on TV’.
He says that he now has a three strikes rule for media spokespeople who won’t answer a question.
But the reality is spokespeople who have had good media training should not need three attempts to answer a question and if they do they will appear unhelpful, impolite, evasive and, frankly, silly.
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.
Click here to find out more about our journalist-led media training courses.
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