It’s well known that Boris Johnson is a politician to whom the usual rules don’t apply. He was mauled by interviewer Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr show last month but his opinion poll standing has, if anything, improved since then – at least according to a YouGov survey for the London Evening Standard. But was he unfairly treated by Mair, and are there lessons to be learned from his experience?
Attention has focused on Mair’s wounding description of Johnson as a ‘nasty piece of work’ – veering into the realms of personal abuse perhaps, rather than legitimate tough questioning – but on this, viewers will draw their own conclusions. The real point is that although the interview was timed to publicise a big BBC2 documentary on Johnson, which naturally looked back on the highs and lows of his life and career, the London Mayor seemed quite unprepared for questions on some of the less savoury aspects of his past, such as his making up of quotes for The Times and apparent lying to his party leader over his personal life. Boris floundered, and is quoted afterwards as saying he expected the questions to be about the Olympics and London’s housing problems. But did the programme’s producers really mislead him over the question areas? If so he has legitimate grounds for complaint – in fact though, far from criticising the programme, he described Mr Mair’s questions as ‘splendid’. So Boris’s probably knew he was at fault for not being properly prepared. His interview is really a timely reminder that one should always be ready for the ‘questions from hell’. Just because they didn’t come up in the last few interviews, doesn’t mean they can’t come up in the next one. The lesson applies to any company spokesperson as well as politician. Always be ready with a strong response on any negative issues, should they be raised; this is something we test out particularly when running advanced or refresher media training. Don’t think you can wing it; you will probably be found out in the end, and cannot rely on benefiting from Boris’s ability to shrug off criticism – as I said, he is a one-off.