Dealing with tough interviews: lessons from ‘that’ Newsnight interview

The cringe-making interview on the BBC’s Newsnight with junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith over the government’s U-turn on fuel duty last month has received widespread comment, and was a reminder to many of the need for good media training. She received a mauling from presenter Jeremy Paxman, when she appeared in place of the Chancellor on the programme to explain the government’s surprise change of mind. Ms Smith spent much of her time trying to avoid answering the questions, never a desirable interview strategy, whether those questions were fair or not. Most people should never expect to face such a fierce grilling, but here are three lessons for anyone who fears they may be put under pressure by reporters on a tough issue:

Chloe Smith’s central problem was that she had a tricky topic, and very little she could actually say about it
1. Have something to say. Chloe Smith’s central problem was that she had a tricky topic, and very little she could actually say about it, other than to repeat the benefits of the switch to motorists, leaving her very much on the defensive. Never go into a tricky interview without at least two or three key points you want to get across, and without something substantial to say on the key point at issue. Otherwise it is probably better not to do it at all.
2. If pushed as far as you are willing to go on a particular issue, resist the urge to allow yourself into being pushed into saying more than you want to. Otherwise you are simply encouraging your interrogator to carry on, in the hope he or she will get even more from you. You need to be clear where you draw the line on what you are willing to say and what you are not – and stick to that answer, if necessary explaining that ‘there’s not a lot I can add to that, as I was saying…’ You need to be more convincing than Ms Smith on the reasons why you can go no further.
3. Practise. Particularly for TV or radio, run over several times the points you want to make, so you are comfortable and fluent for at least some of the time, repeating these points if necessary – this in itself should give you confidence.

We can offer special ‘tough issues’ training, to help participants deal with such occasions.