After a well-publicised policy change at 10 Downing Street, cabinet ministers are once again appearing on radio and TV programmes such as BBC Radio Four’s Today and ITV’s Good Morning Britain. This means they are having to submit themselves to daily ritual slaughter (or what feels like it) at the hands of Piers Morgan on GMB, who has set himself up as a sort of one-man opposition party, intent on pinning down ministers on their alleged failings. Some are now even calling for ‘Piers Morgan for Prime Minister’. Sadly, the thoughtful commentator @matthewsyed has a point when he suggests that for the programme, it’s often all about picking on one word or phrase in the interviewee’s answer, in the hope of making them look small, to give Piers a clip he and the GMB programme team can remorselessly promote on Twitter in the hopes it will go viral.
Maybe some ministers need a lot better media training, so they can keep their cool and at least attempt to answer some of the more obvious questions. A good interviewer is doing his or her job properly if they ask the questions the viewer might be expected to ask themselves. So Piers was right to ask one of last week’s victims, Brandon Lewis, why the UK’s Coronavirus rate was the world’s highest, as it was the big headline of the day, and Mr Lewis should have had something much stronger than simply arguing it was too soon to make judgements. Home Secretary Priti Patel did better the following day, suggesting a whole range of issues, some of which she listed.
Should this near-daily spectacle put business and public sector leaders off appearing on TV, because they fear they will be monstered in this way? No. Firstly, transparency and openness are always better long-term than silence or ‘no comment’. Secondly these intensely political interviews are the exception not the rule, which is why they are being talked about. Most interviews on British TV and radio are far more ‘informational’ rather than ‘confrontational’. But it does reinforce two key points that we frequently make on our media training courses. The first is that if your organisation is under the spotlight because something has gone wrong, you need to take time to anticipate the tricky questions and have something relevant to say, even if circumstances mean you can’t give a full answer. Appearing to avoid the questions has made many of these ministers look very shifty. While you’re at it, try to speak as calmly and reasonably as possible. The second point is that words matter. Pick your words carefully so they aren’t taken out of context by a clever interviewer and thrown back at you, as in the case of former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, highlighted by Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times. If they paraphrase your point in a pejorative way – a favourite Piers Morgan tactic, as with the Therese Coffey interview – stick to your own form of words and hope that you can extricate yourself from the interview with as much dignity as possible.