Anticipation could have prevented ‘humiliating’ media interview
If you think your media skills are pretty good, you might like to consider how you would have handled the following exchange between an experienced BBC journalist and a minister in the British government.
Conservative junior minister Chloe Smith was sent out to do media interviews after her boss did a hasty u-turn on fuel tax. It was reported that other members of the government had been kept in the dark about the change.
Jeremy Paxman: When were you told of this change of plan?
Chloe Smith: Well, as a minister in the Treasury and indeed dealing with fuel matters this has been under consideration for some time …
JP: When was the decision taken?
CS: As I say it’s been under consideration for some time …
JP: When was the decision taken?
CS: … the chancellor and the prime minister …
JP: … yes of course …
CS: … take these decisions between them.
JP: So when were you told, then?
CS: I’ve been involved in this for some time and …
JP: But you didn’t take the decision, obviously, you said the chancellor and the prime minister did, so when were you told?
CS: We had a, uh, collective discussion of that, er, er, in due course and although I can’t, you know, give you the sort of full gory …
JP: Well did it happen today?
CS: … details of the processes … I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, sit here …
JP: You can’t remember?
CS: … and tell you the ins and the outs, no, it’s not appropriate for me to tell you the ins and the outs.
JP: Well, why isn’t it appropriate? You’re coming here to defend a change of policy and you can’t even tell me when you were told what the change in policy was.
CS: Because, as a minister in the Treasury I’ve been involved in the discussions for some time, as I’ve said to you the chancellor and the prime minister take those decisions, I’m not going to be able to give you a running commentary on exactly who said …
JP: I’m not asking for a running commentary, I’m asking for a statement of facts about when you were told. You were told some time today, clearly. Was it before lunch or after lunch?
CS: I’m not going to give you a commentary of who says what and when. That’s about how government policy is made behind the scenes.
Chloe Smith’s discomfort continued for several more minutes. Paxman continued to press about when the decision was made, who was told, and where the money would come from to cover the change in policy. The interview ended with this exchange:
JP: Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, my God, what am I going to be told today?
CS: I wake up in the morning and know, actually, that some of my constituents will really value not having to pay that little bit more on fuel prices, come August, because the cost of everything is pretty tight at the moment and everybody does know that. I do think this move today is valuable. It’s not just a Westminster Village story Jeremy, it’s real money in real people’s pockets.
JP: Oh, we all understand that.
JP: You ever think you are incompetent?
CS: I think it’s valuable to help real people in this way and I do think that is valued by people who drive.
JP: OK. Chloe Smith, thank you.
Lessons from this encounter?
Clearly there was a mis-match between Paxman (62), one of the BBC’s most experienced (and aggressive) interviewers, and Smith (30) who was appointed to a junior ministerial position less than a year ago.
That shouldn’t have been an issue, if Smith had been better prepared for the encounter.
Anticipation is the key to a successful media interview. The challenges about when the decision was made, and who was told, were predictable.
Smith needed a quick-acting strategy for taking the challenges off the table and bridging to a constructive message.
And she needed to be more assertive. Paxman’s aggressive interruptions in live interviews are famous. His approach was predictable, and she needed to come out more strongly.
Smith was in a difficult position, defending an embarrassing policy change. But an interview that was widely described as a ‘humiliation’ could have been handled more adroitly.
For more tips on dealing with the media, check the Resources Page of our website.