AVOIDING A ‘CAR CRASH’ – what makes a good and a bad political interview
by Andy Maciver
Following this ‘car crash’ interview between Radio 4’s Eddie Mair and Labour MP Dawn Butler, I was asked to speak to the BBC Radio Scotland Stephen Jardine Programme earlier this morning. You can listen to it here later.
As a former communications head for a political party, I’ve seen plenty of broadcast blunders in my time. So how do you avoid them? And what makes the best possible interview? Here’s my rough guide.
- Why some people should be kept off broadcast. Politicians and ministers require many qualities – innovation, analysis, decisiveness, intelligence, and many, many others including, yes, the ability to deal with the media. Some politicians have it all, but most don’t. And some politicians have no natural ability to do an interview, no matter how much training you give them. My rule on these people was pretty simple – do not allow them anywhere near a camera or microphone. Ever.
- How to spot successful media training. Any politician beholden to a ‘party line’ is immediately at a deficit in an interview. Believe it or not (!) a lot of politicians don’t agree with what they have to say, and it is extremely difficult to give answers when you do not actually believe in those answers. You can spot when a politician does not want to answer a question, because they are trained to ‘pivot’ or ‘bridge’ to a related but different answer with which they are comfortable. A good interviewee will escape this and the interviewer will move on, but a stubborn interviewer and/or a clumsy pivot means the question may be laboured. To defend politicians for a moment, though, there’s a vicious cycle in operation here. The more sloppily (cunningly?) the media interprets an answer in a way which gives a politician trouble, the less the politician is likely to wish to give a straight answer, the more the media is likely to dig deeper, and so on.
- Telling the truth makes for the best interview. It is no surprise that the best political interviewees tend to be those people who are no longer beholden to a party machine or to the collective responsibility created by a manifesto. So, people like Douglas Carswell and Tony Blair give fantastic interviews and answer questions directly and interestingly. In Scotland, a good example is Alex Neil MSP, who is giving compelling interviews on a regular basis because he is freed from the collective responsibility of being a Minister.
You’ll see plenty of all of this over the next seven weeks!