Letterman v Cameron: Magna Schmagna?

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd

One of the messages of media training that I always try to get across to our trainees is that an interview is not an exam.  It’s not a pass or fail exercise. You don’t have to answer every question exactly in the terms it’s put. The skills that have enabled you to answer exam questions are not always required when talking on TV and radio. BUT....

But where does that leave David Cameron’s not entirely successful examination on British history and culture on CBS Television’s Late Night show with David Letterman? Letterman versus Cameron – and I put it that way round because Letterman was on his New York home ground here – was an event where both Letterman and Cameron were always going to be looking for headlines.   

David Cameron is the first serving UK Prime Minister to go on the show.  London Mayor and wannabee PM Boris Johnson and former PM Tony Blair have both sat through the kind of ‘dumb American questions’ that the extremely clever Letterman said he was putting to David Cameron. But neither of them has had the sustained exam-style grilling on British history and government that Cameron has just received.

Boris was able to smile through Letterman asking him about cutting his own hair and is always jolly and Teflon (non stick) as an interviewee.   Tony Blair is so good at interviews that nothing sticks to him.   He may not always convince his audience to agree with him, but he never loses on points.  

In all the hundreds of hours of interviews he gave when he was PM he was only ever really flummoxed once: when BBC TV’s Jeremy Paxman asked him if he and President George W. Bush had prayed together at the White House.  Meanwhile David Cameron, as a former PR chief himself, has always done well, even with notoriously hostile interviewers such as Paxman.

But ... does it matter that as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t know what the title Magna Carta means – although he did get the date right and the fact that it was signed at Runnymede?

Speaking personally I did History and Latin A levels so I have no absolutely excuse for not knowing all this, and indeed I did and do know that Magna Carta was an early lunch date – 1215 – and that Magna Carta means Great Charter. And that the American constitution and their Supreme Court have referenced Magna Carta as an early influence in  establishing liberties for US citizens.

I also know that you can see one of the 4 surviving copies in the British Library in Central London – admission free – paid for by gallant British taxpayers.  I’ve seen it myself and you can also see it online at www.bl.uk

I now know,  having looked it up, that David Cameron was wrong to say there is a copy in parliament of the original 1215 document. The British Library has two copies and the others are in the archives of Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals in England.   Should David Cameron have known this?  Well yes. At the very least the British Library info.  And will he be going to have a look? Probably not in this life.  I digress.

I do think he should know what the title means. After all Magna Carta isn’t really a difficult Latin phrase is it?  It really does do what it says on the tin- or rather the vellum.  Also, as well as a top education at Eton, David Cameron did get a First Class Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University. And Magna Carta is an essential part of the development of British politics.  

One of the other pieces of advice I  always give people before their interviews is: think about the context and the audience for your interview.  What will you have to explain that you take for granted?  David Cameron did this well. He really pitched for Britain to an American audience and explained elementary UK stuff about England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland very clearly.

On balance I think to us British it does matter that he didn’t know what Magna Carta means.  We do expect our prime ministers to be well –informed.  Many Americans, who have better education in history and the history of liberty than many of us in Britain, were probably even more surprised at his ignorance.   But his main problem was that the media were able to report that he got two things wrong. Ouch. Now the media were really sharpening their teeth.

The other Letterman British question he got wrong was: Who wrote ‘Rule Britannia’?  He speculated that it might be Elgar. Something many of us might say!  Now we can all get it right at the pub quiz:  words by James Thomson, music by Thomas Arne.  I don’t think this is as important an issue as Magna Carta, but getting two things wrong did put the British Prime Minister into a slightly embarrassing position.

So what could David Cameron have done differently? Well it is always useful to go over basic facts and never assume you know them unless you’ve checked them before your interview. But  shouldn’t his staff have worked out that there might be questions about British – and American history? Imagine how really truly career endingly embarrassing it would be if a British Prime Minister had not known the date when we British lost our American colonies in the American Revolutionary War? (Answer - Declaration of Independence 1776). 

However it is important to note that the Prime Minister got across a lot of positive information during his interview about Britain and the Olympics and creating jobs and reducing taxes and  he did create some good PR for Britain for an American TV audience of 3 million intelligent people, plus all those who can see it on the web and read about it in the newspapers.  Also and very importantly, he kept smiling and not being rattled. On TV this is vital.  No audience is ever convinced by a worried politician.

This was not a news interview but a showbiz style interview and therefore, by definition, the interviewer is always in control. Letterman shows this by putting his quests in chairs which are much lower down than his. He’s the man on top and we can see that in almost every shot.

The British TV showbiz talk show host, Jonathan Ross, had already laid a glove on David Cameron when he was Leader of the Opposition by trying to get him to agree that he had sexual fantasies about Mrs Thatcher. Not a topic David Cameron would ever have expected. And he did look embarrassed. 

But then should any politician ever bother going on the Jonathan Ross Show? (Actually I don’t think they will again!) Clearly the main agenda of the show is make Jonathan Ross look good,  often at the expense of his guests. Similarly with Letterman. The guests know the score before the they appear.

No politician can appear on a showbiz style talk show alongside celebs of widely varying distinction and expect not to be asked some difficult questions, because otherwise he or she would be – horror of horrors- seen as really boring.  The talk show  host has an obligation to try to make headlines and make the interview different from a mainstream political news interview.

Interestingly the BBC news website has a set of uniformly positive comments from Letterman audience members. All these Americans hadn’t known much about David Cameron before seeing him on the show. They commented that he came across as intelligent, well spoken, impressive, entertaining and likeable. And these were New Yorkers..

So Magna Schmagna.  As New Yorkers might put it. It’s never just about content.  In America you can’t beat an educated British accent.  As one of the audience put it; “He did really good. David Letterman made fun of him a little bit. But I think he pulled through."

All of which neatly illustrates more of my useful advice for TV and radio interviews. This is not a job for perfectionists. It’s not an exam and so long as you don’t screw up completely and you make a good impression on some of the audience, you’re doing well. Even with a home advantage to the interviewer, you can hold them to a draw. And that’s what David Cameron did.

Of course he will have to do even more history homework in future.  Perhaps brushing up on his own government’s British Citizenship test?  Plus in 3 years time he can look forward to all this being raked up again for the celebrations in 2015 marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.  I bet he can’t wait.


Published 28 September 2012