How Ed Miliband can avoid future goggling at questions on shopping and Swindon

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd.

We can all have a  bad day at the office, but when the Labour Leader,  Ed Miliband, had a really bad day in the TV and radio studios by not knowing much about food shopping bills or anything at all about the Labour Group Leader on Swindon Council – he broke a number of important rules of politics and of media interviews.

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a media interview is to be asked a perfectly fair question and show that you do not know the answer.  The public will not be impressed when, as Ed did on both ITV’s Good Morning Britain and later on BBC Radio Wiltshire, he was asked obvious questions  and he floundered. 

On Good Morning Britain his eyes goggled as Susannah Reid and Charlotte Hawkins, pressed him on how much his own family spends on supermarket shopping.   He clearly did not have a clue and, although he followed basic media training guidelines on changing the subject when you are unsure of your ground, he could not get away entirely. 

He settled on a figure of £70 to £80 a week for a family of four’s supermarket shopping bill.  His interviewers informed him the average figure is £100 and Susannah Reid suggested his family (being well paid)  would be spending ‘significantly’ more than that.

She then added (not unfairly at all in the circumstances) : “ People would say one of the problems with politicians is that they are actually talking about something, but are out of touch with reality.”

This interview was definitely damaging to the Labour Party Leader’s authority in a major interview as someone who wants voters to believe he knows and cares about what his Labour Party calls ‘the cost-of-living crisis faced by millions of families..’

How could he have avoided this damage?  Well it is really important to prepare your answers before you set foot in a radio or TV studio.  If you are going to bang on about the cost of living, it really isn’t unreasonable for interviewers to ask you detailed questions about the topic.  So it is very important however busy you are, either as a politician or as a business spokesperson, to set aside time to look at your topic and think of obvious questions and how you will deal with them.

How much does your family spend on your weekly supermarket  shopping bill ?  This is an obvious question when talking about the cost of living.  Mr Miliband is not on his own against the media.  He has a team of people who should be doing this kind of preparation with him.   ‘Always do your homework’  is the advice I always give as a media trainer. Perhaps Mr Miliband and his media advisors should be given detention and told to write this out 100 times so they get the point

Mr Miliband should have prepared better for  his ITV  breakfast TV interview. However, having got stuck in a hole, he could have tried a more humourous approach.  He wants to be Prime Minister.  So let’s think about what would his predecessor Tony Blair might  have done? If he was stuck, he would probably say something like “Well Cherie will shoot me here, but I’m not entirely sure.  I know we are comfortably off and we are lucky not to have the worries that people on low incomes do. The important message here is that there is a cost of living crisis for many millions of people and what we want to do is ......” etc.. etc.

Keeping going convincingly is half the battle here.  Ed Miliband didn’t manage to do this and he needs to learn to do that if he wants the public to give him the keys to  Ten Downing Street.  

Later, on the same day, when he was interviewed on BBC Radio Wiltshire, he managed to show that he did not know the name of the Leader of the Labour Group on Swindon Council and also he did not know whether Labour ran the council or not.

As an example of how not to do a local radio interview this one takes some beating. And I think it is worth examining in detail. After some preliminary questions about weekly shopping, the Radio Wiltshire presenter, Ben Prater, asked Ed Miliband: What do you make of Jim Grant? Ed Miliband paused and then said; “I beg your pardon?” .

The interviewer then asked him; “You do know who Jim Grant is  Mr Miliband?

EM: You will enlighten me I’m sure.

BP: Swindon Labour leader.

EM : Yeah I think he is doing a good job. 

BP: Will he feel like you support him enough if you don’t even know his name?

EM: Well he is doing a good job as leader of the council Jim is and I think that is the case.

BP: I mean it’s Swindon Labour Leader. Do you think by your comments now people might  be a bit perplexed by why you wouldn’t know who Jim Grant is?

EM: No. I know that Jim is doing a good job for Swindon and I think he is doing a good job as Leader of the Council.

BP: But he is not leader of the council is he Mr Miliband? It’s a Conservative-led council.

EM: I think he is doing a good job for Labour on the Council.   I think he is doing a good job for Labour on the Council.

BP: So let’s be clear. Who runs Swindon Council?

EM: It’s a Conservative –controlled Council.

Obviously this embarrassing exchange breaks the basic  rules of taking the trouble to actually know  what you are talking about and who your audience is when you give a radio interview. It also breaks the political rule as spelled out by the legendary Tip O’Neill, the 55th Speaker of the US House of Representatives. “All politics is local” he famously said. And he used this advice very effectively himself when he defeated political opponents by using his local knowledge of their own states against them.

Ed Miliband often has to give  a series of TV and radio interviews in one day. Yes it is demanding . But he needs to be sharp on the details of his arguments and the details of the places where he is interviewed.  So, if he wants to avoid further disasters, definitely more homework is needed before his next round of campaigning interviews.

Published 23 May 2014