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Don’t Copy Politicians’ Media Blunders

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd

When people come to me for media training, they often say that political interviews scare them because interviewers are very hostile and challenging.  I then point out that this doesn’t apply to most promotional interviews about topics like business, social issues, campaigns, scientific research, arts, and events, which are the everyday bread and butter of radio and TV news programmes.

If you’re not a politician, the only reason you should be scared of an interviewer is if you haven’t prepared thoroughly for your interview.

You don’t need to be scared by political interviews, but you will also do well not to copy the politicians’ blunders that have made the headlines during the UK general election campaign.

Don’t ignore questions

Firstly, don’t ignore questions in media interviews. It never works and this became spectacularly obvious when Conservative Party Chair Richard (Ric) Holden gave a textbook example of how NOT to do a political interview – or any type of media interview.

He was doing a pool interview i.e. an interview by one journalist, in this case from Sky News, which would then be shared with other news media. This is common practice during elections when there are so many political interviews to do each day.

The problem for Mr Holden was that he was at the centre of a row over his controversial last-minute selection for the ‘safe’ Tory seat in Basildon and Billericay, Essex, which had a Conservative majority of more than 20,000 in 2019.

Some local Tories said they were outraged that he was the only candidate on the selection list. Also, the seat is 300 miles away from his former constituency in the North East of England which he had previously said he was ‘loyal’ to.

However, when asked about this issue by Sky News in the pool interview, he refused multiple times to engage with questions about the row over his selection. He just did not comment at all. He completely ignored all the questions and each time talked (without being asked) about Labour Shadow Cabinet member Emily Thornberry’s remarks about class sizes rising due to Labour’s proposed VAT increase for private school fees.

Eventually, after Sky News interviewer Jon Craig said: “I’m going to stop you now, this is ridiculous”, he said he had given a previous interview to Channel 4 News a few days before answering questions about his selection.

However, as his Sky interviewer pointed out, other broadcasters wanted him to answer questions about this. In the end his aide stepped in and stopped the interview, which is never a good look.

Mr Holden’s refusal to answer questions about the row over his selection and respond as though in a parallel universe was duly publicised by Sky News, ITV news and other media and led to a lot of criticism. Former Defence Secretary Sir Liam Fox told Sky News: “I think when politicians stop answering questions directly, the public stop listening.”
Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: “Ric Holden is running the Tory election campaign. If chicken-run Ric can’t stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.”

So what should he have done?

Usually, when you have to get away from a difficult topic, I advise using the bridging technique which we explain in our media training and presentation training sessions. This means you must prepare what you want to say about the topic, say it and then move on to another safer topic.  This technique is used every day in media interviews and, if it’s done well, many people don’t notice it.

However, in some circumstances, the interviewer will come back to your problem issue, and you need to be sure how you will handle this. It all boils down to thorough preparation.

When you’re at the heart of a problem yourself, you do have the option of not doing any interviews about anything and instead issuing a short, written statement, but this can look evasive.

Alternatively, Richard Holden could have let a colleague comment on Emily Thornberry, or anything else that was an issue, so soon after his own controversial last-minute ‘stitch-up’ selection for a safe Tory seat.

He and his advisers showed their media inexperience firstly by not anticipating the basic fact that the row over his selection would be an important part of any interview he gave. Secondly, they should have prepared a response stating his case as an MP whose seat in North West Durham has been abolished, and the fact that, despite the row, he was unanimously approved as the candidate by the local Tory Party executive. He didn’t take any of the above options and he found out the hard way that when there’s an elephant in your room you can’t just ignore it and pretend it isn’t there. Watch the interview here

Always prepare your facts

Meanwhile on LBC Radio, veteran presenter Nick Ferrari was clearly astounded by the answers he got from Shadow Schools Minister, Catherine McKinnell, when she came on his show to talk about Labour’s plan to give every primary schoolchild a free breakfast, which they claim would save parents £400 a year per child.

When he asked her how many breakfasts would be needed, she didn’t know. When he asked if the Labour Party was putting out a policy that would ‘give every primary schoolchild a breakfast and you don’t know how many children we’re talking about’, she couldn’t give a figure.

He then asked: “So you don’t know how many breakfasts have got to be made?” Catherine Mckinnell replied: “I don’t have that figure to hand. I’m sorry.”

Later in the interview, he asked her how many children were educated in private schools. She didn’t know and said, as previously: “I don’t have that figure to hand.”

This was a very poor performance in terms of not being prepared for completely fair and basic factual questions. It allowed LBC to put parts of this unhappy interview on TikTok and run a website piece headlined: Labour plan to give all primary school children free breakfasts – but shadow schools minister doesn’t know how many. Watch the interview here

Not since Nick Ferrari showed up Natalie Bennett, then co-leader of the Green Party in 2015,  when she had no idea about the costs of their proposed social housing policy, has he been so patient with a clueless interviewee.

These ‘car crash’ political interviews and the bad publicity they generate have come about because of basic mistakes and misunderstandings about how the media works. These are all mistakes that should not have happened and could have been avoided.  

At TV News London we are always ready to help you to thoroughly prepare and deliver your messages and understand how to get them across effectively in your media interviews and presentations avoiding basic mistakes. Contact us here: