Comment: Chloe Smith, Paxman, and the art of the political interview

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Normally political interviews with junior government ministers are forgotten almost the moment they're over. This doesn't look like it will be the case with Jeremy Paxman's encounter with Chloe Smith on yesterday evening's Newsnight. The fact that it's still trending on Twitter the next day should give you some idea of what a train wreck it was. Opinions on it across the social media spectrum were mixed. Most agreed that the interview was a disaster but there appeared to be some confusion with regards to who for.

There was a surprising amount of sympathy for Smith and I don't think it's actually done her career any harm, although it might be a while before she does another interview. A huge amount of fire was directed at George Osborne for not turning up himself and using one of his junior ministers as a flak jacket. Quite quickly people were compiling lists of other times he'd avoided serious interview opportunities, while sending someone else in his place. Alternatively his staff was attacked for not providing Smith with a consistent line to take.

Some contended that by agreeing to go up against an interviewer like Paxman so badly briefed, Chloe Smith was asking for trouble. Others tried to cite her relative age and inexperience as a defence. This was countered by the argument that if you're prepared to become an MP and then junior minister you should be able to handle yourself in an interview situation. Presumably no one forced her to go on.

A few people even criticised Paxman for being so hard on her and claimed that he wouldn't have spoken to a man like that. However as any longstanding Newsnight watcher will testify, Paxman has spent his entire career being rude to everyone, regardless of their gender or political persuasion. Any politician who performed as badly as she did would have been treated to his glare of barely concealed contempt.

All of this underlines the fact that political interviews today are much more risky than in the past. Long gone are the days when a government minister could relax while a TV reporter threw them a couple of softball questions about the economy or social policy. Now politicians receive media training as standard to help them cope with the interviewers aggressiveness. The new modus operandi seems to operate on the principle of Louis Heren's famous quote "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"

There are benefits to this new media environment though. Often politicians gain credibility just for being willing to go up against Paxman, the so called 'hard man' of British journalism. If you manage to best him, like the Plaid Cymru economist Eurfyl ap Gwilym so memorably did, then you become almost a folk hero to politicians of all parties. However if it goes really badly, as it did for Michael Howard, then they'll be showing the clip on news reports and comedy programmes for the rest of your life.

In general then there are certain rules politicians should follow when preparing for interview encounters, like making sure they have all the possible facts to hand and knowing what the official party line is. They should also have a colleague or civil servant sit them down and attempt to run through some practise questions to help them prepare. That's become also standard operating procedure for anyone appearing on Question Time now.

It used to be the case that politicians could get away with not answering a question by answering the question they'd wished they'd been asked, or simply waffling. That isn't an option anymore though as Chloe Smith discovered when Paxman pressed her on when she found out about the U-turn. At best you look shifty or incompetent, at worst you look like you've got something to hide. In most cases politicians would be better answering as best they can, rather than go through five or minutes where they're slowly tortured on live TV. It's even arguable that it's politicians increasing failure to answer simple yes/no questions that is undermining public support in our leaders and democratic institutions.

As a final option politicians could opt not to appear when an interview is requested. Obviously this never looks good but hopefully by the next day the story will have moved on. As last night clearly proved, it's sometimes better to say nothing then give an interview where you have nothing to say.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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