11 May 2009

Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

Yesterday, Iain Dale posted a plug for a new book about handling media interviews and included the following observation (by Dale) about Gordon Brown (or 'Boredom Frown', as my granddaughters prefer to call him):

“Gordon Brown has catchphrases he uses over and over again. Whatever the question he’s asked he’ll come out with the same five catchphrases. Someone should tell him people are getting bored. They know what the answers are going to be. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to think on his feet in the way that Blair did. He doesn’t come across well in interviews like Blair.’

I think Brown’s problem is even more serious than this. More than 20 years ago, I heard the late great Robin Day complaining that the TV interview had been hijacked by politicians. In the good old days, he said, interviewers could have a really good argument with the likes of Harold Macmillan, who would perk up at the prospect of engaging in serious debate - whereas now (i.e. more than 20 years ago), they just treat questions as prompts to say anything they like about whatever they like.

If you missed one of my postings on this theme last September, here’s part of what it said:

In an age when coverage of speeches makes up an increasingly small proportion of broadcast political news, Brown’s supporters might offer the defence that dourness on the podium doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past. But even if there is some truth in this, the trouble is that their hero has a second, and arguably even bigger, handicap in the way he conducts himself in what has become the main cockpit of political debate on television and radio, namely the interview.

For at least two decades, viewers and listeners have had put up with the sight and sound of politicians treating interviewers’ questions as prompts to say anything they like, regardless of what they were asked, or as yet another opportunity to dodge an issue. As an exponent of how to carry this depressing art to its limits, Gordon Brown has no serious competitors among contemporary British politicians. When he was still shadow chancellor, one commentator noted that if you asked him what he had for breakfast, his most likely response would be ‘what the country needs is a prudent budget’ – and that would merely be the preamble to a lecture about his latest thoughts on the matter. I recently asked one of the BBC’s most experienced and best-known presenters what it was like to interview him. His answer was rather more outspoken than I’d expected:

"Brown answers his own questions, never the interviewer's, and is utterly shameless. He will say what he wants to say and that's it. And he'll say it fifty times in one interview without any embarrassment at all. I've never met anyone quite like him in that respect. I once spent 40 minutes on one narrow point and still failed to get him to make the smallest concession. He's extraordinary and is never anything but evasive and verbose."

If politicians like Brown think it clever or smart to get one over the interviewer with such tactics, they betray a staggering lack of sensitivity to two rather obvious and basic facts about the way people interpret verbal communication. The first is that viewers and listeners can tell instantly when interviewees are being evasive. And the second is that they don’t much like it. Politicians may say that they’re worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public and growing voter apathy. But it never seems to occur to them that their relentless refusal to give straight answers to questions might have something to do with it.

The fuller story can be seen HERE.


patently said...

Very good point. It also explains why PMQs is a waste of time; there are plenty of questions but no answers.

This may be the factor that propels us into broadcast debates between the leaders - a desperate attempt to force Brown to answer some questions for once (or be humilated for refusing to do so).

Raj said...

We have same problem in India.It is most difficult to get straight answer from politicians. They have standard excuses here.e.g. This is not party's stand. He is speaking as individual.I have been quoted outof context.etc