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Our social media feed was full of people discussing one particular interview yesterday.
And opinion was completely divided.
Some described it as a ‘car crash interview’ while other suggested the journalist was at fault and had been ‘patronising’, ‘rude’ and more favourable towards a spokesperson with an opposing view.
The fact the journalist’s name, albeit spelt incorrectly, was trending shows how much it had got people talking.
The interview in question saw shadow education secretary Angela Rayner appear on the Today Programme, to discuss government plans to invest £500m in new grammar schools, before Toby Young, the director of the New Schools Network, put the other side forward.
You can listen to it here (2hr10).
This slightly unusual format was, we were told, because Ms Rayner did not want to ‘debate’ with Mr Young, which sounded a little defensive but perhaps understandable when both spokespeople are being interviewed by telephone.
You don’t need to listen to the interview for long to realise it was a tetchy affair, but it was certainly no ‘car crash’.
Any interview that delivers a pre-planned, strong sound bite, which is picked up widely by the media and social media users, has undoubtedly had some success.
And Ms Rayner’s description of grammar schools being a ‘vanity project’, something she expertly repeated throughout the interview, certainly seemed to resonate and was used in the headline of a resulting article in The Guardian as well as in the copy of stories in the Financial Times, The Sun and The Mirror.
But it was at times an uncomfortable listen which threatened to develop into a full blown argument with presenter John Humphrys.
For example, when she became frustrated by a particular line of questioning she said ‘John, you can try and keep putting words in my mouth’ before listeners were subjected to several seconds of presenter and interviewee trying to talk over each other, which sounded very messy.
The question was whether a Labour government would close existing grammar schools, which does not sound like an attempt to put words in Ms Rayner’s mouth. But even if it was, it is crucial spokespeople do not show they are frustrated with questions because doing so will only encourage the journalist to pursue that particular approach – something we stress on our media training courses.
We tell participants on our media training courses that if the journalist keeps talking over their response, or interrupting them, they should remain calm and when the journalist is quiet say something along the lines of ‘let me finish answering your last question first’.
The other main problem was Ms Rayner did not seem to have anticipated being asked about her party’s policy on existing grammar schools if they were opposed to new ones being built, calling it a ‘diversion’ and suggesting it was not something people were concerned about.
Criticising the question is something which will only antagonise the journalist and cause them to ask it again and again, as Mr Humphrys did.
In fact, he became so exasperated he ended up asking ‘am I not allowed to ask a question?’.
Terrible interview with Angela Rayner couldn't have been more patronising no one is interested in Toby Young or what he has to say #r4today— Emma O'Neill (@emmaoneill5) March 7, 2017
While I agree with Angela Rayner, that was a car crash. Asking whether Labour would abolish existing grammars was a fair question #r4today— Johnny Appleseed (@JohnnyCameo) March 7, 2017
There's asking difficult questions in an interview and there's just talking over your guest. Humphries is an arse #r4today— Witwe Wadman (@WitweWadman) March 7, 2017
@sturdyAlex I'm sympathetic to Angela Rayner's position, but she came across awful.— Mark Say (@markssay) March 7, 2017
The interview with Mr Young did seem a calmer, shorter affair and he was not subjected to interruptions or having his responses talked over.
But he did face negative questions. The first suggested children who are not capable of getting into grammar schools will ‘suffer’ and the next claimed grammar schools were being introduced ‘undercover’. Ms Raynor, on the other hand, had faced an opening question which simply asked her what she made of the plans, which was a very gentle start by the Today programme standards.
So it was far from the ‘matey’ conversation some social media users suggested. The crucial difference, for me, was that Mr Young did not challenge the negative questions he was being asked and instead used them to get to the messages he wanted to get across.
And that I think is the key lesson – that and the fact Twitter can’t spell ‘Humphrys’.
Chortle.. Today I've seen John Humphreys and John Humphries criticised. Still, #r4today's John Humphrys gets away with it...— Juli (@julijuxtaposed) March 7, 2017
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