In this episode we’re going to look at the way politicians deal with tough and challenging questions from TV and radio interviewers. We’ll listen to some examples of politicians avoiding questions in interviews and examine some of the ways they get themselves out of tight situations while also promoting their ideas. [Download]
I’m not sure what you think about politics. I don’t talk about it a lot on Luke’s English Podcast. I did an episode a couple of years ago called “82. Votings, Elections, Government“, in which I talk about the political system, and various vocabulary related to politics, voting and elections. Now, a lot of people find politics to be quite boring, and I used to think that too, but more and more (perhaps because I’m growing up finally!) I think that politics is fascinating and really important. I’m particularly keen on watching debates between politicians, and watching the way in which politicians cleverly deal with challenging questions in interviews. It’s fascinating to watch them very skilfully squirm their way out of tight situations, or use all manner of linguistic and rhetorical skills to persuade people live on TV.
British journalists tend to interview politicians in an aggressive manner. Politicians are getting very good at avoiding questions. And this is what I’m particularly interested in studying in this episode of the podcast. How do politicians avoid questions? Let’s have a listen, and find out.
Here’s a clip from the satirical comedy show “The Day Today”. This programme makes fun of the news. It takes the mickey out of the way that news readers speak, and their interview style. In this clip we hear an interview with a politician who is facing allegations of ministerial misconduct – he’s being accused of lying in front of the House of Commons about a deal. The interviewer is not aggressive or challenging enough, and in the end he lets the politician get away with lying to the house. He’s too nice! Then the newsreader in the studio takes over and has a go at the interviewer for not asking challenging or tough questions. I think it’s really funny. Let’s have a listen and then consider the ways that politicians deal with tough interviews in TV.
That’s just a comedy clip, but in terms of real situations, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Here the interviewer wants the politician to admit that he was wrong about the Euro. Clearly the politician doesn’t want to admit he was wrong, and so he pushes another line: The UK at the moment is not willing to be part of the Euro. Listen to the way the interviewer asks about his mistake over the Euro, how the politician attempts to avoid the question, and how the interviewer has to quite aggressively force him to deal with the Euro problem.
The politician: The energy secretary Chris Hune (in government)
The issue: He said that the Euro was going to be a big success and that the UK is missing out.
The politician doesn’t want to admit that he’s wrong, and instead wants to push the idea that the UK is not willing to be part of the Euro at the moment.
Some ways that politicians avoid questions
They have a pre-planned message, or line, which they have prepared carefully before going into the interview. Often this is in the form of soundbites – snappy, quotable phrases which can be used in newspapers.
Their aim is to present this line, despite the questions they will be asked.
As long as they are talking on the same topic, and they look presentable, reasonable and professional, we just don’t notice that they are not responding to the question.
Social conventions of politeness and communication make it hard for the interviewer to break this down. If the politician doesn’t really answer the question, it’s hard for the interviewer to a) identify that it has happened, b) respond to it quickly, c) find the right questions that will force the politician to really answer the question.
Smooth interviews break down when an interviewer is tough, aggressive and skeptical. The interviewer has to take an aggressive line in order to fight against the slick tactics of the politician. It’s very hard for these interviewers because they have to go against instinctive social conventions in order to break the politician’s spell. If the interviewer is too aggressive or emotional, the interviewee wins because he comes out of it better – he looks like a calm reasonable person, and the interviewer looks like a mad man. If the interviewer is not precise enough in his questions, the interviewee wins again, because the interviewer does too much talking, while the politician sits there in innocent silence.
The best politicians manage to make it very hard for the interviewer to put them on the spot. They use techniques to distract the conversation away from the tough questions, they don’t get emotional, they manage to come across as reasonable, modest, ordinary people. Likeability is vital to a politician’s career nowadays. We tend to vote for people who we like, rather than thinking purely of their policy, which is a terrible symptom of our image driven culture. So, clever politicians are able to construct a likeable image – as family oriented, hard-working, sympathetic, strong or humorous. That likeablilty acts as a kind of defence mechanism or even a distraction, so that viewers on TV let them avoid questions and so on. Research has shown (and I refer to a Harvard Business Paper called Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way Authors: Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton Publisher: Harvard Business School, Working Paper No. 09-048 Date Published: October 2008) that we just don’t notice that a politician has avoided a question when the answer is related to the question asked and is given with confidence and conviction. So, it goes like this:
The interviewer asks a question.
The politician responds with an answer that relates to the topic of the question, but doesn’t really answer the question specifically.
We don’t notice that the question is being avoided, because the answer is on-topic.
Politicians also use the phrase “Let’s be clear…” as a way to redirect their answer towards their point, while making it look like they are clarifying and directly answering the question. “Let’s be clear…” + their point.
This all breaks down, when tough interviewers manage to put politicians on the spot. Perhaps they take them by surprise, perhaps they are willing to come across as crazy by repeating the question over and over, or perhaps they manage to keep the courage of their convictions in order to verbally spar with these master debaters. So, when interviewers bring their A game, it can be pretty fascinating to watch a politician have a really hard time. It’s like car crash TV. It’s also pretty bizarre. These kinds of conversations rarely happen in normal situations. People talking over each other without stopping. People answering direct questions with completely unrelated answers. It’s weird.
Let’s listen to some examples!
“Did you threaten to overrule him?” Paxman vs Michael Howard
The accusation: Paxman questioned Howard relentlessly about a meeting he had had with prisons chief Derek Lewis about the possible dismissal of the head of Parkhurst Prison.
Chloe Smith on Newsnight (total disaster for Chloe Smith)
Excerpt from The Thick of It. “Answer the question you fat fuck!”
Why do interviewers in the UK have such a direct style? Because we believe they should be accountable for everything they do. We don’t have much deference for people in positions of power (and The Queen is not a person in a position of power actually! If she did exercise genuine power over us, we wouldn’t have the same level of respect for her I can assure you) and this style is a way to prevent politicians avoiding the question. If you’re too soft on people (and it’s not just politicians – it’s also heads of corporations or anyone with some duty to the public) then they will just use the interview for their own purposes. Also, I think audiences in the UK (and I’m sure it’s the same in many other places) believe that these people should be given a tough time, especially the ones who are not serving us well, or who are privileged in some way.
If an interviewer is too soft on a politician, we feel that they’ll just get away with murder.
Sometimes it seems to me that interviewers have got into the habit of being tough in interviews, and sometimes they do it when it’s not appropriate or necessary.
The Day Today – Jam Festival
This is funny on two levels: On one hand, it parodies the aggressive style of BBC journalists (especially Paxman). It’s also poking fun at people who do charity work just so they can make themselves look good.