Law: How to survive when a Paxman attacks: A training course for solicitors offers tips on dealing with TV and radio. Fiona Bawdon joined a class
Friday 22 January 1993
The courses are organised by the Law Society to teach solicitors how to use the media to their advantage, and to improve public perception of the profession. They are run jointly by the head of the society's press and parliamentary unit, Sue Stapely, a solicitor who once worked as a BBC director, and Peter Wheeler Associates, a training company that also teaches media skills
'A discomfited solicitor is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining things to watch on television,' says Mrs Stapely. It is to avoid such entertainment that the course has been set up.
According to one of the tutors, Peter Wheeler, who has been a newscaster for Granada Television and a BBC interviewer, solicitors often stumble when dealing with journalists. 'I wish I had a pound for every person who has appeared in front of me with a wholesome case but failed to get it across because of lack of familiarity with the process,' he tells the class.
Most of the eight participants simply wanted to feel more comfortable in their dealings with the media. Some report unhappy encounters in the past. Nigel Shepherd, of the Stockport firm Chafes, tells how he appeared on local radio to plug his firm's sponsorship of a cycle race. 'It went wonderfully,' he says. 'Then I realised that I'd forgotten to mention the name of the firm.' Sara Robinson, from the London-based Simkins Partnership, was terrified by her television experience. 'I felt quite miserable afterwards,' she says.
Each participant undergoes three-minute mock television and radio interviews, which are then replayed, to the embarrassment of the subject and the general merriment of the others. Mr Wheeler and his fellow tutor, Diane Mather, who has also presented BBC regional television news, take on a variety of interviewing personas, including a bolshie Geordie 'who fancies himself as the next Jeremy Paxman' and a distressed caller on a radio phone-in.
It is not a day for the faint- hearted. Egos are routinely deflated. 'I mean this in a caring way,' Mrs Stapely says before launching into an attack on the interviewee's five-o'clock shadow, sticky- up hair, or shifty mannerisms in front of the camera. Myra Codlin is advised to buy some 'cover-up' to deal with the 'luggage problem under the eyes'. She is also berated for looking too serious. 'You are allowed to smile,' she is told. 'I thought I was smiling all the way through that interview,' says Mrs Codlin, bewildered.
Mr Wheeler seeks to reassure her on the fickleness of the camera. 'I've even been made to look overweight,' he says, patting his paunch.
Both Mrs Codlin and Ms Robinson allow Ms Mather to coat their faces with the kind of make-up most people wear only after death, in the interests of looking 'healthy' on screen. The effect on camera is impressive. 'You both look as if you've been on holiday since this morning,' says Mrs Stapely. In the same game-for-anything spirit, Robin ap Cynan, a Law Society council member and solicitor at Shrewsbury-based Clarke & Son, sits passively while Ms Mather douses him with hairspray.
Mr ap Cynan is a natural. He breezes through his interviews, keeping all his limbs under control and making all his points. His only error is to finish off by saying, 'I'm obliged to you.' 'Sounds terribly pompous,' says Mrs Stapely. 'People will think you're a barrister.' Definitely not the image we want at all.
Simon Thomas, of the Devon practice Michelmores, is smoking furiously by this stage and repeatedly writing out the three points he wants to get across in the hope of fixing them in his brain. It doesn't work. He blanks ('blancmange brain syndrome') and the interview is restarted. During the second attempt, he begins frantically scratching his ankle. The camera operator gleefully zooms in. No, she isn't being unnecessarily cruel, explains Mrs Stapely, that is what would happen during a real interview.
Mrs Codlin also complains of blancmange brain. 'I didn't make any of the points. I couldn't think; I forgot about everything,' she says. The replay, however, tells a different story. She has stood up pretty well to Peter's 'cheap populist' approach. No, the divorce laws are not a 'cad's charter' and no, she doesn't know any 'gold-digging girls'. Most people want a fair settlement and to get on with their lives after divorce, she insists. 'You must live in Ambridge,' says Mr Wheeler later, clearly unconvinced.
Both Nigel Shepherd and John White, a solicitor with the Stock Exchange, get the regional accent (Scouse and Geordie, respectively) treatment from Mr Wheeler. 'If you want to emerge alive from this encounter, don't trust this man,' advises Mrs Stapely. She has a point. Mr Wheeler doesn't so much ask questions as lob unanswerable statements. 'Lawyers are greedy, aren't they, Nigel . . . We're fed up with hearing solicitors complain that legal aid is inadequate . . . The Maxwell scandal is the biggest cock-up ever, man.'
'I didn't understand him half the time,' Mr Shepherd complains afterwards. Mr White (an ex-soldier) turns aggressive.
Everyone is warned to use simple, non-legal language. 'This woman wouldn't know a 'reciprocal agreement' if it bit her on the bum,' says Mrs Stapely. 'Entrenchment' and 'impasse' are no-nos, she insists (even on BBC 2), and 'living together' should be used rather than 'cohabiting'. Runaway metaphors are another problem. Mr White talks about errant solicitors as both 'bad apples' and 'bad eggs'. 'I was waiting for the putrid plum and the 'orrible orange,' Mr Wheeler says.
Some of the participants are transformed in the afternoon session. Ms Robinson keeps the others spellbound during her interview on mediation: she speaks with great enthusiasm and compassion about a divorcing couple whom she helped to get back together. For a moment, the others forget to watch for embarrassing ticks and are lost in what she is saying.
Mr Shepherd seems to have heeded the advice to 'make it real' for the audience. He dramatises the dangers of cuts in legal aid with the tale of a client he has seen earlier in the week who had been protected from her violent husband by an emergency injunction. He confesses afterwards that it was total fiction. Ah yes, but it could have been real, Mrs Stapely says approvingly.
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