Please stick to the question: Do politicians suffer selective deafness? Callum Murray gets a straight-ish reply

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The Independent Online
SIR ROBIN DAY has said that he often feels like beginning a political interview by asking: 'Now, Prime Minister/Secretary of State/Chancellor etc, what is your answer to my first question?'

The pattern is familiar. The interviewer asks a question; the politician pauses, then replies with a ringing non sequitur. It is as if someone has snipped out a section of the tape. By common consent, the worst offender is Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor. 'You say to Gordon: 'What did you have for supper last night?' ' says John Humphrys, of Radio 4's Today programme. 'His reply will be: 'Firstly . . . economic recovery plan; secondly . . . incentives to industry; and thirdly . . . strategy for unemployment'.'

If the BBC's plans for a 24-hour rolling news service go ahead, we shall hear more politicians trying to evade more questions. But will they do it well or badly? There is a flourishing industry in teaching people how not to answer the question, though nobody in the industry will admit the purpose. It is called media training.

Scarlett MccGwire, a partner in the media training company Clear Communication, described the 'non-sequitur' approach as 'very crude, very unsophisticated'. 'What we never, ever do,' said her partner, John Underwood, 'is teach anybody to evade questions. But it is perfectly legitimate to have the desire to express the ideas contained in your own agenda.'

Clear Communication gave me a demonstration. Much of the advice was non-controversial - always wear a jacket and tie, for example. Then I was asked what answers I had prepared. But, I protested, I did not know what the questions would be. 'Oho]' broke in MccGuire. 'Aha]' said Underwood. 'You should ask in advance what sort of questions there will be, so you can prepare your answers. You must think: 'I'm not just going to go in and answer their questions'.'

I was advised that I should have an agenda: up to three points (no more) that I wanted to get across. But there is a distinction between the negotiation of a suitable space to say your three things - and just saying them anyway.

I rang up Greville Janner, Labour MP for Leicester West. He is chairman of Effective Presentational Skills, and claims to have media-trained half the Shadow Cabinet. 'The most frightening thing must be . . .' I began. 'The most frightening thing,' he interjected firmly, 'is getting called at Prime Minister's Question Time. Glenda Jackson told me she was scared today. 'We're all scared,' I said.'

It became clear that Janner's interview technique involved cutting in jovially on the interviewer, then answering his own question. Eventually I got him to say what the most frightening thing in an interview was. It's not being asked a question you don't want to answer. 'It's giving an answer you wish you hadn't' Interviewers in the broadcast media work on the principle that the answer the politician wishes he hadn't given is the one the audience is most interested in hearing.

But politicians are safe provided they have an agenda. Even such an accomplished performer as Michael Heseltine can be unsettled when he lacks one. Heseltine was interviewed by Humphrys shortly after his announcement of the pit closures review. This was one of those interviews that consisted mainly of interviewer and interviewee offering glosses on one another's proposals - 'What I think you're asking me is this . . .'; 'So your answer to my question is as follows . . .' - a sure sign of agenda trouble.

Heseltine was asked if it would not be a resigning matter if, as a result of the review, even one of the 21 pits was saved. 'This is the sort of thing that becomes absolutely fascinating to the media,' he began, querulously. Then he recollected himself and his agenda. 'But let me tell you very simply that I am going to continue to put forward the policy which I believe to be the essential policy in the interests of this country.' He was back in the groove, and the damage had been contained.

The trouble with the adversarial style of questioning is that the interview becomes a tacit game of hide-and-seek, placing interviewer and interviewee in a strange kind of complicity. Meanwhile, the listener is excluded.

Two weeks before the Autumn Statement, Humphrys interviewed the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Norman Lamont had previously made it clear that he would not answer any questions about the Autumn Statement. Nevertheless, Humphrys pressed him on the Prime Minister's remark the previous day about a 'package of (economic) measures'. Lamont said: 'Well, you'll have to wait until 12 November when I bring forward my Autumn Statement.'

The interview then became a protracted attempt to wring information about the Autumn Statement from the increasingly nettled Chancellor. Humphrys: 'You say we will have to wait until 12 November, but you've made it quite clear . . . that you are not going to borrow any more money to increase spending on public projects.' Lamont: 'I have made it quite clear that the control of spending and the control of growing (sic) are extremely important and you'll have to wait until 12 November . . .' Humphrys: 'You did not rule out last night that there would be more cuts.' Lamont: 'I didn't rule it out, but I didn't rule it in.'

Lamont's problem was that he failed to apply his agenda consistently. What Humphrys's questioning called for was a real dedication, of a kind that Lamont and Heseltine have yet to master, to not answering the question. This is a skill they will have to acquire when 24-hour news programmes arrive. The interviewers won't really mind. As one political correspondent told me: 'You are in the game of entertainment. And you often get fascinating answers to questions you never posed.'

(Photograph omitted)