Questions, questions

This week a client asked, “What should Michael Howard have done in that Newsnight interview?” It is the second time I had been asked the question in a month.

The infamous piece of telly is now 15-years-old yet it is still frequently recalled, particularly by those about face a journalist’s questions themselves. Recently it was in the papers once again when Treasury Minister Chloe Smith was similarly shredded by presenter Jeremy Paxman.

If you have never seen the Howard interview, it is well worth a look on YouTube. In it the politician refuses to answer one of Paxman’s questions 12 times. It’s a brilliant example of how not to deal with an awkward question.

Michael Howard made two mistakes.

Firstly it appears he didn’t give sufficient – if any – thought to what difficult questions he would be asked, and how he should answer them.

At the time Howard was accused of going beyond his remit as Home Secretary by threatening to overrule the Director of Prisons Derek Lewis. It was obvious that Paxman was going to ask whether or not this was true.

If Michael Howard wasn’t prepared to answer that question – which he clearly wasn’t – there is an argument that he shouldn’t have agreed to the interview in the first place. Sure, if he had turned the interview down he may well have faced accusations of being unaccountable for his actions, but he wouldn’t have been made to look a fool.

Far better would have been to tackle the issue head on, but Michael Howard’s second mistake was that he seemed to believe he could outwit his interviewer. This is a dangerous ploy with any journalist. With Paxman it was fatal.

As soon as you dodge a question, journalists sense a story and uncovering stories are what most journalists live for.

It is always best – unless the law prohibits it – to be upfront and honest, to admit a mistake and talk about how you are going to rectify it. The public are more forgiving of a mistake that has been immediately acknowledged, than one that has been extracted under duress. Look at what happened at News of the World or Barclays Bank.

Media tip: Before any interview think through the difficult questions you may face. And when you consider how you are going to answer those questions, remember it is best to be brief, be honest and then move on.

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