Monday, 2 November 2015

Car-crash political interviews

Interviews can be terrifying experiences, for interviewers and interviewees alike. It's nice and easy, when you see casual conversations between two old friends in private places. However, televised interviews between politicians and journalists put people into glitzy, artificial environments. We expect them to behave as if everything's normal, when it really isn't. As these five cases show, sometimes the pressures of televised questioning can push reporters and politicians to breaking point.

1.) Angela Constance, Scottish National Party (The Sunday Politics, November 2015)

When appearing on a morning television show, it's probably best to ask someone whether you're going to be live on air, before the cameras actually roll. In the middle of a seemingly ordinary live studio interview, Scottish National Party MSP Angela Constance accidentally referred to events in the year "Twenty thousand and twelve", before correcting herself. She had, of course, actually meant to say the year 2012. It was an innocent slip of the tongue; people make mistakes on TV all the time. There was actually nothing to complain about here, you can't expect someone to keep it up, the whole time they're on air.

The interview would have surely faded into obscurity, were it not for the fact that Constance wrongly assumed it was a pre-recorded segment. As a result, she made a point about fluffing her words, and immediately requested the interviewer if they could do a retake. To her horror, you never swim in the same river twice, when speaking on live television. Cue a look of controlled horror flashing over Constance's face.

2.) Chloe Smith grilled by Paxman (Newsnight, June 2012)

It was June 2012; a troublesome summer for the coalition government. The budget back in March 2012 had started being dubbed an "omnishambles", a word borrowed from popular satirical show "The Thick of It".

Some of the controversies it spawned included a "pasty tax", and even a "caravan tax". It wasn't long before the government was forced into a series of awkward U-turns, one by one. The Omnishambles budget died a slow but painful death, by a thousand paper cuts.

In June 2012, junior minister Chloe Smith was invited to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, live on Newsnight. This followed a perceived U-turn over fuel duty, by Chancellor George Osborne. What happened next made grim viewing. Over the course of the interview, it became clear that Smith had been sent off to the interview, in place of the Chancellor himself, without the necessary facts to make her case.

When asked on her own views about the U-turn, Smith proved to be moderately evasive, but Paxman was having none of it. It was broken up, only by an abrupt but short instance, when Smith grappled with a frog in her throat, as evidenced below.

The message of the story: if you make a controversial decision in government, have the bravery to stand by it. Don't shirk responsibilities, by forcing a junior minister answer for it, in your place. It's just cruel.

3.) Alastair Campbell incenses Adam Boulton (Sky News, May 2010)

The 2010 general election was a close-run contest. It left the UK with its first hung parliament, since the 1970s. Political loyalties had seemingly split the country right down the middle. The bruised Labour government was led by a Prime Minister, who had failed to actually win an electoral mandate. The opposition party was led by an MP who was criticised for being a career politician.

In a rare moment of interview madness, Sky News presenter Adam Boulton lost composure, when conducting a live interview with former Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. Campbell slyly sent Boulton into an angry mood, telling him to "calm down". If you know anything about people, you'll know that the last thing you tell an incensed person is to calm down, especially in a patronizing tone. 

Understandably, Boulton exploded in fury at Campbell, curiously jabbing his finger at himself. "Don't keep saying what I think!" he exclaimed. From the way this interview went, it's highly doubtful either of the two men will be on each others' Christmas card lists anytime soon.

4.) Chuka Umunna walks out of interview with Dermot Murnaghan (January 2015)

Before his short-lived bid as a Labour leadership candidate, Chuka Umunna was making a name for himself, as the Shadow Business Secretary. In this rocky interview, Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan stealthily switched the topic of conversation towards the issue of radicalization and extremism in Britain. 

A senior government minister had written a public letter on the subject, and it entered into dicussion. Mr Umunna made it clear to Mr Murnaghan that he had not read the letter in question, and was not in a position to speak about it yet.

Murnaghan made the mistake of suggesting that Mr Umunna could return half an hour later, to continue the conversation, once he had read the letter. When Mr Umunna slammed Murnaghan for being "unfair", Murnaghan quipped "So you're not going to speak, until you get the party line, right?". Umunna responded, by flapping his hand in the air, as if to swat an imaginary mosquito, before walking out of the interview.

5.) Sarah Palin speaks with Katie Couric (PBS, September 2008)

Nothing quite defined Sarah Palin's image in the minds of millions of people, like her interview with US journalist Katie Couric, at the height of the 2008 presidential election campaign. Sarah Palin was the then-governor of Alaska. 

She had just been chosen as the running mate to veteran Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. People just had no idea what she would be like on the campaign trail, of the most heated presidential campaign since the 1980s. It seemed as if she had been conjured out of nowhere.

In an interview later parodied by a sketch on Saturday Night Live ("I can see Russia from my house!"), Couric probed the Alaskan governor on comments she had previously made about Alaska's proximity to Russia. 

In a previous interview with another interviewer, Palin had implied that Alaska being so close to Russia was a valid form of foreign policy experience, in and of itself. Couric went further, also asking what Mrs Palin's reading habits had been.

In response to the comments about Russia and Alaska, Palin said with some satisfaction: "As Putin rears his head, and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska..."

Palin's answer to Couric on the subject of her past reading habits attracted further ridicule. Couric asked "What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read, before you were tapped for stay informed and to understand the world...what specifically?" Palin responded hastily, saying "Erm...all of 'em...any of 'em...I have a vast variety of sources..."

The casual manner by which Governor Palin answered the questions led many to question whether she would make a sound Vice President. It's funny to note the hand gesture Governor Palin employed, when speaking about Russia. It's almost as if the audience's votes are buzzing around her face, and she's desperately trying to grab them, before they fly away.


1) Angela Constance interview

2.) Chloe Smith interview

3.) Alastair Campbell interview

4.) Chuka Umunna interview

5.) Sarah Palin interview

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