Another politician falls victim to the dreaded “Gotcha” interview

Another politician falls victim to the dreaded “Gotcha” interview

So this time it’s Emily Thornberry, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU. Asked by Sky News’s Dermot Murnaghan to name the French Foreign Minister, Thornberry first accused Murnaghan of “pub-quizzing her” (which she was right about, of course) and then rather aggressively insinuated that he wouldn’t ask such questions of male politicians (actually, he does). This inevitably led to unfortunate headlines, most of which were critical of Thornberry.

Thornberry is just the latest in a long line of politicians who have been victims of Gotcha questions, among them David Cameron and George W Bush, some dealing with them better than others.  And we have to remember why TV presenters and reporters ask Gotcha questions in the first place: it’s an incredibly easy way to get a headline out of an otherwise boring topic. Simply ask a politician a series of general knowledge questions until the politician fails to get one right. Hey presto, there’s your headline!

So what approach should you use if a journalist suddenly asks you a general knowledge question live on air? Should you come out fighting, as Thornberry did, or just submit, as George W Bush did when an NBC presenter asked him the names of the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan? (Bush only got one right.)

Well, it depends. In Thornberry’s case, with the immense benefit of hindsight, she’d have been better served by merely admitting that she didn’t know the name, and then calmly bridging away to something more positive.

But sometimes, it’s obvious that the journalist is going to ask a whole list of questions. In that case, it’s best not to answer the first question – even if you know the right answer. Follow the lead of David Cameron (remember him?). In February 2015, Cameron launched what he called a “war on mediocrity” in educational standards, announcing at a press conference the target that by the age of 12 children should know their multiplication tables. The temptation for journalists was understandably huge, and a journalist from Channel 5 News raised his hand and asked the Prime Minister: “What’s nine times eight?”

I’m sure Cameron knew the answer (he did get a first-class degree in Economics from Oxford), but he replied: “I do times tables only in the car with my children on the way to school. And I’m going to stick to that, just in case I get one wrong on your excellent television programme.”

Article date

September 19th, 2016

Robert Taylor

Media Trainer

@RT_MediaTrainer

My main passion is media training, and I’m proud to be one of the UK’s most experienced and successful trainers in this field.

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