Just say “no”

Jeepers, Radio New Zealand’s ‘Morning Report’ was a tough listen on Monday this week!

It was the first week-day after Labour had polled so badly in the New Zealand 2014 General Election and ‘Morning Report’ presenters Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson desperately wanted the headline that a Labour personality – any Labour personality would do – was not prepared to support the party’s leader at the time, David Cunliffe.

By 9am I had lost count of the number of times the words ‘knife’ or ‘knives’ had been used.

There were ‘knives out’ for the man who had led the party to such an electoral drubbing. Or a knife that was being readied for metaphorical plunging between his shoulder-blades. Knives here, knives there, knives blimmin’ everywhere.

But no-one, it seems, who was prepared to admit owning such an implement. Labour personalities, one after the other, were wheeled onto the programme and subjected to the broadcasting equivalent of water-boarding.

“Do you support the leader?” was the question. And it was asked in a plethora of different ways, a multitude of times.

The wriggling and squirming of the interviewees was nothing short of painful to listen to as they tried to come up with answers that would satisfy the ‘Morning Report’ terriers but would be so unspecific as to enable their political survival when the leadership is eventually decided.

Listen to Andrew Little as he does battle with Susie:

He’s asked repeatedly (at 52”, 1’04” and 1’22”) if Cunliffe will face a vote of no confidence. And each time he dances on the head of an ever-diminishing pin without giving a straight answer. Because a straight answer would have given Susie the headline she was looking for.

Then she asks him straight up about whether he will back Mr Cunliffe. Many times (at 2’19”, 2’26”, 2’40”, 3’09”, 3’35” and 3’54”). And the pinhead-head dancing continues. Finally, at 4’12”, he mans up and confesses that he’s “reluctant to get into (that) discussion…”

Oh, the relief!!

We all knew exactly what was going on here. Broadcaster wants a headline. Interviewee not prepared to provide it. So why, then, the charade?

Our advice in the ‘6 of One…’ media training course we run is always to be straight up in these situations. For goodness sake: “Just say ‘no’.”

Just say: “Look, Susie – I know you want a straight answer from me on that question. But I’m not going to give you one for obvious reasons. So let’s either move on or call it quits with this interview.” How refreshingly honest and endearing would that be? And what a way to convey to the listener that you’re a straight-up, straight talking type of politician?

Instead, we got just over four minutes of weasel-words and political prevarication. It didn’t inform. It didn’t educate. And surely it would have entertained only the most sadistic of listeners. And National Party media analysts. For the rest of us it was exquisite agony.

In the end it was Guyon who got the headline with his interview of former Labour Party President Mike Williams:

After yet more pinhead-dancing (at 3’09”, 3’20”, 4’17” and 4’26”) Williams was finally pressured into admitting (at 4’29”) that he doesn’t think he’d “go with Cunliffe again”.

It was obviously a faux pas because Williams immediately tried to deny (at 5’00”) that he said it. And you can almost hear Guyon’s virtual high-five with Susie (at 5’07”) as he informs Williams that he did, indeed, just provide Radio New Zealand with what ultimately became the lead item for the next few news reports.

Again – how much easier would it have been for Mr Williams to have just said to Guyon: “I know what you want from me. You’re not going to get it. So let’s stop playing this game and move on to any other questions you may have for me.”

It’s not good radio. And so Susie and Guyon may well not agree with this advice. But it’s certainly the tack I would have taken.

There’s theory. And then there’s reality. It’s always a lot more difficult, in the heat of the moment, to know the best way to deal with these things. But that’s what media training is about. Practice and preparation – do it ‘till you’re blue in the face and until you know instinctively when you should Just Say No.

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