Lord Young, who at 78 had taken an unpaid role as the (UK) Prime Minister’s Enterprise Advisor, lost that job yesterday because of a public storm around comments he made to a Daily Telegraph journalist over lunch. Oh my!
The Telegraph has helpfully posted the (edited) audio recording of those comments so we can judge for ourselves the crassness of it all, while the background noise of a busy restaurant allows us to picture silver cutlery and fine wine, which may or may not be the case.
It was surely a scoop for the Telegraph’s Whitehall correspondent Christopher Hope who was using a well understood technique of journalism: a chat over lunch.
Here are a couple of media training lessons from the whole episode:
From Lord Young’s point of view this was almost certainly a sort of ‘chat between peers’ background discussion of what is going on. If he had any strategy it would have been to influence the journalist and therefore the public debate to stop ‘overreacting’ as he sees it, to the economic woes.
And because he believes in the argument, he expresses it forcefully. In fact the comments perfectly fit the ‘sizzle, numbers, example’ formula we teach in Media and Presentation training. So for sizzle or quotable language we have a repeat of the Macmillan phrase ‘never had it so good’ -note this sums up the whole argument. This is followed by some numbers to prove the point: 100,000 lost public sector jobs is just a ‘margin of error’ in the context of the 30 million jobs in this country. And then he brings it down to the level of an individual family ‘anybody with a mortgage …who were paying a lot of money each month, are now paying very little money each month’.
The difference of course between this episode and what we teach, is that this was not a planned line. It was an argument, a theme, that a confident and highly articulate man put together ‘on the hoof’ over lunch. It was brilliantly expressed, but clearly not something that should have been expressed in that context.
If you listen to the audio you might note that Christopher Hope is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’, and ‘ I agree’ all the way through the interview. He is probably simply signalling that he is understanding the argument, rather than cynically egging on the peer to mine a reach seam of quotes for his scoop. But he could be doing either. Either way a far cry from the aggressive journalistic techniques most people fear.
The whole episode is reminiscent of Nick Clegg’s lunch with Piers Morgan in 2008. When asked how many women he had slept with Mr Clegg replied candidly, ‘no more than 30’. Almost certainly true but not something you want to say to a journalist.
So to conclude: Beware lunch with journalists. You are not with a friend, colleague or interesting contact: you are sitting down with a highly selective and potentially global megaphone.
Just because you believe what you are saying is true, does not mean it is safe to say it to a journalist.