The UK Prime Minister Media Style was this week on display for the first time. Theresa May gave her first major interview since taking office to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It runs more than 17 minutes and from it I can draw some clear conclusions about the media style of this Prime Minister. But the question most people will have in their minds when watching this interview is: why don’t politicians answer a direct question with a direct answer.
My advice to the PM: more direct answers please.
May has clearly been well prepared for this interview. She has her messages in place and there was certainly no thinking on the hoof, all the questions had been anticipated and her answers were rehearsed. Thank goodness. For me this is more evidence of a ‘safe pair of hands’.
What’s more, while the hair and make-up were perfect, the outfit was not overly formal (are those bare ankles?) and the setting is the rather faded glory of, what I assume is, the Maidenhead Constituency office, complete with cracked fireplace and 1970’s carpet. I think this was a deliberate choice, indicating that this Prime Minister is not interested in the glory of the job or the opulence of the offices of state.
We also saw a warmer, more animated performer than in the past, with a marked reduction in her frosty impatience with the media process.
Her use of messages was, perhaps overly obvious, just a bit too much repetition and not enough new information for such a set piece interview.
On her vision for Britain the message was: “I want to see a country that works for everyone, a society that works for everyone, an economy that works for everyone…”
On schools: “Good quality education, giving opportunity…”
On Brexit: “We will make a success of it” and “We want to be an outward looking, independent Britain forging our way in the world.”
On the timetable for the exit negotiations “We need to take time to prepare, we need a period of preparation” and “We will not trigger Article 50 before the end of the year”.
But the rhythm of the interview is annoying. For the first 15 minutes May makes a point of never answering a direct question with a direct answer. This I think is a mistake, probably the only substantial criticism I would make of her style. It was clearly a deliberate strategy, but a misguided one.
So, for example, when asked:
“Would you like to see at the end of the first Theresa May administration more grammar schools open than there are now?”
The answer was:
“What I would like to see Andrew is ensuring an education system, regardless of where people are, regardless of the school they are going to that is ensuring they are getting the quality of education that enables them to take on those opportunities…”
This sort of response drives listeners and viewers nuts. I just don’t understand why politicians won’t say ‘We are looking at that’ or ‘I am not giving you an answer to that today’ or ‘This is something we are still discussing’.
Making a direct response to the question before moving to a wider point makes the speaker sound much more honest and credible.
Here are just a couple of comments from below the interview on YouTube that show how people react to this communication style.
Theresa May did actually adopt the strategy I would have suggested, towards the end of the interview – at 17:18 if you want to find it.
When asked a follow-up question on her stalling over the Hinkley Point decision she said:
“I think you are trying to get me to give an indication of what my decision is going to be Andrew, which I am not going to do.”
She did it with good grace and was not aggressive about it and it worked a treat.