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How to survive a TV debate, David Cameron

How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.

getting media interview basics right

Remember to get the basics right

You’d think that being the chairman of a high-profile group campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe would at least require you to remember the name of the organisation concerned.

You’d think.

But as Lord Rose, chairman of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group discovered in an interview with Sky News, even such obvious details can slip from the mind in the heat of the moment.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of Ocado,” he started telling political editor Faisal Islam before realising that whilst true, that role was not relevant to the interview that was about to follow.

“Sorry – chairman Stay in Britain… Better in Britain campaign,” he stuttered, before trying to clear the decks with “Right, start again!”

Sadly, the next two versions were no better.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of the Better in Britain campaign…er… Better Stay in Britain campaign.”

Four attempts, none of them correct. Not only embarrassing, but also a mistake which went onto overshadow his key message – the claim that the EU brings in an additional £670,000 a year for the average British business importing or exporting goods within the union. Very few of the media reports which followed that interview made mention of his key statistic, and chose to highlight his opening errors instead.

A mistake like that matters. If the chairman of an organisation can’t remember what it’s called, why should anybody else? And with a plethora of different pressure groups campaigning variously to stay in or leave the European Union, yours needs to stand out.

So how can you make sure you don’t forget something so fundamental?

The key is good old-fashioned practice. As well as going through possible interview scenarios in advance, something called ‘tongue-memory’ comes into play, making it easier to remember those words and phrases which have actually been uttered out loud beforehand.

You should also seize any useful mnemonics available out there. The more unusual, the better – and as far as Lord Rose was concerned, he had already been offered a helping hand by his rivals.

Eurosceptic campaigners positively enjoy referring to the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group as ‘BSE’ for short – the unfortunate acronym also standing for Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which led to the EU banning British beef in the 1990s.

All he had to do was take their acronym on board, and use it to spell out the correct order of the letters beginning the words in his group’s name.

Simple, dramatic and effective – and even more powerful because it uses an intended insult from the very people opposing you, to help you on your way.