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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.

How to survive a TV debate, Michael Gove

How to survive a TV debate 2: Gove the fearless

Students of how to survive a TV debate would learn rather different lessons from watching Michael Gove, a leading spokesperson for the UK’s EU Leave campaign, compared to the first debate in the series with Prime Minister David Cameron.

You can watch the full one hour debate here.

How to survive a TV debate: good humour and grace under fire

This was another polished performance, full of good humour and an ability to handle aggressive questioning with toughness, but also good grace and prepared lines. But where the Prime Minister apparently answered questions, Michael Gove sought to move the debate onto different grounds. This is what you do when you have less facts and less third-party endorsements than the opposition. Gove rarely responded directly to questions whilst waiting for the opportunity to land his message: he went from question to message in a heartbeat.

Here is an example.
How many independent economic authorities share your dream of Britain outside the EU? Can you name a single one?
If you are talking about the economic authorities that have already weighed into the debate, they are people who have been wrong in the past and who didn’t predict the global crash in 2008…I prefer to take the views of business people …

Michael Gove repeatedly landed his messages. Here are the ones I spotted with links to other commentators who saw what I did.

How to survive a TV debate: deploy metaphors

One of the best lines of the debate came from a member of the audience. He argued ‘You are asking us to vote for a divorce and sort out the financial settlement afterwards. That makes no sense to me, you negotiate before (you leave). And with respect Mr Gove, you are like a First World War general, waiving the flag, saying ‘over the top men’. But you have no idea what is going on on the front line or what the casualty rate will be’. Gove listened to this patiently and then answered respectfully and skillfully moving the conversation on to his message about putting faith in the British people.

Gove had good metaphors of his own. He suggested that the UK, ‘rather than being a difficult lodger in a house we didn’t design could be a friendly neighbour in a home we could call our own’.

As we have noted many times before in our blogs, metaphors are mighty powerful weapons of war.

What was missing from a spin doctors point of view were the numbers and the everyday examples. Where was the fan-belt maker from Bolton and the car exporters from Sunderland?

How to survive a TV debate: rhetorical flourish

There were however, some clever rhetorical flourishes. Gove challenged us all to name the five presidents of Europe. He asserted that none of us could. ‘The European Union’, he said, ‘is not a democracy, no one is elected, no one can name the presidents and none of us can sack them’. He went on: ‘The most powerful symbol of our democracy is the removal van that arrives outside 10 Downing Street every five or ten years’. Examples of prepared, powerful, clever, rhetoric.

Interestingly, while the questions from the audience were just as tough as in the previous programme, overall the audience were much more supportive of Michael Gove than they were of the Prime Minister. While the set piece interview for Gove was more manic, with more interruptions and more heated, the discussion with the audience was much friendlier and more respectful.