A few weeks ago, I entered a phone-in debate being hosted by John Beattie on BBC Radio Scotland about newspapers and the internet. I made the call and as I began making my point, John recognised me from previous dealings and was broadly welcoming. His mention that I had conducted some media training seemed, at the time, pretty innocuous, if not irrelevant.
Now, I am not so sure. Yesterday, a trailer for his new, lunchtime news show, on the same radio station, had him railing against interviewees who have been ‘media trained’.
Sounds like he wants an easy life; easy scalps at the expense of guests as innocent as possible in the arts of defending themselves or prosecuting an argument.
In the same trailer, he says all he wants is ‘the truth’, as if media training is about the telling of lies. As everyone knows, the telling of lies tends to be found out. The truth, meanwhile, can be absolutely maintained, but it is a question of which version.
Some people prepare for a media interview by trying to anticipate every possible question with extensive briefing notes. While there is obvious merit to knowing one’s subject, inside-out, it presupposes the role of the interviewee is simply to answer questions.
An alternative approach is about building confidence: confidence in performing in what, for many people, will feel like an alien environment; confidence in telling one’s own story; confidence to engage in what might end up being a clash of agendas – but, then again, perhaps not.
And the truth is, interviewees who are a bag of nerves or unable to focus on what it is they want to say (and repeat what it is they want to say) tend to be hard to follow and even harder to later report.
And if no media training, then does the argument extend to no media releases (which now comprise large chunks of the mainstream media), because both involve an attempt to manipulate the media?
Here’s the truth: an interview is not the story, without denying the possibility of what is said possibly becoming a story – it is the icing on the cake that it is story, which usually involves a bit more hard work than the asking of a few questions.
Here’s also the truth: there is such a streak of self-righteousness in many interviews, with every ‘slip of the tongue’ seized upon and often magnified, it’s hardly surprising that interviewees are wary to the extent of wanting to prepare themselves as best as they can.
It’s not interviewees who have turned the interview often into little more than theatre – and, in some cases, a blood sport.
And, finally, for the record, any journalist who has ‘media trained’ someone (and there are some journalists who do a little media training, ‘on the side’) has, on ethical grounds, barred themselves from having any journalistic dealings with them ever again.