To a TV reporter, political PRs can seem incredibly fussy, often to the point where it takes vast tact and patience not to pick them up bodily and hurl them off the nearest tall building with a joyful shout. Common sense, they say: you could be laying a trap, hiding a loaded question, trying to make us look silly. But occasionally a politician needs no help at all to look silly. And that is how it turned out with Ed Miliband yesterday.
Buggins’ turn for me was a round of interviews at Westminster, hoovering up political reaction to the public sector strikes. Ministers drift like smoke around the corridors of 4, Millbank where the broadcasters have their offices, and you grab them on the stairs or the landing. We found Francis Maude and he said his piece obligingly, but we had to be quick: at nine was a sit-down interview with Ed at his office in Portcullis House and we scampered across to find him. The interview was a `pool’ arrangement - to be shared by the three main broadcasters to save time and resources - and I’d been named to do it for ITV News.
There is an etiquette involved in pooling, which everyone understands. Ask the obvious question, and get the obvious answer. Don’t try to be too clever or esoteric, either with your questioning or your camerawork. Make sure the material is usable by everyone (reporters: stay out of shot) and relay it as soon as the interview is done.
To me it seemed simple enough. But I hadn’t bargained with the team of three handlers waiting for me in the Opposition Leader’s office.
They demand control of the interview location. Well… OK, we are in Ed’s office, fair enough. They want him in front of his bookcase, with his family photos over his left shoulder. Er… sure, is he going to be long? We are running late.
It isn’t that unusual for political PRs to demand control over the composition of an interview shot. I gather that David Cameron’s people will never let him be filmed in front of anything expensive, or ornate, or strikingly Etonian. But it isn’t until our shot has been checked by all three press officers – all peering into our viewfinder and offering helpful advice about framing and depth of field (a term they turned out not to understand, as my cameraman Peter Lloyd-Williams triumphantly established) that we turn to the topic: `What questions are you going to ask?’
I hate being asked that. Partly, because it is none of their business. But mostly, if I am honest, because I don’t really know. I don’t have an interview `technique’, and this lack of technique has been honed constantly since my earliest days of not using it at the Bermondsey News. Its absence never troubled me until yesterday. You see, getting a `grab’ for a television report is a simple enough business. You say the first thing that comes into your head. The interviewee responds with the first thing that comes into his head. And you take it from there. Almost like, well, a conversation.
But when your interviewee has only one answer, and repeats it back to you whatever you say, things go downhill very fast.
Ed Miliband thinks that the strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still underway. The government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner, but it is time for both sides to set aside the rhetoric and get around the negotiating table and stop this from happening again.
I know this because he told me six times. His PR must have known that was what he was going to do. And yet he still went through a convincing charade of pressing me on my line of interrogation, urging me to keep my questions brief, and even – this was a macabre touch – placing a voice recorder on the table beside me as a kind of warning not to try and misquote his boss.
As it turned out, the first take was drowned out by a passing siren on the Embankment, but seemed like a thoughtful and precise position for a Labour leader to take. Clear in his condemnation, hopeful of a negotiated settlement. Not partisan, but engaged. Detached, but not aloof.
The second time it seemed like a less original statement. The strikes are wrong… the rhetoric has gone too far… parents across the country…But then, I’d heard it before and it was useful to have a clean version, unspoiled by a siren.
The third time… the third time I was struggling a little bit. I’d asked him how his opposition to the strikes fitted with his position as leader of the Labour movement. I thought it was quite a clever question. Silly me. The strikes were wrong at a time when negotiations were still underway. The government had acted recklessly. It was time for rhetoric to be set aside.
Some reporters like to have their questions written on a piece of paper, and tick them off one by one as they are asked. It’s something I’ve never done, but at this moment I wished fervently that I had a piece of paper in my hand, just to give me something to look at, and scratch away thoughtfully just buy some time.
I asked another question. Something about Francis Maude, and his tone of conciliation. Not very good, I know, but the best I could manage. Get him to say something about Francis Maude, I was thinking… his hairstyle, his glasses, the way he peers over the top of them as he drones on, anything, just stop already with the strikes are wrong while negotiations are underway, and the rhetoric has got out of hand…
I’m not sure what I asked next. Frankly I was in danger of losing it. On my own, with the eyes of Ed Miliband and his three handlers boring into me but apparently oblivious of my presence, I was getting twinges of what I can only describe as existential doubt. So I said some words. And Ed told me that the strikes were wrong, and the rhetoric was out of hand, and both sides needed to sit down…
That was the worst one, I think.
If news reporters and cameras are only there to be used by politicians as recording devices for their scripted soundbites, at best that is a professional discourtesy. At worst, if we are not allowed to explore and examine a politician’s views, then politicians cease to be accountable in the most obvious way. So the fact that the unedited interview has found its way onto YouTube in all its absurdity, to be laughed at along with all the clips of cats falling off sofas, is perfectly proper.
Afterwards, I was overcome with a feeling of shame. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
But before I dried up completely, and had to be led out of Westminster with my mouth opening and shutting, I had an opportunity to ask one last question. I had an urge to say something so stupid, so flippant that he would either have to answer it, or get up and leave. `What is the world’s fastest fish?’ `Can your dog do tricks?’ `Which is your favourite dinosaur?’ But, of course, this was a pool interview, and I had no wish to feed out the end of my television career to Sky and the BBC.
I realise now, of course, the perfect question to ask, to embarrass him and to keep my job. I should have asked was whether the strikes were wrong, whether the rhetoric had got out of hand, and whether it was time for both sides to get round the negotiating table before it happened again.
Because that was the only answer I ever got.