If you’re not one of the tens of thousands of people who have viewed the clip online, it goes like this: the interviewer asks the Leader of the Opposition about his views of the public sector strikes last week. Ed responds with his carefully calibrated soundbite that he believes the strikes are wrong when negotiations are underway, the government has acted in a ‘reckless and provocative manner’ and both sides need to ‘set aside the rhetoric’ and ‘get around the negotiating table to stop this happening again.’
The interviewer asks the question again, in a slightly different way. Ed answers again, hitting every one of his prepared lines like a true pro. The interviewer has another go, but Ed’s no fool; he sticks to his lines with admirable detirmination. This happens a further three times, but Ed does not deviate an inch from the language he’s agreed with his advisers. Job done. Mission accomplished.
Now press the pause button for a moment.
Anyone who’s been on a media training course, or advised a client before a big interview, or been either side of a TV camera, knows that this is the approach that any spokesperson on TV adopts. In the knowledge that the broadcasters only want a 20 or 30 second clip to slot into a package on the evening news, a professional interviewer will decide what he or she wants to say, and say it regardless of the assinine or tricksy interviewers’ questions. This ability to stick to a line, to remain unruffled by questions of the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ variety, and to emerge post-interview without a single deviation or hesitation, is what constitutes sound political communications. Its how Ed was trained to perform, at the feet of some of the masters. It’s what makes him a safe pair of hands.
But move the tape forward. What happened next breaks all of the unspoken rules of the game, and means that no senior politician will be able to use the’ repeat ad nauseam’ device ever again. A lot of training companies will have to redesign their courses. Because instead of editing the soundbite into a news package, the whole interview appeared on the internet, and became a viral hit. The old world just clashed with the new world. Like the conquistadors landing on the South American coastline, there can be only one victor.
How people laughed, seeing a politician repeat themselves, using the same words over and over again. Hilarious. What a robot! An automaton! The fact that every politician from Harold Wilson onwards has used exactly the same technique was not allowed to spoil the fun. Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher, Paddy Ashdown, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Diane Abbott, Alex Salmond, Screaming Lord Sutch: they’ve all done it. Everyday,the metaphorical floor of every edit suite in the land is littered with cuttings of politicians repeating the ‘lines to take.’ Every political journalist hears the same thing every day of the week. But not any longer.
It is entirely possible that Ed Miliband is the last senior politician ever to use such a technique. None will now risk the humiliation of a viral YouTube hit. Politicians and their advisers will have to dream up cannier ways of making their points. ‘Lines to take’ will have to sound natural, fluent, colloquial, and conversational. Answers will have to sound like they are addressing the actual question, not parroting a pre-arranged script. Interviewers will long for a viral hit to make their name. Politicians will work even harder to avoid the much-feared ‘car crash’ interview.
In the digital age, speaking human is back in fashion.
Paul Richards' latest book Labour's Revival is out now.