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Don't LET the Messenger Be Shot

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There's been a lot of debate about THAT Newsnight interview. If I'm honest, the programme's appeal has diminished for me over recent years.

If you want interaction, audience and a better quality of debate, Question Time has become compulsive viewing.

If you're after light-hearted fruity political banter - Blue Nun not Chateu Neuf Du Pape - Andrew Neil serves that up This Week.

And quite frankly, Channel 4 News, Sky and BBC News Channel, Marr et al cover all the others bases. Marr sets the agenda for political hacks on Sunday and the rest offer ample opportunities for politicians to get out there and still have time to influence the following morning's papers.

Newsnight is literally the late comer to the party. It's panel discussions have become VERY dry, very white and very male and they rarely have much influence on the next day's agenda.

But every once in a while it throws up a moment. A moment that can define the problems of a party of government. Paxman's interview of Michael Howard is still used as a staple for media trainers like me in how NOT to reply.

Now we're updating our presentations with the Chloe Smith interview. So was it an act of Paxo 'mysognistic bullying' or an example of an unprepared junior minister not doing their homework?

I think neither. Chloe Smith knew EXACTLY what the truth was but had to stick to the lines set by the Treasury and ultimately her boss. So even after doing an equally underwhelming interview on Channel 4 News that evening, she went on taking one for the team on Newsnight.

At least she had the guts to try and do it. But her continual appearances turned the story away from the good news of freezing an unpopular tax and turned it into a discussion of how the government processed the decision. They actually snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Treasury had refused to put Chloe up for Newsnight there wouldn't have been one item of negative publicity other than a narked on-air line from Paxman saying they'd put a bid in a but the government had said no.

So in future the government comms team should weigh up the two options. An empty seat on a show with only 711,000 viewers. Or put up a minister whose hands you tie so tight you create an 'omnishambles' that defines your boss as a coward and is amplified to millions of views through national newspapers, PMQs and network bulletins.

Ideally you'd go for a third option - brief them properly and let them to tell the truth - that the decision to freeze duty was done that day. Alastair and Jon Freedland came up with some good lines to take to that effect. But that clearly wasn't an option for No11.

So if it must be a choice between the two - empty seat all the way.

Otherwise it goes viral. That clip currently has 390,000 views in just two days (only 10,000 behind Michael Howard - and that clips been on YouTube for five years!) Chloe Smith trended on Twitter most of the following day and it was used as a stick to beat both Cameron and Osborne during PMQs.

As Ronan sang, "you say it best it when you say nothing at all."

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