11/02/2015 03:49 GMT | Updated 12/04/2015 06:59 BST

How to Get Out of a Hole in a Live TV Interview

At one time or another, we've all found ourselves in the middle of a conversation we'd rather not be having; it's particularly awkward when this happens to be played out on live TV. The other night on the BBC's Newsnight Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls found himself struggling to remember the surname of the (sole?) business leader he'd met recently who supported Labour. Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna had a similarly tricky moment a couple if weeks ago with Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News, when asked unexpectedly to comment on a letter the Prime Minister had sent to British Muslim leaders.  After a difficult exchange he pulled off his microphone and walked out - never a smart thing to do, even if only because there are so many things you could trip over in a TV studio you might risk making yourself look even more panicky and foolish.

Nowadays, with hundreds of local, national and international TV and radio channels, when everyone is their own brand and far more individuals and big company representatives can find themselves being interviewed on the air, how do you extricate yourself from awkward moments like these?  After all, if you are in a hole, the best advice is always to stop digging.


So if you are the one in the spotlight, whatever the topic, don't just be reactive - think hard about what you really want to get across, and do your best to anticipate any awkward questions, so you are not caught on the hop. Ed Balls will have known he might be pressed to name Labour business supporters - he should have had a few names to hand, so that if he forgot one he could remember another.

Otherwise, if like Mr Umunna you are being pressed on a question you are unable (or do not want to) answer - stick to your guns.  If you've already given the appropriate answer, you can say (in a politely reasonable way) something like "I don't think there's much I can add to what I've already said on that, for the reason ...." - then repeat if necessary.  When you feel you have made your position clear - with unfailing charm - try to move the conversation on to something more constructive. This particular interview was unusual in that Chuka Umunna was given the opportunity to come back on to the programme in half an hour when he did have a view - but he could simply have said he was unable to because of prior commitments that would preclude this, and carried on. It may feel annoying and unfair at the time, even if an interviewer is being difficult or rude, you still have to be extremely polite - this is very much in your best interests if you want to come over as good-humoured and human, rather than grumpy and defensive.  

Of course politicians have a fine line to draw between being too slick and on-message on the one hand, and amateurish or gaffe-prone on the other. Ian Katz, the editor of Newsnight, is on record as saying that if we are to get away from the typical, unproductive shouting-match type of political interview, politicians need to be more willing to explain themselves, and more open about admitting where they have made mistakes.

I think this applies to everyone else too, including bankers and other under-fire business representatives. In return Katz admits the broadcasters should give at least some interviews more time to breathe, even if that means viewers have to put up with a few more 'boring snoring' bits. It's a lovely theory but a number of TV journalists sill take the approach made famous by Jeremy Paxman of 'why is this bastard lying to me?' and want to show they're being tough. Viewers also find car-crash interviews far too entertaining, so I suspect presenters will continue to try and push interviewees when circumstances demand, to try and provide those memorable moments. If you find yourself on the spot, just keep your cool, stick to the point and try to make sure that you're not the one being run over.