Call me a cynic but whenever I hear certain politicians complain about being ‘misrepresented in the media’ I tend to just groan inwardly and rarely if ever do my own research to check whether he or she is telling the truth or just being economical with it.
Of course that’s not to deny that sections of the media do misinterpret – deliberately or otherwise – what politicians say, but equally certain honorable members regularly use the media as a convenient whipping boy when they’re caught saying something either stupid or insulting near a microphone and wish to quickly disassociate themselves from the comment.
With mobile phones/cameras/recorders ready to pounce at every available opportunity it’s a minefield for anyone with any sort of media profile.
So I took myself by surprise a few weeks ago when the right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (above) complained about being misrepresented by the left-wing New Statesman magazine and which indirectly resulted in him being accused of racism on social media and subsequently losing his job as a Government advisor.
What he said during the interview with the N.S. deputy editor George Eaton was “Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that’s a very frightening thing”. [To read the full transcript log onto the N.S. website .] He also made remarks about Muslims and the millionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros (who also happens to be Jewish) which were deemed racist in tone and substance by many people on social media and by indeed by Eaton himself in his social media posts.
Of course he didn’t just come out with the statement a propos of nothing, it was part of a recorded conversation which if you listen to it he is clearly referring to the communist government in China, not ‘all Chinese people’.
But this blog is not specifically about the rights and wrongs of Sir Roger Scruton’s complaint that he was misrepresented, or about the actions of the journalist in question – both have already been widely debated over the past few weeks.
It’s about how in 2019 even experienced interviewees can get caught up in a harmful storm despite their assumed knowledge of how the media works.
After George Eaton tweeted about the remarks, it set off a twitterstorm which it’s believed eventually lead to Scruton losing his Government advisor role, despite arguing that he’d been badly misrepresented in the article. Eaton also posted a photo of himself on Instagram swigging from a bottle of champagne in celebration of Scruton’s sacking, which was later deleted.
Maybe not his finest hour as a journalist.
Eaton apologized for his social media content but stuck by his article.
“I stand by the accuracy of my interview but apologise for my social media conduct”.
What particularly interests me about the controversy is that the implications of Scruton’s ill-chosen phraseology were in a way the result of a perfect storm of ‘new’ and ‘old’ media.
A traditional print journalist’s recording of an interview usually serves as a fact-check/quote-check for when he/she is writing the article, it is rarely meant for broadcast. Indeed in this case when the controversy was at its height NS had according to Scruton refused to send him a copy of the original recording.
A copy however mysteriously found its way to his in-tray (anonymously) presumably by someone at the New Statesman. He then made it available to the right-wing magazine The Spectator and it was then picked up by other media, including the BBC.
Having arguably been outflanked by their rivals, the New Statesman responded by printing a transcript of the interview and the issue rumbled on.
BEFORE THE STORM
For those of us who aren’t philosophers, writers or journalists but who are occasionally asked to appear on the media this is an object lesson in not only making sure you choose your words correctly when being interviewed but also remembering that your words can take on a life of their own once they’re put on record, even if they’re not originally intended for broadcast.
Nowadays, a careless phrase can spin out of control and cause damage to reputation and career or individuals and organizations at the drop of a hat.
Which is why we emphasize Preparation, Preparation and Preparation in our crisis communications and media training workshops.
Whether it’s an interview for print, online, broadcast or all three.
I believe that had Sir Roger been a bit more careful with his use of language ….the Chinese comment, the reference to ‘huge tribes of Muslims’, to name just two phrases..then the controversy would have probably not have created that much of a stir outside of the political bubble of Westminster.
And he would have kept his job, for good or ill.
Whether you’re a supporter of his political views or not he is certainly someone who prides himself on his precise use of language so if he can come unstuck then it can surely happen to anyone of us.
When he was interviewed for BBC radio and podcast what struck me was that for someone of such experience who has been featured in the media for many years he comes over as remarkably naïve in thinking that a journalist would not pick up on some of his colourful/controversial phrases and use them in a headline or tweet to attract attention to the article.
That’s what journalists do and have done for many years.
Indeed should anyone really be surprised when the deputy editor of a left-wing political magazine writes an article that is critical of a right-wing writer whose views are well-known to anyone who takes more than a passing interest in political discourse? The same is true in reverse.
They are writing for their audience.
And while coming close in his BBC interview to admitting his errors with his phraseology Scruton himself should surely have been a lot more savvy when preparing for his interview.
He wasn’t being interviewed by a fellow academic for a philosophy magazine and so his words and phrases should surely have reflected that.
Audience awareness is key when preparing for an interview whether you’re being interviewed by a parish magazine or by the Today programme.
It’s a point we raise throughout our media training whatever your level of experience. If you’re not fully aware about who will see or hear your interview how can you possibly get the messaging right?
When being interviewed you make sure you get your message right for the audience you’re addressing.
On this occasion Sir Roger Scruton clearly didn’t.