Chloe Smith and how to avoid being Paxo-ed

June 28, 2012 by
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Watching that car crash Chloe Smith interview with Paxman made me (with my media training hat on) think – how would anyone avoid looking like an idiot when faced with five minutes in front of the BBC’s Witchfinder General – with nothing to say?

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Some have criticised the Treasury for putting forward a ‘boy to do a man’s job’ – ie where was George Osborne to defend his own fuel tax U-turn?

Others have blamed lack of media coaching for Chloe Smith.

I don’t think either is right.

I think she stays calm, she’s clearly no fool, and she can speak in exactly the sort of cliche and combination of mixed tenses which suggest she has been ‘trained’ repeatedly – presumably in-house at Conservative Central Office. Now these techniques can work quite well.

But not against Paxo. Try to be clever as a way of avoiding a panic, and the grizly old bear will sense blood. Then who’s looking clever?

So if you are caught in the Smith position – ordered to take a bullet for the boss, how can you escape with least damage to yourself but no embarrassment to him/her either?

First, if you are in a confrontation with someone like Jeremy Paxman, drop the media consultancy rules.  Don’t say ‘Nice Question Jeremy’ in a blatant straight-from-the-textbooks way to buy time and suck up. See also: ‘I hear what you are saying’; ‘You know, that reminds me of …’ ‘Good point.’ etc etc etc. Ban deviation, hesitation and repetition as swiftly as you would in a game of Just a Minute.

Secondly, drop the text book. You’re in a joust with a master. Survival is more important than winning.

So what could Smith have done?

She might have thrown her cards on the table, and fallen back – not on her sword – but on honesty. When Paxman pressed her for the timing of when the changes to fuel tax were announced, what would have been wrong with:

‘Well, Jeremy, I just found out, with my colleagues. I’m a junior minister so although I knew there was a possibility I wasn’t present when my boss made the decision. I’m OK with that. Of course, as you will have been told [hard look at research notes in front of Jeremy to remind him that he too is dependent on instant briefings], I am on record, as preferring a different course of action. But, politics moves fast, and situations change, and here we are. No, this wasn’t my call, and yes, I have only just been told, but if I ever make it to senior level, these will be my calls and my decisions. Until I am the boss, I’ll support my boss.

‘I’m catching up as fast as  I can. So let’s talk about how this will help people.’

Sometimes, as Goethe said:  ‘What is uttered from the heart alone, Will win the hearts of others to your own’.

I doubt Chloe Smith was deliberately setting out to look cocky and disingenuous, and ultimately weak. But that is the impression we have all been left with.

What tips would you give her?

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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2 Comments on "Chloe Smith and how to avoid being Paxo-ed"

  1. Tom Martin June 28, 2012 at 10:43 am · Reply

    I think this is solid advice and it would have also allowed her on to the front foot. The notion that Paxman was surprised that a junior minister wasn’t present when the decision was taken is a bit daft and she should have pointed out he knows full well how decision are taken in government. The faux ignorance was simply an attempt to embarrass her and not effective journalism.

    I think the most disappointing point is that she got bogged down in the process and was sidetracked from making the policy and, perhaps more importantly, political point. She is discussing the finer points of government decision making – not that fuel is 10p a litre cheaper under the government than it would be under Labour. Yes, it’s a U-turn, but it shows the government is reacting to the concerns of those who are struggling with the rising cost of living. Link it to the increase in the tax free allowance and you’re back on message that the government is on the side of hard working families.

    She’ll learn from this and come back stronger, but it’s another example of the inept spinning going at CCHQ that they walked right into this one. It feels like since Hilton left, there’s no central co-ordination of messaging and it’s being left to departments to fill the void. The Treasury spinners don’t have the best track record either- remember they were unaware that #pastytax was trending on Twitter when they briefed the press gallery post Budget.

    • Victoria Lambert June 28, 2012 at 10:54 am · Reply

      Couldnt agree more. There seems to be a real gap in the Government’s professional backup. I have a horrible feeling they are becoming entrenched and refusing to listen to anyone who disagrees. aka the Brown Gambit. And we know how that played out.

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