Ambush! The Graham Linehan Story
"Fine, if they were going to ambush me, I would ambush right back. I decided not to play. "Graham Linehan talking about the Radio 4 'Today' programme team.
In 2011 Graham Linehan, the writer, performer and prince of twitter (Stephen Fry is the King) appeared as a guest on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.
It didn't end well.
I still use his appearance and subsequent push back, as an example of how media engagement can go wrong if you don't know the rules.
The problem is, journalists and producers don't always tell you what the rules are. It's a bit like 'Mornington Crescent' you enjoy other people playing, but as soon as you have a go you get it wrong.
Here's best practice for your next media appearance...
If you are invited to take part in a radio programme the production team should tell you the reason that you're going on. The BBC are obliged to do this according to the BBCs own guidelines.
Individuals should normally be appropriately informed about the planned nature and context of their contributions when they are asked to take part in BBC content and give their consent, unless there is an editorial justification for proceeding without their consent.
To put this particular story into context Graham Linehan kindly sent me a copy of the prep email he received from the 'Lady Killers' publicist which told him that...
The Today prog, has rung to confirm tomorrow. With a slight twist. You will be having a discussion with Michael Billington theatre critic about the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage. The idea of trying to capture all that was good about the old film and put that into a stage version that both presents something new and also doesn't disappoint the originalists[sic]. They have suggested a little research chat this evening.
It all looks innocuous; it's got a 'slight twist'. The 'slight twist' was that it was the traditional 08.50 Bun Fight Slot.
Graham also explained what happened during the 'little research chat'
"They asked me to call at 9.30pm, which kind of cut into the evening in an annoying way but what the hell, this was important. Six seasons into 'Larry Sanders', I know how useful these pre-show interviews can be to the host.
So I waited till the appointed time and phoned the number I'd been given.
The researcher (producer?) on the other end of the line seemed surprised to be hearing from me. I told him why I was calling.
"Oh, well, we don't really need to do that." (I'm paraphrasing, but it was along those lines). "Hold on a second." Pause. He came back on the line. "No, I'll do it now..."
He went straight into the first question.
I can't remember what it was. Might have been something to do with how I got involved with the production. That’s usually the first port of call. But it certainly did not contradict the contents of the email I’d received. I would have remembered that.
His second question, I’ve no trouble recalling.
“Have you seen the Tom Hanks one?”
“Er...yeah. It was...you know...it had its moments.”
“OK, I think that’s fine! See you tomorrow morning!”
That was it. That was the research chat."
As a journalist and a producer (of hard and soft news), as someone who's interviewed more than 20,000 people, as someone who's set up debate after debate after debate...
That was some pretty poor briefing.
How do you avoid this, half-arsed-no-one-quite-sure-what’s-going-on-journo-on-the-fag-end-of-a-shift-so-it-all-goes-wrong, briefing?
For a start you need to know that this can happen.
The person Graham spoke to at the BBC could well have been on a different shift pattern to the person who set up the interview. The person who set it up may have left inadequate handover notes in the running order…
Newsrooms are busy places, and sometimes things get missed.
However, by that time the damage had already been done. The “appropriately informed about the planned nature and context of their contributions” bit had already fallen down by the time the publicist had been talking to the production team. They had described the interview as having a ‘slight twist’ that twist wasn’t slight…
When you are first asked to appear you need to ask as many questions as possible, you need to know the purpose, tone and direction of the interview, you need to know if there's going to be anyone else in the studio and you need to lay agree some mutual ground rules for your appearance. This last bit may sound a little harsh, but the ground rules are really there to make sure that if you are invited in to talk about a new business opportunity, you shouldn't face questions on other topics.
When you arrive at a studio, double check with the producer why you are there. There is a possibility that overnight something may have changed and a guest that they didn't inform you about returned a call late and confirmed that they could take part. Unless you are the story you can expect this from time to time, it's likely that you're not the only person that they approached.
If that other persons involvement changes the tone or direction of why you're there feel free to pull out. I know, that sounds a bit scary, but it's a quid pro quo arrangement with a broadcaster and if you're uncomfortable with the change in circumstance, be polite, explain the situation and then walk... do bear in mind that, chances are, you won't be the first person that they call next time they need a spokesperson.
OK, so you've decided to stay under the changed arrangement it's time to re-establish the ground rules. Has there been a change in the news agenda? Often a guest coming in for one thing has the possibility of commenting on another breaking story, but they need to ask if you're ok with that.
So what if it all goes wrong? The ground rules are established, the production team have briefed you, you're happy with the direction and tone, you know what you don't want to be asked about and so do they... and then a giddy presenter decides to step over the line. Stay polite, keep calm, and a response of "I can't really answer that now" or "I don't feel that's something that I'm able to talk about at this time" usually shuts the presenter down. If they persist, call them on it. "I'm sorry but I was asked on to the programme to discuss x I think that it's a little shabby that you're ambushing me with y" Editors and producers don't like it when they are exposed on air, you may sound pompous and uncooperative, but they sound like they are being underhanded with you, and no one likes getting an official complaint that then has to be followed through. Having dealt with them, they can be a lot of paperwork.
Here's the final caveat to this... remember what it says in the producer guidelines? 'unless there is an editorial justification for proceeding without their consent.'
The BBC don't really need to ask you any of this, if they can prove that there is Editorial Justification to do so. If your company has just killed all the fish in a 60 mile radius of HQ and you're the spokesperson put up to explain stuff, then don't expect them to be nice...