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Caught on camera - unscripted truths

TV studio camera
By Tim Le Couilliard
05 September 2023
Corporate Reputation
media training

TV interviews are daunting. They have the potential to become iconic, immortalised in film, then cut and unmercifully edited for YouTube (or worse - turned into a meme). Even the most seasoned media professionals can find themselves in a tight spot when live, and an ill-timed slip-up can haunt a career. While good interviews often go unnoticed, we all recognise a bad one when we see one.

With interviews, you meticulously prepare for your time on screen. You’ve likely been media-trained to within an inch of your sanity, with everyone around you preparing for every conceivable twist and turn. No stone left unturned - every possible curveball thrown your way. Come the interview, you’ll run through your key points, recite your scripted statements, think on your feet, and, with a bit of luck, manage to look like you've got it all under control.  

“And cut.”

You are now off air. You can relax, surely? No longer an automatic answering machine, but back to being a person again. But as one interviewee recently found out, the camera may well be still rolling and the mic may still be ‘hot’.  

If you weren’t familiar with Gillian Keegan before, the events of the past week have probably changed that. The Education Secretary has become a regular presence on our screens and across the airwaves.

As most pupils returned to school this week after their long summer holidays, some are not because they are unfortunate enough to attend schools that are made of “reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete” aka “RAAC” otherwise known as “bubbly concrete”. Built last century, some schools made with the material are beginning to crumble and now must be rebuilt before children return. A job for the Department for Education. 

And what a “f***ing good job” they are doing, right? Well, that’s what Gillian Keegan certainly thinks, having faced a bruising interview with ITV News earlier this week that challenged her department’s leadership on the issue. When the interview came to an end, Keegan, after a pause, said that whilst others had “sat on their arse and done nothing” she had dealt with the situation (not mentioning that she had in fact been on holiday last week). Keegan, seemingly unaware that the cameras and microphone were still on, gave her off-the-cuff remarks that have arguably gained more attention than the rest of the interview itself.

Maybe that was her master plan all along? If Keegan and her team were hoping to shift the narrative on the RAAC issue and assign blame elsewhere, this would be the perfect way to do it – an off-the-record, yet very much on-camera comment. Some argue that it showed her to be authentic – a glimpse into the fact that Keegan is, in fact, human, complete with frustrations and a vocabulary that matches the rest of us in a typical workplace. She certainly spoke candidly, which is not something that is often said about our politicians. Are we now finding it easier to relate to Keegan, and perhaps now wondering “Has she actually done a decent job?”

While Keegan used a profanity that could get a student suspended or a teacher reprimanded, it could have been worse. Granted, as Education Secretary, she wouldn’t want students to hear such words, but in her defence, she would be forgiven for anticipating that it wouldn’t make it into the final edit.

But perhaps she should have known better. She’s not the first politician to make headlines for comments “not fit for broadcast”. Recall former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was caught on a hot mic calling a Labour supporter a “bigoted woman”. After a heated exchange Rochdale’s Gillian Duffy, who had challenged him on the economy and mass immigration, Brown got into his car, forgot about the microphone, and vented his frustration. Unhappy with his aide's advice to even entertain the encounter, he delivered that infamous line and only discovered the consequences later that evening, leading to a public apology.

More recently during the coronavirus pandemic when the government seemingly opened itself up to more transparency and scrutiny than ever before with daily press conferences, we saw a lot more of Allegra Stratton. Stratton, a seasoned journalist herself who served as Downing Street Press Secretary under Boris Johnson, resigned in December 2021 after footage was released of her joking with colleagues during a practice lobby briefing about a Christmas party that took place in Downing Street while the country was in a lockdown. Despite knowing they were on camera, Stratton gave away more than she should, but little did she know that the clip would make its way to the press, ultimately sealing her fate.

In the old days, you would “cut” a recording to save on film. Whilst this is no longer necessary, there is always an end to an interview, be that through shouting “cut” or a presenter clearly signalling the end. That said, the age-old adage that nothing is ever off the record when journalists are in the room holds true, particularly when they are holding a microphone and camera. The lesson here is clear: when in doubt, assume the mic is always hot, and remember - you’re just one viral moment away from a new kind of stardom.