Tax credits: Why is Osborne’s interview less ‘viral’ than Miliband’s on strikes?

Deer-in-headlights chancellor gives the same answer three times


In an interview with Sky News on Monday, shortly after the House of Lords voted to delay his cuts to tax credits, chancellor George Osborne appeared even paler than usual.

What is interesting, aside from his nervous, deer-in-headlights demeanour, is what is goes on to say, which is exactly the same thing in the same words, three times.

This despite the fact that he was asked three different questions.

Now, politicians know that only a few seconds of their interview will be used, so it makes sense to say all the bits you want covered by the media each time. But in the age of 24-hour news, where it’s easier to cover the same thing for longer than cover more stories, interviews of this kind are sometimes broadcast whole.

The advantage of this for the public is it means seeing a politician decline to answer follow-up questions. For the politician, however, it can make them look like a fool, saying the same words over again like a parrot.

A salient example would be from 2011, when Labour party leader Ed Miliband was asked about strikes by public sector workers.

The video went ‘viral’ as viewers online marvelled at his dogged adherence to script, no matter what question he was asked.

Why then does a comparable video of a clearly shaken Osborne repeating the same talking points three times on the trot fail to achieve the same notoriety?

Economist Chris Dillow, in his excellent piece yesterday, dissects the media’s failure to see the scale of the tax credit cuts sooner. He blames in part its generally upbeat (not to say credulous) coverage of the chancellor’s July budget, chronicled by us at the time.

He adds:

“A second problem, I suspect, was a framing effect. We have, said Adam Smith, ‘a disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful.’ This predisposes even ‘neutral’ journalists towards the chancellor.

And the fact that the election victory loomed larger in their memories than the ‘omnishambles’ budget of 2012 exacerbated this tendency to exaggerate Mr Osborne’s talents.”

This tendency is essentially one of class, as well as deference to power, and ought to have no place among serious journalists. The job requires unsleeping scepticism, and a suspicion that power has something to hide.

But it may explain why a video of the chancellor looking a fool is unlikely to provoke the same ridicule as a similar video of Ed Miliband. Increasingly in public politics, what you do is sometimes less important than how you do it.

In other words, presentation matters, and the ability to project an impression of competence, even during a cock up, can save a politician’s bacon.


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Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter

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