BLOG: How could Care Minister Helen Whately MP have handled Piers Morgan on GMB?

What leads to political car-crash interviews and the motivation behind it

Firstly, this aims to examine a little of the professional style of Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan, but not critique his personality, despite Ofcom receiving 643 complaints so far about his treatment of Ms Whately. He is what he is and ministers need to know what they're letting themselves in for. Neither is this a comment piece on Helen Whately's abilities as Care Minister. The media is a game you have to learn to play - and train for. Exactly like sports women and men. 

I worked on GMB’s two predecessor breakfast shows for the best part of a decade, and this is an entirely different style of journalism and presenting. At GMTV, correspondents used to make it on air, news was on time and presenters didn’t shout over each other to pitch their questions. The programme now has a very American format, editorialising in a way which no other news shows on UK terrestrial networks attempt and setting up their agenda for combative, event-tv style rows.  

Why government ministers will be given a rougher ride than you

The good news for you, as a professional leader or spokesperson, is that you're unlikely to encounter questions with the same ferocity as senior political figures, voted in to run a country, for an electorate to whom they remain permanently accountable. You might though, if you lead a firm which has been accused of a catastrophic failure and you are attempting to demonstrate transparency. Think, Boeing, Persimmon, too many to mention, who all lost their leaders after poor comms handling.

So while the ‘Marmite’ factor ensures people shout at the telly in agreement or anger at Morgan’s aggressive style, it’s worth remembering a few things, before I turn to the Care Minister’s tumultuous train-wreck interview, (insert preferred transport metaphor, i.e., one on which you haven’t travelled for a month!). 

What's making Morgan 'tick'?

Piers Morgan ‘owns’ that show and provides punchy, sensationalist interviews to beat up an interviewee, in the full knowledge that more people have been watching Joe Wicks’s workout routines live on You Tube in the mornings, than ITV breakfast. (Piers and Susanna have been getting around 700,000 in recent years, since COVID, circa 900K.) If Piers claims a particularly resonant scalp, which is then clipped up on You Tube, it may have millions more viewers, promoting the show and gaining revenue. So it’s in his interest to adopt this style – there’s a commercial aspect and he fits the bill right now. He'd probably tell you it's all about getting to the truth. Being what? On whose terms? From whose perspective? 

One tenet of journalism I would support Morgan on, however, is the right to ask the necessary tough questions of those in power, on behalf of 'joe public', and those care workers with seemingly less of a voice. He also asks mostly relevant, apposite  questions. Except, they don't have less of a voice in 2020. They did in 2000 with linear media and no 'social'. But now a nurse with a mobile phone can film her own video diary, shaming the government with a picture that tells a 1000 words, and have way more impact than a Piers Morgan shout-fest at 8am. If it goes viral, job done - or send it to mainstream media. 

In my book Handling the Media in Good Times & Bad, I mention the fable of the frog and scorpion crossing a river – basically, you won’t change an animal’s behaviour simply because you ask it to.

If you’re a leader on the ropes, you won’t successfully negotiate with Morgan or his producers beforehand, he’ll ask what he wants and take it in the direction he chooses. He listens just enough to reflect back a phrase used by his quarry moments before, so for example, with Matt Hancock this week saying; “I think that misjudges the public mood - to quote your phrase". Morgan isn’t a particularly skilled active listener, whereby he would slowly draw people out, by the art of listening then dissecting, in the manner that say, his friend Emily Maitlis, employs. He can, by contrast, interview case-study guests with compassion and present himself as a man of the people. He is also robustly calling to account, the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis on a daily basis with some gusto. GMB’s scrutiny to that effect, is to some degree, admirable. But it's also perceived as bullying, hence the complaints.

It’s a game. And if you get the rules of engagement wrong or don’t play the game well, you’ll get a kicking, as Matt Hancock did on Thursday’s show when the pair had a row about interviewing and answering style. Don't forget who gets the final word, and it's never the minister. As Morgan said “you don't actually run this show, but I’ll let you answer the questions...” 

Interviewers, not just Morgan, get increasingly frustrated if the government narrative remains that they got nothing wrong, were fully prepared for every eventuality and have handled everything 100%. It's just not believable in its entirety. A few miles away in France, President Emmanuel Macron, whilst riding high on an approval ratings surge in March, has candidly accepted they were unprepared for COVID-19. Is it time Boris changed the vinyl to a slightly more honest tune?

The controversy for Care Minister Helen Whately erupted after Morgan held up the front page of the Daily Mail, headlined “4,000 feared dead in our care homes”, for Ms Whately to see. But as she was unable to see the paper at her end of the link, she appeared to laugh. Tone, manner and professional poise counts for a huge part of your success. She appeared to try to handle the situation in difficult circumstances, but was losing her self composure and looked flustered for much of the exchange. 

 Part of this, I suspect, was a nervous reaction to what was starting to feel like a ridiculous exchange with ITV’s grand inquisitor. Responding to this, Morgan said: “I’m showing viewers the Daily Mail front page. “I don’t know why you’re laughing. Why are you laughing?”

After the broadcaster told her it says 4,000 people may have died in care homes, the Tory responded: “My reaction just then was because you said you’d show me something, but I’ve been asked to set up the camera so I’m looking into it, so I can’t see what you are doing.”

It’s not a good idea to smile or laugh on a remote link given such a grave topic. Solid remote-link media training could’ve equipped her to maintain her ministerial, compassionate, poker-face and deal with the issue.

But when Morgan pressed Ms Whately on whether the figures quoted by the Daily Mail were correct, she tried to avoid answering the question. After she appeared to laugh again, Morgan asked: “I literally just asked you is it true that 4,000 elderly people have died in hospital, and all you can do is laugh? What’s the matter with you?” Oh dear, that's the moment where all control was lost and he could smell blood. 

Ms Whately responded: “I’m not laughing. Please don’t suggest for a minute that I’m laughing, because it does feel like you’re shouting at me.” “We literally just saw you laughing,” Morgan said.


What could Helen Whately have done?

Now hindsight is 20/20, but she could’ve said something, with lots of compassion, like:

“Firstly Piers, every death is a personal tragedy and my condolences to those who’ve lost a loved one. I know what that feels like. (she did say we value every life), but it would not be right for me to speculate based on a newspaper headline – the Mail isn’t a primary source of official statistics. Added to that, there’s a statistical lag from the Easter holiday weekend and I’m sorry, but we don’t have that exact information. (inevitably interrupted), if you please let me finish – as soon as I have that information from reliable, trusted sources such as the ONS, on which we can make accurate and sensible decisions, I’ll share it with you.. but what I would say is…” go on to reassure care workers, residents and families of residents and repeat main announcement on testing, (in the knowledge you are talking to predominantly women viewers).

Morgan goes in for the kill

It wasn't even a relevant question to current circumstances, just the throwaway end of interview, 'what-if' speculative question, but it was enough to up-end the minister. Morgan asked her six times how she would vote if there was a Commons motion to lift the cap on health care workers’ pay, which she clumsily avoided, before exasperatedly stumbling; “it’s not a thing that’s even happening…”

Ms. Whately could have;

- suggested she’d like to think that if the economic conditions were right, she would vote differently next time since everyone in the sector deserves rewarding. But as it’s not the main issue for now, that she won’t be drawn to speculate – bridge to a main narrative about ramping up testing in homes, / the reason she’s come on / her message of reassurance to care home residents, workers and families.

 - refused to speculate on future fiscal policy/motions, that’s not the issue right here, right now – bridge to narrative. What’s important for care workers is…

- politely explain to Piers that while you understand why his questions are binary, this is not a binary issue.  Be more open about the challenges, as per the health narrative this week on care, “I’ll level with you – the challenge for getting PPE and testing kits to hospitals is different, as there are a few hundred health trusts. In the care sector, there are almost 22 THOUSAND care homes, creating logistical challenges. We’re working tirelessly to address these in ways, such as…." Then tell us what the plan is.

Effective communications is an art form

Communicating effectively with journalists isn’t about a 90-minute media refresher, then hope for the best, duck and dive, pray you won’t get ambushed or gunned down by the presenter, (to join the army of journalists’ war metaphors around at the moment).

It is an art form, developed over time and with nuance, practice and skill, like a footballer getting a perfect cross into a six-yard box, or an athlete who practices until they shave ½ a second off their time. You can’t robotically snatch a government line-to-take and ‘ABC’ it to the bridge, (like James Brown). Our media training now works on at least five techniques which take time to rehearse, develop and build, alongside your key narrative. (COVID-caveat; Mentor Media Training is presently providing bite-sized,  remote webinar-style training sessions to clients which deliver these techniques and offer practice, but they'll need to maintain the muscle-memory).

Special Advisors, (SPADs in government departments), need to ensure those ministers aren’t just briefed, but take the story forward, giving us news, an announcement or something that will counter the narrative of the presenter and sensational newspaper headlines. Ms Whately tried this with the 'ramping up testing' line, but it was buried because she'd lost control of the tone and direction of the interview and couldn't reframe, or bring it back to her agenda. Repetition of that might have served her better.

Equally, every minister appearing on GMB at 8.40 for the daily political update interview, could simply watch the previous day's interview with Morgan to see which questions they're going to be asked! He's deliberately asking the same questions about 'genuine' numbers of deaths to every minister, every day! They ALL need to get across the public health brief far better when representing the Government on national TV and BE FULLY AWARE of policy which led us here, ie, Exercise Cygnus, the pandemic preparation simulation in 2016!

If Ofcom upholds hundreds of complaints, the public mood may yet be found in Ms Whately's favour and call out Morgan as a bully, but for now, she is another You Tube scalp, generating clickbait for ITV and undermining a very thin cast of reliable government media performers. [*update 28.4.20: Ofcom dismissed the complaints, finding in favour of ITV scrutinising politicians].

The big lesson here, as ever - it’s never good when the interviewee becomes the story.

Get trained, get practicing tough interviews with experienced journalist trainers in a safe environment, and get a robust narrative with some calls to action.

As Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Radio 4, moments before his bust up with Piers Morgan; “How we communicate as a government, as ministers, has a direct impact on the amount of cases that we have, and therefore the amount of people who die.”

[Dave was a founder and launch voice of Somerset’s first commercial radio station, Orchard FM in 1989, going on to present and produce programmes at HTV West, BBC Radio 5 and Radio 1, ITV News, and Breakfast TV station, GMTV.

He is the author of the media training bible, 'Handling the Media in Good Times & Bad', published by Rudling House.] 

Article Author: Dave Mason

Dave is Mentor Media Training's Managing Director. He is a CIPR Accredited Practitioner and regularly trains for the PR industry institute. His extensive career in broadcasting spans 30 years across radio and television. He has coached executives from major public and private sector organisations, as well as the UK Armed Forces/NATO, around the world for the past decade. Dave is respected for his inspiring training, which is supportive and concentrates on fast learning development. A founding presenter and shareholder of Somerset’s Orchard FM, he went on to work extensively in commercial radio around the UK, as well as BBC News, where he was a Correspondent at BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 1 Newsbeat. Dave has been a TV presenter, reporter and producer at ITN, GMTV, (ITV Breakfast), ITV News Westcountry and HTV West. He was one of GMTV’s senior producers for a decade, covering major international, domestic, political and entertainment stories. His roles have included senior news producing and planning, undercover investigations, war reporting and features production. He still broadcasts as a crisis communications pundit on LBC, BBC Radio and is a visiting lecturer at the Universities of Bath Spa, Gloucestershire and the Cardiff School of Journalism. He is the author of 'Handling the Media In Good Times & Bad'.