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One of the minor arts of broadcast journalism is the vox pop – a handy, if often overused, way to get real people into reports. I can let you into the secret of what makes a good one - It’s down to closed or open questions.
A closed question such as “do you think so-and-so should go?” is a bad question because it invites a monosyllabic answer.
An open question like “Some people think so-and-so should go. Others say he should stay. What do you think and why?” gets an answer in sentence form and with an opinion.
The Johnson Cummings merry-go-round of recent days reminded me of the time when I was working with a reporter who was addicted to closed questions. I ended up elbowing him out the way and asking the questions myself.
I was reminded of my uncomradely behaviour when I heard that Dominic Cummings was doing his own news conference, the very day after Boris Johnson had defended and sought to exonerate his adviser. Like me, he clearly thought I can do a better job myself; proof that Cummings doesn’t buy into the idea that Johnson is a good communicator.
In the event, Cummings rose garden sit-in was its own kind of car crash, especially as he revealed he’d gone on a 50-mile drive to test his eyesight. He substantiated the main thrust of The Guardian/ Mirror reporting which had been rubbished by Downing Street only a couple of days earlier.
An interesting video dissection of the Cummings statement is provided by Financial Times legal columnist David Allan Green QC. He says “wWhen faced with a serious risk of liability or exposure to liability...somebody with access to lawyers and with a certain degree of power and determination can structure what happened in a way which makes it as difficult as possible for that liability to actually be imposed upon them.”
But in the court of public opinion Cummings was found guilty. The polling numbers were awful and worse he has succeeded in making himself a household name. He provoked the Daily Star to the almost unheard move of putting a political story on the front page. The Daily Star printed a cut-out-and-keep Dominic Cummings mask on its front page, telling readers: “Can’t be arsed to stick to the rules like the rest of us? Simply wear this handy Dom face covering and you’ll get away with murder.” Tory MPs were inundated with emails from voters. More than 50 called for him to go and another 50 expressed concern.
Boris Johnson was desperate to “move on” but when he appeared before senior MPs on the Liaison Committee he was skewered by committee chair Yvette Cooper. “The reason you’re not giving people a straight answer is you’re trying to protect Dominic Cummings,” she said. He was putting that imperative above the national interest.
Johnson suggested it was time to “lay aside party political point-scoring”. But a striking feature of this session, according to Conservative Home’s Andrew Gimson “was that Conservatives were just as eager as opposition MPs to give the PM a bloody nose. Simon Hoare, Greg Clark, Jeremy Hunt, Robert Halfon, Caroline Nokes, Mel Stride and Huw Merriman were among the Tories who proceeded to do so. This sort of punishment cannot continue. Johnson’s defiance just annoys people. He will have to find some way to conciliate them.”
The verdict of Alex Massie in the Spectator was that the “appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee once again revealed a prime minister painfully out of his depth.”
I think that is true for both bits of the Cummings–Johnson regime. Neither is as smart as they pretend to be. Welcome to the Dim and Dom show.
By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent
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