A politician and an interviewer take their seats on set. The lights go down and as the camera starts rolling, the interrogation begins. This could be the filming of any number of political programmes that are televised daily. In modern times, however, the scene is just as likely to occur in mock-studios as part of a simulated media experience provided by a new generation of British presentation gurus.
On 5 June, the latest politician to seek professional help with public presentation was outed. The Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has been receiving training in public speaking from a “voice and personal impact coach”. In a pleasing twist, his instructor, Kate Firth, happens to be the sister of the actor Colin, whose role as George VI in The King’s Speech, a film about the British monarch triumphing over his stutter, brought Lionel Logue – a rather different kind of speech coach – into the limelight.
Although it is not a new phenomenon, such training, which was once rare, has become the standard. A bland, polished performance style has become the norm among politicians. “The rise of the political class” refers as much to the homogeneity of politicians’ public personae as anything else. Recent improvements in Ed Miliband’s voice (less nasal) and style (calmer and slower) have prompted speculation that the Labour leader, too, has finally sought professional help. In April, he advertised for the role of “head of the leader’s broadcasting”.The grandiose job title emphasises the sense of vanity that provokes suspicion from the public. Yet in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, has media training become necessary for public figures? After all, a car-crash interview can go viral within hours on the internet.
Few politicians appear shy about billing the taxpayer for it. Training by Millbank Media for the ministers Matthew Hancock, Jo Swinson and Viscount Younger of Leckie has cost more than £7,000 combined. At the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Lib Dem secretary of state, Ed Davey, and the junior minister Baroness Verma have spent almost £4,000 on training in TV, radio and print interviews in the past few years.
Caroline Black, who runs a course for staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has spent £450,000 on media training since 2010, described the basics of this kind of coaching. It centres on familiarising people with media processes, teaching public speaking skills, boosting confidence and offering stylistic pointers. She admitted, however: “Every single media trainer – it doesn’t matter who you would speak to – would tell you about a device called ‘bridging’.” This, she explained, is the technique of prevarication, evasion and digression.
So although some aspects of public presentation coaching seem like common sense, we should be wary. The industry also verses our politicians in the dark arts of spin, distortion and evasion.