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March 8, 2023

Ex-No 10 PR chief on demise of ‘gotcha’ interviews, shrinking lobby teams and 2024’s Tiktok election

Giles Kenningham, a former special adviser to PM David Cameron, is a co-host of the Hacks and Flaks podcast.

By William Turvill

A former PR chief for David Cameron’s government believes that telling the public “how news gets made” could help improve trust in Westminster.

Giles Kenningham, a former director of communications for the Conservative Party and special adviser to the prime minister between May 2015 and July 2016, is one of the co-presenters of the Hacks and Flaks podcast. Hosted by journalist Petrie Hosken, the show also features Mick Booker of GB News and Andrew MacDougall, who works with Kenningham at their PR consultancy, Trafalgar Strategy.

Kenningham told Press Gazette he wants to help the public understand how the “sausage gets made”. He said he hopes to emulate some of the success of All Or Nothing, a behind-the-scenes sporting series made by Amazon Prime.

The Hacks and Flaks podcast has so far put out episodes on super-injunctions, royal scandals, fake news and the art of political interviewing.

The demise of ‘gotcha’ interviews

Kenningham, who worked as a producer for ITN before joining the Tory party in 2006, said one of the major changes he’s observed in political journalism over his career is the demise of the “gotcha” interview that was mastered by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and John Humphrys on Today. One of the reasons, he said, was that people in his profession have adapted.

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“Politicians and PR people can predict 95% of questions that come in,” he said. “So if you’re trying to go for someone, they can be media-trained to within an inch of their life. Actually, you’re going to get much more from people by letting them open themselves up.”

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Kenningham said he was an advocate of the “David Frost-style, open, exploratory interviews where people are going to drop their guard or talk too much”. He added: “That classic Today programme interview, you could predict a lot of what’s happening. And obviously, the more you’re interrupting, the more people put their guard up, the more people at home switch off. And you don’t actually come away any the wiser.”

He said personal revelations about politicians – like Theresa May’s disclosure in 2017 that the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was run through a field of wheat – are important because “they go to the heart of someone’s character”.

Kenningham also said he believed that consumers are fed up with “soundbites” and now want interviews to explore: “Who is this person? What do they stand for? What goes to the heart of them?”

He listed the best political interviewers currently as Andrew Neil, Alastair Stewart, BBC Radio 4 PM’s Evan Davis, and Christopher Hope, who is soon to leave The Telegraph for GB News (where Stewart also now works).

Shrinking lobby teams and fewer political scandals

Asked how political journalism in general had changed over the past two decades, Kenningham observed that news operations have smaller teams and are able to dig out fewer scandals.

“When I started lobby teams were bigger and they had more people covering stuff, so they could take longer to do stuff, they could dig into stuff, they could hold people to account,” he said. “Whereas now you have smaller teams who have to file multiple stories on multiple platforms throughout the day and that puts a lot more pressure on them.”

He said, for instance, that the Tory party conference would in the past have been a jittery time for his team “where you were worried about some big scandal erupting because it was the perfect storm: you had all the journalists in a small space, politicians that couldn’t get away from the journalists, probably multiple sources for the journalists in one place”. But now, he said, there has not been “a big political scandal erupt at a conference for a long time”.

Asked if this made life easier for people in his profession, Kenningham said: “I think potentially, yeah.”

2024: The ‘Tiktok election’

Kenningham noted that flaks have been helped as well by the rise of social media platforms, which give politicians their own platform to communicate with millions of voters.

“I suspect the next election will be the Tiktok election,” said Kenningham, looking ahead to 2024.

“Before it would be: I’ve got to get my message out on Radio 4; I’ve got to get my message out in the FT,” he said. “Whereas now you can get the message out on your own platform, right?

“So you can put your message out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tiktok. You have that option in your back pocket. And you can argue, probably knowing the prime minister already has a platform, that you do have a platform where you can still reach the same amount of, if not more, people.”

He added: “It will be interesting to see if Number 10 chooses to do more of that in the run-up to the election, where they say: Right, we’re going to break stories online first because we get it out on our terms and our way and I’m sure if I were there I would be doing this at times…

“Especially on stuff where there are lots of different nuances to it, it’s quite sensitive, and you say: look, I want to have 15 minutes within which to explain this, which I’m not going to have with a broadcast interview.”

As for how the next election will go, Kenningham, who helped guide the Tories to a 2015 majority, does not believe that Keir Starmer’s Labour is as much of a shoo-in for victory as many think.

“For Sunak, [so far] it’s been about needing to reassure people and get trust,” he said. “I think for Starmer, he hasn’t really had to do too much, has he? But I think it’s a high-risk strategy for them to just stand by. And it may work to not do too much and let the Tories implode.

“But I think you need to have something – you need to have a call to action which evokes emotion and people need to be sold on a vision for the future.”

Quickfire questions with Giles Kenningham

Do you have a favourite newspaper? “No.”

Why not? “Each of them has different stuff I like.”

Magazine? The Economist and GQ.

Podcast (apart from Hacks and Flaks)? Politico’s Westminster Insider.

Newsletter? Scott Galloway’s No Mercy/No Malice.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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  • Retired
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