We are used to politicians refusing to answer questions – either directly or at all. It is very bad for their reputation. I dealt with it in part in my book What’s Wrong? See below.
It often occurs to me that television interviewers – such as Kay Burley on Sky News (UK) – should have the benefit of a rule to the effect of our rules of Supreme Court pleading. If one party does not deal specifically with an allegation of another party, that allegation will be taken to have been admitted – a mere general denial is not sufficient.
So, if a Tory MP refuses to deal with a specific question, and just rolls out the party line on the issue currently fixating the English, Kay Burley can say that they may be taken to have admitted the answer to the question in a manner adversely to them – as the price of their repeated failure to deal with it. On behalf of her viewers, she rejects an implicit claim to a right of silence.
And, to her credit, that is I think just what Kay Burley does.
There should be more of it.
Evading the question: Extracts from What’s Wrong?
Here are some of the most popular techniques.
- Restate or reframe the question so that you can answer it in a way that is favourable to yourself. Mediators are trained to do this in a good way to try to take some heat out of the dispute. It is notorious that opinion polls can be slanted by the way the question is framed. ‘Do you think it is in the public interest for the media to have more protection – more freedom of speech, if you like – in reporting on political issues?’ That is very different to: ‘Should we give Rupert Murdoch carte blanche to walk all over us in political cat fights?’ Instead of saying what your party has done, say what its policy is. This is very common – offering motherhood in place of fact. Alternatively, instead of talking about policy, say what your party has in fact done. This simple if blatant evasion is standard. For question A you have response X; for question B you have response Y; and so on.
- Challenge a premise of the question. ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ is objectionable as it assumes that you do beat your wife. What about ‘Why do you call this informant a whistle-blower? He is just a common garden snitch and liar.’ ‘I object to your labelling this man as a conservative. He is a closet lefty … anarchist … alarmist’ – and so on.
- If you get a chance to say that the question is ambiguous, think about saying so. (Some lawyers think that if their opponent looks clumsy, it may be best to leave them to try to dog paddle to shore on their own.)
- Brand the question as hypothetical and say that you don’t answer hypothetical questions. (This may sometimes be true.)
- Or invoke some other trite label. ‘I don’t engage in the Canberra bubble’, ‘water cooler gossip’, ‘locker room banter’, ‘hearsay’, ‘bloviations of the elites’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘politically motivated …’, ‘fake news’ or ‘deep state’. Or, I speak to ‘quiet Australians’ (who never answer back). Or, ‘I am not into the politics of envy’ (but don’t wind me up on Cartier watches). You can get the full range of this nonsense every day in the press. Seasoned operatives take the view that the more meaningless and inflammatory the label, the better off the response. It may depend on the acuity of the audience.
- If asked about the past, say that you are focussed on the future. One Australian Minister, whose sense is matched by their deportment – the avoidance of gender is deliberate – always ‘looks to move on’. (Walking backwards for Christmas does not enjoy a good pedigree.) Then, when asked about the future, you decline to speculate on the suppositious or academic. The golden template is in these immortal lines from possibly the greatest movie ever made:
Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
But, alas, that kind of spark is missing from those who bring coals into the Australian Parliament.
- If the matter is sensitive – say, gun control or climate change – say that current or recent events make it in bad taste to allow ‘political point scoring’ to cloud delicate and personal issues. You can use the word opportunistic – and hope that you are not asked to say what you mean.
- A primary object is to keep onside that part of the audience that fears doubt and is made insecure by a want of finality (sometimes known as ‘the base’ – a useful double entendre). That sadly is a large part of the audience (although not as large in Australia as in the United States). For that purpose, keep serving up the same old platitudes. The simpler, the better. But be careful about mixing escalation and increase in volume with repetition.
- Be like a good poker player. Just bluff hard and big, and look them dead in the eye and dare them to call you out. After all, this is all about saving face. You could model this aspect on President Xi. (Who would play poker with that sphinx?)
- Blind them with science or big words. This is mandatory in any discussion of science or economics. (The two are very different things.) We are reminded of the immortal advice cited by Professor Frankfurt in On Bullshit – ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’ It’s like throwing sand in your protagonist’s eyes. But this response, too, requires care. Your supporters take offence if they think you are deliberately aiming to go above their heads (which it is alarmingly easy to do).
- Bury them with detail. ‘Yes, in order to deal with that issue in the manner it deserves, I need to take you to some of the figures …’ This is called a snow job. It is very common in legal and commercial negotiations. You may look aggrieved if you are called on to get to the point. ‘This is not a matter to be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly.’ You could then give the stern Andrew Bolt look of dolour – with appropriate hand gestures.
- Alternatively, you may say that the question calls for an opinion that you are not qualified to give. You must apply this technique with extreme care – especially if you devote most of your time to offering opinions on just about anything under the sun (which is the case for many lawyers and most politicians).
- A similar caution goes for slowing down the process by taking an inordinate time to answer the question – or, more properly, to respond to the question. This technique can be useful in dealing with tyro journalists or barristers in cross-examination, but it may not fit your schtick – this is no place for modesty – and it may not appeal to that ghastly mirage called your ‘base.’ They are happy with front and bluff, and are not impressed by a devotion to care – or, for that matter, by fidelity of any colour.
- Depending on the forum, you may choose to be pleasant – you should always at least look polite and courteous and under control. If you are prepared to resort to flattery, leave aside the trowel. ‘That’s a very good question’ is badly overdone. And don’t ramble. You might convict yourself out of your own mouth. And avoid traps like ‘sincerely’ or ‘honestly.’ (What is your condition when you do not expressly adopt that position?)
- An alternative is to belittle the questioner. This, too, requires care and skill. Many people don’t like bullies. (That proposition is just one of those that is refuted by the recent rise of the two worst leaders in the history of the West.) Cajolery may be better. (Blackmail of course should be avoided.)
- Attack the questioner head on. ‘Well, that’s just the kind of bias I would expect from the ABC.’ (Compare: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands at last?’– or the spray to that effect from a man with as big an ego as that of his subject.)
- Play the man, a tactic that is repellently overused by diverting attention to the other side. ‘Well, we are not perfect. We are realists. But just have a look at the mess that our opponents left for us – and for you, the people.’ This is intellectual trash, but you get truckloads of it every day, and the people out of doors don’t hear the sighs or groans.
- If in doubt, start a fight. This has been the resort of lawyers and businesspeople from time out of mind. It comes ever so naturally to those who appeal to the gutter, because they know that the gutter enjoys a good fight.
- The alternative to a fight is just to walk out. That may be easier to live with than an admission of guilt – and the whole point of the exercise is to avoid precisely that.
Those are some of the more common techniques. The questioner must recall one of the major rules of cross-examination: Make sure that the witness answers the question. If you get a snow job or some other windy evasion, bring them back to the point. ‘Well, are you quite finished? Are you sure?’ ‘Did you understand the question? Well then, could you now please answer it?’ (It’s about even money that they will say that they forget what the question was – and sometimes that may be the case.)
Politics – evading the question – deemed admission.