On Saturday past, the current Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Tina Black, was recorded for an interview with Press Association (PA). During the piece to camera, the PA journalist put the question to Councillor Black as to why Sinn Féin attended the Armistice commemoration at the Cenotaph, but not the service for Remembrance Sunday.
I wish to state from the outset that I don’t share the politics of Sinn Féin nor do I agree with their stance on the matter in question, but that is not what this piece sets out to address.
The clip which was posted to Twitter shows Councillor Black struggle to provide an answer to the fore-mentioned question on two occasions, before moving off camera to consult with whom I can only assume are her press office colleagues. Of course, I have no idea what the interview arrangements were in advance, but it seems odd for a journalist to post outtakes like this, unless there is a massive ‘gotcha’ moment that serves public interest. This however, was not that.
Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast Tina Black breaks off @PA interview twice to seek clarity from party colleagues when asked to articulate SF rationale for attending Armistice commemoration at Cenotaph but not Remembrance Sunday. pic.twitter.com/7qebubINjh
— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) November 11, 2022
Upon seeing the clip posted to Twitter, my immediate thought was how unnecessary it was to publicise it, unfair even. True to form, the Northern Ireland Twitter space lined up to put the boot in, everyone from @billy1690xoxo to @weejono (handles made up for dramatic effect and to avoid getting sued) had something to add about Cllr Black’s communication skills and how they fell below their expected standard.
It should go without saying that local councillors do not need to be gifted orators to do the job they were elected to do well. More than that, anyone with an interest in local politics here will note that parties churn out the same spokespeople time and time again because not all representatives possess this skill. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party have, of late, relied on heavily on Gordon Lyons MLA and Jonathan Buckley MLA to shoulder media interviews. For Sinn Fein, Conor Murphy, John Finucane and John O’Dowd feature heavily, with the SDLP going for the trio of Colum Eastwood, Claire Hanna, and Matthew O’Toole. Alliance has a much broader suite of media performers from Naomi Long and Stephen Farry to newly elected representatives such as Eoin Tennyson and Sorcha Eastwood. Parties know who performs well in front of a microphone and that’s generally who they stick with.
It was only a matter of months ago that the then Prime Minister Liz Truss made an absolute hash of several local radio interviews as she began her premiership. In one interview, you can hear an advisor whisper rebuttal lines as she struggles to perform – a low bar I accept, but the point remains that consulting press officers and advisers to stay on message is standard in modern politics, if often unseen by the public.
Once upon a time, I worked in a party press office, and I know from experience that briefing someone to the back teeth doesn’t always ensure flawless and coherent interviews; even less so for those who don’t have as much experience in this arena. It goes without saying that becoming Lord Mayor doesn’t mean waking up a first-class communicator overnight. But if there can be one fundamental of political messaging it is to repeat the party line, and in Sinn Féin’s case, to the letter. So, breaking off to clarify a point with a press officer(s) on an interview that isn’t for live TV or radio, isn’t unheard of. Why then, did this moment need to be shared with the baying Twitter mob? People will come to their own conclusions, but unless we want more politicians opting for pre-recorded interviews and less people (particularly women) willing to enter local politics because they don’t feel polished or experienced enough, then instances like this are going the right way about it.