Dealing with evasive politicians

QUESTION: How do you get politicians to answer tough questions?

Getting a politician to talk to you isn’t difficult but getting one to answer the questions you want answered often is.

That’s because, more often than not, the politician you have within your sights has his own agenda or he has been coached in the fine art of avoidance or obfuscation.

Here’s what I have learned over the past two decades to pry information from reluctant politicians. Remember however, some nuts are impossible to crack — no matter how hard you whack.

Preparation

The most important part of any interview with a politician is preparation — know what you’re going to ask and why. I usually prepare questions ahead of time and keep them handy. That way I don’t forget to ask a question and I also have a roadmap in case my interviewee tries to lead me down a different path.

Whether you’re in a scrum or conducting a one-on-one interview, you need to be armed with facts. Politicians love to talk and seasoned ones know when the reporter challenging them has a loose grasp of the facts.

When a politician says: “What’s important here…” or “what you need to understand is …,” those words signal an intent to take you on a trip far from the subject you want him to respond to. If you don’t have the knowledge you need to derail that side-trip, you’ll be stuck on a miserable journey away from the story you want to tell.

Know how much time you’ll have to ask what needs asking. That sometimes means negotiating with a politician or their flack, but you need that information to craft a line of questioning to suit the situation.

Scrums

Scrums are the worst because you never know when your target will walk away. But in the sometimes-surreal world of political reporting, they are often your only access to a politician.

To make the most of what is, at best, a low-information zone, try to maintain a natural flow to the questioning. Many scrums revolve around a central theme or question. Following up one question with another that flows naturally will allow you to dig deeper.

The best example I can offer is a scrum that involved the former premier of Nova Scotia, Russell MacLellan. He had just apologized in the legislature for suggesting a law program aimed at attracting black and aboriginal students was inferior to the regular law degree program.

The ensuing scrum was executed so well and the questions flowed so naturally — one into the other — that MacLellan stated he wasn’t sure he had said anything wrong but that he was sorry all the same.

Interrupt, ask and listen

Be ready to interrupt. Some politicians are masters at eating up available time to suit their needs and frustrate your efforts. If a politican is off on a tangent clearly designed to confuse and confound, politely but firmly bring them back by restating your question, once, twice, even three times if necessary.

Ask. Don’t argue! In moments of frustration, I have fallen into the trap of arguing with a politician. Arguments kill time and are often counterproductive to any attempt at extracting useful information. During my time covering the National Assembly in Quebec City, former premier Robert Bourassa seemed to relish the preamble and loved to argue with reporters about their questions.

Any time a reporter offered a preamble to a question Bourassa didn’t want to answer, he’d simply challenge the supposition. It was his quick and easy way out — arguing with the reporter allowed him to skirt the question.

Listen for key phrases you can use to dig deeper. If a politician says he’s examining all options, ask him what they are. If they claim it’s been a difficult year, ask how so? This is an especially useful technique when dealing with difficult-to-raise topics.

For example, Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald separated from his wife not long after running a “family-values” election campaign. In a year-end interview he said he was looking forward to spending time with his family over the holidays. I used that reference to his personal life to question him about it.

Be brief and bold

Keep questions short. I find the one word follow-up the most effective. “Really?” “What!” “C’mon!”

Appeal to a politician’s sense of duty or public service. Politicians are accountable and it can sometimes help to remind them of their duty to respond to questions.

Of course, some political interviews play more like verbal jousting matches than information-sharing sessions but by being prepared, persistent and professional, a reporter can ensure he or she has made the best effort to extract as much information as possible.

Jean Laroche is CBC Radio’s Legislature reporter in Nova Scotia. He lives in Dartmouth with his wife, Catherine, and their three sons.

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