The Empty Chair

The Empty Chair…

It may sound obvious but the first and perhaps most important question facing anyone invited to take part in a media interview is: Do I accept?

To some of those facing potentially penetrating “interrogation” it may seem pretty straightforward…if I decline then I won’t face any awkward and unexpected questions. If I say “no” there’s zero chance of me getting nervous, drying up on camera or “putting my foot in it” by making an embarrassing mistake.

But before you turn down the request try looking at it from the opposite perspective…What happens if I don’t get the opportunity to put my side of the story? What if I or my employers are blamed or criticised in some way and I didn’t get the chance to state our case? How will my refusal be viewed by the audience.

Have I Got News For You Lard (with panellist Paul Merton) copyright BBC
Roy Hattersley’s infamous no-show on “Have I Got News For You” (BBC, 1993).

It reminds me of the time when veteran politician Roy Hattersley pulled out of an episode of ‘Have I Got News For You’ at the last minute. The programme responded by placing a tub of lard in the MP’s place. The show explained that the lard was “liable to give much the same performance and imbued with many of the same qualities”. Whether you think that is funny or cruel (or both) the point is that it left a lasting impression in the minds of millions of viewers.

Incidentally…for the record…Paul’s team went on to win the show.

It may be an extreme example of what can happen when there’s a “no show” by a particular guest but it does highlight perfectly the potential consequences of The Empty Chair.

Most of the time of course programme makers don’t actually use an empty chair but the verbal equivalent is something along the lines of…”We invited the minister to take part and he declined.” Or even worse…”We asked the company to comment and they failed to respond.”

The problem with this is that it raises the inevitable question in the minds of people watching or listening: “Why didn’t they want to take part?” which can in turn lead to…”Have they got something to hide?”

There may, of course, be a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why the individual or company responded negatively but in forty years of experience as a journalist I can honestly say that the “no-show” is often treated with suspicion by the media organisation concerned and sometimes with contempt by an audience expecting answers.

You should never feel unduly pressurised into a media interview but the next time you feel like saying “No!” – remember the empty chair…

Have I Got News For You Lard (close-up)
Remember the empty chair…