Natalie Bennett’s series of poor media appearances of late culminated in a disastrous performance on LBC Radio on Tuesday. When challenged on her party’s housing policy, the leader of the Greens wilted under pressure. Bennett, a former Guardian journalist, hadn’t done her homework on a key aspect of their manifesto and found herself horribly exposed live on air. Queue a series of toe-curling series of yawning pauses and agonised fumbling, as she desperately tried to garble her way through the four-minute radio segment.
It has been described by political commentators as “the most excruciating political interview in radio history”. A virtual decapitation ensued with the severed head paraded on twitter and the blogosphere with unrepentant glee. Her Wikipedia page was even amended to announce her death on the 24th February in the LBC Studios.
The Green Party must be distraught. After successive weeks of positive media coverage following their inclusion in the leadership debate coupled with rising membership figures and with a Spring conference looming, the Greens were in the zeitgeist. Tuesday had seemed the perfect moment to unveil their official election campaign.
Every effort was made to turn the day around. Bennett was quick to acknowledge her error. Asked at the campaign launch about the LBC interview, she admitted it had been “absolutely excruciating” — though not before Jenny Jones, the Green peer and member of the Greater London Authority, had tried to intervene to protect her.
The apologetic platitudes continued. The Guardian published a letter from Bennett in which she explained that “when asked about figures, my mind simply went blank”.
The apology reads reasonable well and feels sincere. Everyone makes mistakes, so the adage goes, and the leaders of political parties should not always be expected to be holier than thou.
But, after it was latter announced in The Times that Bennett is to receive media training, I find myself questioning whether all the inner-soul searching and contrition is the right approach.
The media of today is insatiable in its pursuit of politicians. As I have written before, the result is that debate has largely degenerated into a series of soundbites where politicians, paralysed by fear of the next viral sensation, end up regurgitating bland phrases scripted by an aide.
It is clear that Bennett requires help with how she presents herself in the press. Some training will certainly be beneficial if she is to come across well when competing with the big beasts of British politics in two leaders’ debates. But this training must be crafted to ensure it brings out the aspects of her personality that give the Greens such unique appeal. Filling her full of dry facts on housing would represent a risk, as she could come across as predictable and mainstream; the antithesis of what the Greens should aspire to be.
To my mind, a reformed Bennett would not be so desperate to apologise for forgetting the cost of a new-build house. Instead, she would be more combative in her approach; prepared to challenge interviewers over the line of questioning that intends to pull the rug from under the feet rather than nurture measured conclusions.
“As a Leader of a Political Party, how am I expected to know the details of every policy in minute detail ? It’s unrealistic and means you’re spread too thin intellectually”.
That’s what she should have said on Tuesday. Such a response would have challenged the system and maintained her integrity. But as the Green Party grow in size they feel compelled to play the game like everyone else. It’s a shame.