A word of advice to baby barristers. If you want to watch a masterclass in cross examination of a witness you can do no better than study Andrew Neil’s interviews of Hunt and Johnson. It will teach you all you failed to learn at bar school and reinforce everything your pupil supervisor tried to drum into you to prepare for battle.
The depressing feature of the modern television political interview is that most journalists don’t know how to ask the right question at the right time. They get side tracked by evasion, lengthy non answers, a producer who is more interested in getting a sound bite story and a shortage of time. They can become seduced by finding the ‘knock out question’ which rarely exists. That is why the interviewer will suddenly shout out a question which seems to have come from nowhere. Actually it comes from the segment producer in the gallery who has just shouted something into the interviewer’s earpiece. I know. I have done it. It is weird experience seeing your words appear out of someone’s mouth live on television within a few seconds. And it is a rare skill for an interviewer to have the judgement and confidence/bravery to ignore those words. Most don’t. I would be amazed if anyone was putting words into Neil’s mouth. His cross examination was as structured as a good prosecuting silk in a murder trial.
The most accomplished and feared television interviewer was Robin Day. Why? Because he trained as a barrister and took his skills to the screen. Most interviewers are journalists who pick up interviewing as they go along. You can get away with it in a few minutes of air time, but anything longer is usually fairly fruitless.
So baby barristers what can you learn from this? Firstly, the three most important rules of cross examination. Preparation, Preparation, Preparation. You may think that you can wing it at the Uxbridge magistrates court, or the Oxford Union, but if you try it on at the Crown Court an experienced barrister will, ever so politely, tear you to pieces. So, never ever ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.
And remember that every witness is different. They have different strengths and weaknesses. You play them in different ways. Take Hunt. He is calm and measured. No matter how hard you may try he will not get flustered or lose his temper. He will have mastered his brief. He will have a line to take which looks as if he believes it. Sometimes he probably does. Those are his strengths. But he is a born again Brexiteer. He knows that setting 31 October in concrete for leaving isreally stupid, unrealistic and isn’t going to happen. But his target audience yearn for the fairy tale of belief. You don’t have to lead him up to the scaffold, persuade him stand on the trap and gently ask him to pull the lever. He will see it coming. So Neil eviscerated him with one simple question which sent a message encapsulating all the primal fears of the Brexiteers. “Aren’t you just Teresa May in trousers?”
With Johnson a very different technique has to be deployed. His strengths are humour, optimism and La Bella Figura. His weaknesses are laziness, lack of attention to detail, evasion and being thoroughly dishonest. The inexperienced interviewer would have tried to throttle him on the lies. But it has been done to death and priced in. So the pressure points are evasiveness, bombast and lack of detail.
For someone who is renowned for a first class intellect Johnson just can’t see when he is being set up for a fall. It is a high wire act to get a witness to do this and Neilldiit with aplomb. He knew that Johnson prided himself on knowing GATT article 24 (5) (b). He was well briefed on this after his first mishap with it. And then the gentle stiletto, “what of 24 (5) (c)?” How to deal with the answer is a serious judgement call. If it’s a “Ah, I’m glad you asked me that....” move on. But it was pure Borisian bluster. So everyone knew, except for Johnson, what was coming next. “So you don’t know what article 24 (5) (c) is do you?” So in one question the message of sloppiness, lack of attention to detail, zinged.
But there is another important lesson in what happened next. Johnson probably didn’t know what fiscal rule two was. Neill could have taken a punt. But it wasn’t worth it because if Johnson did know the answer (he clearly didn’t) it would have destroyed the effect of the paragraph c zinger. In barristery it is the rule of not asking a question too far. It is easily done. Show restraint. Quit when you are ahead.
Lastly, baby barristers, you have an advantage that no television interviewer has. You are bewigged, gowned and in an intimidating formal environment. It’s your territory. You may be shitting in your pants (we have all been there), but you have mystique on your side. Most people will think that you are cleverer and more knowledgeable than you are. Exploit it without being a pompous arse. Most jurors will think that you are an entitled, fabulously well paid, privileged little shit. Prove them wrong.
For Andrew Neil a bright grammar school lad from Paisley, the challenge he faced was different, but the concept is the same. He had to create the aura of authority and mystique that our fancy dress does for us. He had to make it clear from the outset to two men of immense power that they were there on his territory, on his terms, to answer only his questions. In court you will have a few minutes to assert yourself as on the higher end of the food chain. In television you have about twenty seconds.
This was cross examination of the greatness of FE Smith and Marshall Hall. But in the style of Andrew Neil. This was the day he took back control. I doff my wig in admiration.