I just saw the BBC’s interesting news interview with Dorset & Wiltshire fire chief Ben Ansell about allegations of a toxic culture in the fire service. It’s clear Ansell and his team had prepared for the interview – but it’s an instructive example of preparation misapplied!

The BBC’s Dan Johnson asked Ansell about an email from a former employee blowing the whistle on the organisation’s failings, which had apparently been sent to Ansell 18 months before. Ansell was clearly thrown off-guard and didn’t know quite how to respond. He initially said he’d never seen the email and asks Johnson if he would share it with him, to which Johnson replied that it had already been sent to him – and hands him a copy.  (This reminds me of the incriminating email sprung on Lord Bell in his car crash interview on Newsnight a while back.)

Ansell says the email is too long for him to absorb on the spot – a fair position to take. But Johnson urges him to read it there and then, and Ansell – losing control of the conversation – dutifully complies!  The following 35 seconds are uncomfortable to watch.

At this point, it becomes clear the fire service team had been concerned that questions could be raised about ex-employee cases and had told the BBC they wouldn’t address them.

We know this because, when Johnson asks: “What have you done in the last 18 months to improve the culture?”, Ansell responds: “I’m not prepared to talk about a specific case”; and, compounding this, one of his team pipes up in the background with: “We’ve been really clear that we’re not going to talk about specific cases.”

That is also a reasonable position to take. But, as the journalist rightly retorted: “I’m not asking you about a specific case – my question was what have you done in the last 18 months to improve things?”

The irony is that Ansell then gave a fluid, robust answer to that, listing a series of clear and concrete measures.

It seems he and his minder had been well prepared to explain what had been done, and to refuse to talk about individuals, but both muddled up the two responses! (And Ansell did exactly the same again later in the longer interview that aired on TV).

The unfortunate result of refusing to answer a question which he was, in fact, well prepared to address was coming across as evasive and defensive when there was simply no need.

You can see a three-minute clip from this interview here:

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