Image: Matt Crossick/LBC
Like social media, talk radio lends itself to debate, criticism – and heated moments. Four radio hosts reveal to Jake Helm their most heated on-air encounter and whether they have any regrets.
Iain Dale – LBC Radio Presenter
I try to remain calm at all times – but there are occasions when it just goes out the window. My interview with Theresa May was a pretty heated moment, although I wouldn’t personally classify it as “losing it”. If I died tomorrow, it would probably be the clip played on my TV obituaries.
It was October 2017, and May had just delivered that disastrous conference where the backdrop started to fall apart and she had a terrible cough. The next week, she did a phone-in with me which I had been trying to organise for 18 months. I thought, because of that speech, she may cancel it but she didn’t.
She came into the studio and she did well with the first few questions. But then a lady phoned in to ask about EU citizens’ rights and May gave an answer that was so un-empathetic, forcing me to intervene. I asked her how she would vote if there was a second referendum because she voted to remain in the first, but was leading a government committed to leaving the EU.
“The look of absolute terror in her eyes when I asked her that question was something to behold”
The look of absolute terror in her eyes when I asked her that question was something to behold. She started waffling and said: “I don’t answer hypothetical questions.” So I replied: “Well, you’re the Prime Minister, and you lead a Brexit government. I think it’s quite telling if you say that you wouldn’t vote to leave.”
She just started doing the gurning thing that she always did when she was in a tricky position. And then there was a moment of silence. She clearly wasn’t going to answer the question. There are times when you can either pretend you’re Jeremy Paxman or just leave it and let the audience decide why she didn’t answer the question so I moved on from that line of questioning.
I received criticism from Conservative supporters who said I should never have asked the question and I was incredibly rude. I was actually polite and respectful and there were no big tempers on my part or hers. But I knew I would never interview her again and I knew that her advisors were absolutely furious. One of them phoned me later that night: “You planned that all along, I could tell.”
I don’t plan interviews. I think conversational interviews are much better than war-game ones. So I replied: “Think what you like, but I know what I did and I can look at myself in the mirror, I was doing my job.” They were furious.
Julia Hartley-Brewer – talkRADIO host
When I heard Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, was going to be on my show, I decided to look back at my previous interviews with him. When interviewing cabinet ministers, they usually want to have a dull as dishwater interview about transport or whatever their area of expertise is.
But two months ago [January], I questioned him about lockdown policy and he said very clearly that once the vaccine was rolled out, it would be a game-changer. At the time, I said to him: “Promise me as soon as the over 70s have their jab, we will have our freedoms back, or will you man the barricades with me?” He agreed.
Two months later, we had more than the over 70s getting jabs and yet the only freedoms we’ve seen returned to us are children going back to classrooms and being able to sit on a bench with someone from my own household. In other words, my husband.
When Shapps came back on my show, I told him that it was not good enough and I got pretty angry and passionate during the interview. I was pretty sure he would make excuses, which he did and that made me angrier.
But the thing that tipped it for me, was him saying that it’s selfish for people to want their freedoms back. He said, I know you want to go on holiday. To which I responded: “No, I don’t just want to go on a holiday, I want my civil liberties back, freedom to move around, to see my family and to open their businesses.”
“He just continued making excuses and smiling about this serious issue, and that really angered me”
Sometimes when I get angry with somebody, I often regret it or I think that I could’ve made a more considered argument. In this interview, I was happy I’d made plenty of considered arguments, and I was being fobbed off. He just continued making excuses and smiling about this serious issue, and that really angered me. He just kept calmly saying you want to go on holiday, again and again. He was missing the point – I want my civil liberties back so I got passionately angry.
It was annoying because I think Shapps is actually a very good cabinet minister, but when democratically elected government ministers make light of governments not telling the truth and taking away fundamental civil liberties without good reason, I don’t think it’s appropriate to stay calm in those situations. In your personal life, would you not be angry if someone told you lies like that?
There is a cost, of course. Some ministers won’t come on my show anymore. But I think you’re entitled to get angry so long as it’s a genuine reaction. I don’t like to edit myself. Listeners know that when I’m angry, it’s because I really am angry. And anyone who knows me in my personal life will know I’m exactly the same person off-air. Some would say terrifying.
Rachel Johnson – LBC Radio Presenter
In January, a nurse called the show and she was incredibly angry. We were running a segment about the vaccination programme and I was asking callers whether teachers should receive their jab first.
Then this nurse dialled in and she didn’t answer the question. Instead she said: “Have you ever had a lateral flow test?”
“Yes, several,” I replied. She then began asking me questions about the difference between the lateral flow test and the PCR test. I explained my understanding of the difference.
“I just remained calm. My principle is, I never shout back. I’m not a very hot-tempered person”
“Wrong again,” she said. “You’re doing a whole hour on a subject you know nothing about.” She went off. People on Twitter then joined the party by claiming they were listening to a nurse “taking down” Rachel Johnson.
I just remained calm. My principle is, I never shout back. I’m not a very hot-tempered person. I don’t shout at my children, husband, friends, or strangers – I shout at my dog if it runs into the street. It’s better for radio if you flare up, but that’s just not me so I replied with the facts.
Sometimes I change my mind on a matter during the course of a phone-in. But what was annoying about this nurse was it turned out I was right. Twitter still claimed I had been schooled by an expert. I knew I was right.
I don’t think I’ve been driven to the point where I’ve been rude to somebody on-air. That point may come.
Rachel Burden – BBC Radio 5 Live breakfast show host
In November, I had an interview with the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, which is one of the most combative I’ve faced. Michael is always a tempestuous character to interview. He divides an audience because some loathe him and others admire what he has done with Ryanair.
That morning, we got dozens of messages from people saying they hadn’t received a refund from Ryanair. So, I raised it and despite receiving email after email, he replied that the claims were totally untrue.
“It’s easy to become heated once your guest becomes angry because you feel affronted that they’re questioning your journalistic integrity”
He added that every time he comes onto the BBC, he’s told customers are dissatisfied. He got quite angry. At that moment, he reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. I have to admit that I was thinking either he’s totally bullshitting or he’s certain he’s right. But we kept getting messages. And then I did something which I don’t usually do, because it’s a little bit personal – I took a minute to breathe and I said: “Why are you so angry?”
That question immediately took the temperature and pace down. It’s easy to become heated once your guest becomes angry because you feel affronted that they’re questioning your journalistic integrity. I know it was passive-aggressive but that question worked because it forces a human response, which he then gave: “We get irate because we have spent 1.5bn in refunds, we hired extra staff and we work day and night to get refunds out.”
The audience supported my line of questioning but there are always people who say “you don’t know what you’re talking about” or “he really got you there”. But when someone is being overly confrontational, you have to ask the tough questions and not back down.