Cummings falls for oldest media trick in the book

Tuesday’s headlines were written seconds into Dominic Cummings’ response to the first question at his Downing Street press conference. BBC political editor Laura Kuenessberg had just asked the government advisor the most predictable question he could have expected to face – about whether he regretted his now infamous visit to Durham during UK lockdown.

The Daily Mail’s splash – “No apology, no regrets” – echoed those on the Metro, Guardian and Mirror.

Headline traps are a very basic tool of reporters. Hard to spot for the uninitiated, these are closed questions designed to encourage a controversial or dramatic statement. Did you panic? Did they act in anger? Does he have regrets? Will you apologise? Is there a crisis?

The reporter seldom expects people to answer in the affirmative ‘Yes I panicked’ etc. They are searching for the denial to conjure up headlines such as ‘X denies claims of panic’.

Cummings should have seen this question – and requests for an apology – as inevitable and should have addressed it in his prepared statement. He had some room for manoeuvre. He could have expressed regret for the impact of his actions in creating a perception of unfairness. 

He could have apologised for creating a situation that has distracted the government from its priorities amid a global pandemic. He could have stated that, while he believed his actions were best for his family, he realised now that they were not in the wider interests of the national effort.

Perhaps it was a lack of humility, not ability, that led to a third day of hostile headlines.

Anticipating and dealing with these questions is an essential part of any interview preparation.