Multimedia Journalism student Max Pilley reflects on his recent interview with Lord Peter Mandelson, the newly installed Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.
By Max Pilley
When I started my Masters course in Multimedia Journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) last September, I had dreams of interviewing some of the great luminary politicians of our time; of taking a set of newly learned skills, and eventually putting them to the ultimate test in a live, unpredictable scenario against an experienced statesman. What I never imagined was that I would be doing it before the course itself had even finished.
When I received an email in March this year, saying that there was a possibility of interviewing Lord Mandelson, I knew instantly that this was a golden opportunity. I replied immediately, and got to work on watching archive interviews and reading old articles. Mandelson was, for nearly 20 years, one of the individuals at the beating heart of British political life, and, as circumstances would have it, happened to have just been appointed as the new Chancellor of MMU. He had agreed to be interviewed by a journalism student from the university, as well as representatives from the BBC and the Manchester Evening News, an interview, which was to be conducted on the day of his installation as Chancellor.
There were two months to prepare for the big day. They were two months, however, where my attention was split between a flurry of academic deadlines, preparation for an oncoming dissertation, arrangement of a work placement and, if possible after those had taken their chunk, some kind of personal life. None of these commitments carried the same excitement or trepidation as the Mandelson interview did though, and as the day approached, I found myself being drawn to ever more obscure details of the man’s history in the public eye.
Ideas were formulating in my mind about what I could ask him. How do you distill so much political history to just a handful of questions? I knew that the interview was to take place on the day he was made Chancellor, and that his new role would take priority. I also knew that the piece would be published on the university’s Northern Quota website, and so the primary audience would be comprised mostly of students. I had a number of students approach me, saying that it was essential that I ask a question about tuition fees. The interview was also to take place just ten days before the EU referendum, and knowing that Mandelson once worked in the EU Commission as the Trade Commissioner, I was aware that he would have plenty to say on that topic. The possibilities seemed endless.
Working closely with Damilola Oladokun, another student on my course, who would look after the filming and technical aspects on the day, and also with two of our lecturers, we began to hone in on specific questions. Lord Mandelson had in 2015 led an unsuccessful campaign to become Chancellor of the University of Manchester, and just months later had been approached to be Manchester Met Chancellor. The sudden interest in Manchester seemed on one level to be surprising: Mandelson had, to our knowledge, never had any links to the city. On another level, Manchester was about to go through a period of political upheaval, as one of the centre pieces in the so-called Northern Powerhouse agenda. Was this what drew Mandelson, one of the most savvy political minds in the country, to the city in 2016?
We knew that he would be eager to discuss the subject of the redistribution of power to the North of England, as he had done so in many of his most recent interviews. The difficulty was in finding the right tone with the question – we did not want to be too antagonistic at the start of the interview, however it was important that we were asking insightful questions. We were, after all, in this position as representatives of a journalism course, not as PR for the university. My tutor and I decided to focus primarily on his decision to come to Manchester, and to ask him about his prior links with the city, or lack thereof.
The most difficult question to finalise regarded the controversial topic of student finances. I had remembered that Lord Mandelson had intervened in the 2015 general election campaign, suggesting that Labour should reconsider any plans to reduce annual fees from £9000 to £6000. Given that within a year, he had sought to be Chancellor of both of Manchester’s universities, it seemed to be particularly relevant. I also knew that it was his Labour government that had introduced tuition fees in 1998, and that Mandelson’s final government office included responsibility for higher education policy. We agreed that the question had to be asked, and knowing that it would be the most sensitive question of all, we decided to place it later in the interview, once we had established a level of trust and mutual understanding.
There were two meetings to attend in the run up to the big day. Firstly, as part of a meeting of Manchester Met’s communications department, in which details of the day’s formalities and schedule were discussed. If I wasn’t aware of the importance of the Chancellor’s installation day beforehand, I certainly was after that meeting. It became apparent that my interview would in fact be the only one given by Mandelson that day, and it also emerged that the interview would be late in the day, immediately following the installation ceremony. We had been given a 15-minute slot. The urgency to finalise questions became greater.
I also met with Michael Taylor, MMU’s external affairs adviser, who was dealing with Lord Mandelson personally. Whilst we were reluctant to give away the specifics of what questions we wanted to ask, the meeting was very useful in ascertaining the details behind Mandelson’s appointment, and clarified many of the background questions that would not be appropriate for the interview itself.
The rest of the final week was spent redrafting the questions that we had prepared. We needed to have follow-ups to every question, and a grounded knowledge of the facts and figures behind each issue that we wanted to raise. We had selected a number of Mandelson’s quotes to use in our questions, and needed to be sure that they were verified and well-sourced.
We also wanted to end the interview on a lighter note, and after running through a series of ideas, we settled on another staple of life in the North West – the chippy tea. There had been an apocryphal tale many years ago that Mandelson had walked into a chippy and mistaken mushy peas for guacamole, a story that Mandelson refutes in his autobiography. We decided to ask him whether he’d be having a chippy tea now that he’d be spending some more time in Manchester, feeling that it would bring the 15 minutes to an end in an appropriate, light-hearted way.
When the interview day arrived, there was no time to be nervous. We had been given a slot at 10:30am to check over the room in the Town Hall where the interview was to take place – the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, no less. It was a dramatic, high-ceilinged, antiquated room, and would provide a suitably regal backdrop for our video. We also were permitted to sit in on the rehearsal of the installation ceremony, which Mandelson himself attended. We knew he was due to give a speech at the real event later, but there were no clues from the rehearsal as to what it would include. The day was spent running between Town Hall and uni, lugging cameras and tripods back and forth.
My colleague Damilola was responsible for ensuring that the camera angles were optimal, and that the lighting and sound was to a professional standard. She and tutor Lawrence Brannon found that the natural light in the room was not balanced, and Lawrence had to spend a chunk of the day scrambling across town to find a light. We decided on the exact positions for the chairs that we would use, but as our room would be used by ceremony attendees before the interview, we had to place tape on the carpet to remember the places. These were just some of the un-rehearsable logistical problems that come with recording video, and go to prove the importance of giving yourself as much time as possible.
In addition to the technical aspects, Damilola ensured that everyone was provided with all the necessary professional paperwork – a comprehensive contacts list, a detailed schedule for the day, a full recce form. She took the lead too during the editing process, which might have been the most time consuming stage in the whole chain of events. Likewise, the unwavering support and advice from our two tutors – Dawn Bryan and Lawrence Brannon – was indispensable, from start to finish. The importance of teamwork on a project like this cannot be underestimated.
By the time the ceremony was due to commence, we had set up our camera positions and microphones, and took our place in the Great Hall. The great and the good of Manchester’s glitterati were in attendance, many in full ceremonial regalia. When Mandelson came to give his speech, he spoke of the university’s role in the changing face of Manchester, and joked that it was not afraid of taking risks, as evidenced by his appointment. I scribbled this down in my notes, and added it as a last-minute question for my interview: “Why is Manchester Met taking a risk with you?”.
We snuck out of the back of the Great Hall and returned to our room for final preparations. There was barely time for a final read-through of questions, however, before Lord Mandelson appeared at our door, flanked by a number of other people. I introduced myself, and we had him mic-ed up. From that point on is a blur, and if it wasn’t for having spent the following three days slaving over the footage during the editing process, I would likely not remember much from the interview at all. Mandelson was generous and engaged with his answers, so much so that the interview ran longer than we had anticipated.
I felt we built a reasonable rapport during the 20 minutes that we spoke, and I managed to ask the majority of the questions that we had planned. The one moment that lingers most clearly in my mind came as he was mid-answer to a question about his new role: I glanced down at my notes, and saw that the prickly subject of tuition fees was up next. For a brief moment, I thought that I couldn’t ask it. The interview was going smoothly, and this was inevitably going to cause a level of friction. But, thankfully, I resisted the urge to skip the question, and did what I felt to be the right thing, journalistically. He gave a reasoned answer, and even said that he hopes students will get in touch with him to discuss their tuition fees experience (which I hope they will).
In all, it was an invaluable experience. The opportunity to exclusively interview a politician of Lord Mandelson’s stature is rare, and the work that was required in preparing for it has gifted me a priceless insight into the real world of the media. I strongly urge any students presented with an opportunity of this kind to seize it with both hands – you will learn faster than you have ever learned before.