Where does probing stop and arrogance start?

Is there any observer of politics that objects to journalists probing the assertions, the policies, and the plans of our politicians? NO! Is there anyone who is content to have journalists inertly record what politicians say and report it unquestioningly to their audience? I suspect the answer is also a resounding NO! Yet we know the latter is what happens day after day. We are so often served up a diet of ‘he says, she says’, devoid of fact checking, devoid of challenging probing, devoid of proper analysis, devoid of reasoned opinion – sterile!

Frankly we are sick of it.

When we come across a probing interview we applaud. Who will ever forget Leigh Sales’ interview of Tony Abbott on 7.30 following BHP Billiton’s announcement of its deferment of its Olympic Dam project. If you haven’t seen it, and the transcript, look here. Why was it noteworthy? Because for the first time for months, the Leader of the Opposition was subject to probing questioning that refused to be deflected by glib or devious answers, that came back again and again to Abbott’s insistence that the deferral was due to the carbon and mineral taxes, when it was not. Abbott stumbled and bumbled his way through it, I suspect leaving determined to never again submit to such probing with such poor preparation, with such a flawed story.

How would you rate Sales’ questioning style? Probing, insistent, unwilling to be fobbed off, courageous in confronting Abbott with his looseness with the truth? Yes, all of these. Was it rude? Was it arrogant? I suspect Abbott acolytes would label it so. Judge for yourself. Here it is – video and transcript – play it from beginning to end and ask yourself was she rude or arrogant? In my view she was polite, albeit insistent. Abbott was devious in the extreme. It is a tribute to Sales that she kept her cool in the face of some of the worst obfuscation ever seen in contemporary politics.

Grahame Morris leapt to Abbott’s defence, opining that Leigh could be ‘a real cow’ in such interviews. He earned his comeuppance for that. Almost no one agreed with him.

Now contrast the Sales interview with Sabra Lane’s interview of the Prime Minister on AM on Tuesday about the Government’s response to the Gonski report and recommendations. Lane was abrupt from the beginning:

“The conservative states aren't happy with your plan. They've had an expectation that you would outline where the money's coming from, and New South Wales says you've just been plain antagonistic.” Rude? Perhaps not, but provocative.

To press her point, the next question went: “The premiers, the Liberal premiers, are most unhappy; is that what you want, a dust up with them as part of your campaign roadmap to the next election to distract from the carbon tax?” Rude? Arrogant? She repeats the ‘unhappy’ line which I suppose could be excused as simply repetition, but what about her use of ‘dust up’, which is code for ‘picking a fight’, and what about her assertion that this is “part of your campaign roadmap to the next election to distract from the carbon tax?” Is that presumptuous? In my view it is, and rude to boot.

But Sabra’s rudeness was far from finished. The preamble to her third question was that Queensland couldn’t afford it, and WA said it had a better base rate than Gonski recommended; then came: “Is this a grand plan that is unaffordable and effectively dead on arrival?” That is both unspeakably rude and appallingly arrogant. In thirteen words, Lane condescendingly dismisses the PM’s entire implementation plan for the Gonski recommendations.

The fourth question was more reasonable, focussed as it was on ‘where the money was to come from’: “In short, will you cut more, so-called middle class welfare to pay for it?”
 Julia Gillard sat her back in her box with: “Oh look I'm not going to play silly rule-in, rule-out games, and I well expected them Sabra…”, leading Lane to interrupt lamely: “…types of things your alluding to aren't they?”

Assured by the PM that the full figures would be revealed, Lane retorted: “And the full figures, given that you're hoping an agreement to this will come at COAG (Council of Australian Governments) next year, we won't see all the full figures until the budget in May?” Provocative? Yes. Rude? Possibly, judge from the tone of her voice.

Lane continues: “Still on the economy, retail sales came in much weaker than expected yesterday, and other parts of the economy are very strained. Are you confident about the strength of the economy and your promise to deliver a surplus?” Not in the least satisfied with the PM’s detailed and reassuring answer about the state of the economy, and that she would deliver a surplus, Lane pressed on, determined to assert that the economy was indeed failing and that the surplus was in doubt: “But given that commodity prices have been falling, the degree of difficulty in delivering your budget surplus now is increasing at a comparable rate.” The PM went through it all again, in detail. But was Lane satisfied?

She switched to Afghanistan with a reasonable question, and that was it.

My reaction as I listened to that interview was one of annoyance at the rudeness and arrogance of Lane, her unwillingness to accept the PM’s thoughtful and detailed answers. I thought what a pumped-up journalist she has become, so disrespectful even in the face of cool, calm and reasoned answers. She was out to get the nation’s leader, but failing miserably, showed she was the antagonistic, acerbic and arrogant person we have seen she is. If you doubt the validity of my assessment of Lane’s performance listen to the audio, note her tone of voice, and judge for yourself. She gave the PM plenty of time to answer; her questioning was the problem.

The National Press Club was the venue for the PM’s announcement of her Government’s response to the Gonski report and recommendations. There were several questions there worth reviewing.

Lyndal Curtis, an ABC interviewer on a par with Sabra Lane, living up to her unfortunate reputation, asking this long question: ”If it's going to take six years to fully put in place a system that will in 13 years put Australia into the top five schooling systems while not willing to replicate the methods of the schools that are already in the top five and given by the time COAG reports next year, you will have had the Gonski Report for more than a year, if you are really on a crusade to right a moral wrong for those children at school now, are you taking a little too long to saddle up the horse?” That is an arrogant and rude ending, which is code for ‘Why have you taken so long to process the Gonski report – I demand to know, we all demand to know.’ It’s not seeking more detail, or clarification of a point the PM has made; it is arrogantly saying to the PM: ‘You have taken too long – please explain.’

Michelle Grattan, well known for her antagonism to the PM, asked: “Ms Gillard, you have put a quite short timeframe on the discussions for this scheme and I'm just curious as to why you won't at this point say how much you want the states to bear of this, and when will you be telling the states that fairly vital amount? And secondly, would you envisage that the bulk of the new spending would be loaded to the back end of the six years, the last couple of years or so?”

This is code for ‘You ought to be giving us, the Canberra Press Gallery, the cost implications right now’, even before discussing it with the State Premiers. ‘What’s more, we want to know when you’re going to tell the Premiers. We demand to know, and know now!’

Paul Bongiorno of Ten News, asked a reasonable question with a touch of humour: “You are going to legislate an aspiration by the end of the year and then you have a six-year transition, which of course is two parliamentary terms. Judging on the comments that are coming from the Opposition today, both the Opposition Leader and Opposition spokesman, you don't have bipartisan support for this. Do you have some political strategy that would put an Abbott-proof fence around it? In a sense, aren't we really talking about the never-never here?”

Chris Johnson of the Canberra Times, led with his jaw in the final question with: “You’ve spent $16 billion on the Building the Education Revolution, which while it provided some nice new school halls it hasn’t had a huge impact on student results or raised Australia’s international standing. Now the pressure’s on for this $6 billion plus for Gonski which you want the states and territories to contribute to. Do you feel that the priorities were right, or has there been wastage here?”

He got an answer that hopefully will persuade him to ask a less provocative and arrogant question next time.

Can you believe that, given the opportunity to ask questions about the most important announcement on education for years, a chance to ask questions about the implementation of the most far-ranging report on education for decades, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News thought this was a good occasion to ask a question about boat arrivals, and Phil Coorey from the SMH, a query about Afghanistan. That such experienced journalists could be so far off-track is astonishing.

While still on the Gonski report, look at Lyndal Curtis’ interview of Peter Garratt, Education Minister, and her exhibition of gross impertinence and arrogance. You have to look at it to get an image of Curtis’ face as she presented, or should I say propelled, her verbal missiles at Garratt.

She began by cataloguing the steps in the Gonski process for thirty seconds, then wham: “What have you been doing for the last eight months?”, schoolmarmishly admonishing an errant schoolboy late with his homework. That’s how she started and it didn’t get any better. Garratt had hardly started when she interrupted: “It’s taken you all this time to decide the broad model that Gonski recommended is the right one. Why couldn’t you have begun discussions with them [State Premiers] at the time you released the Gonski report in February?” Note the way she thrusts her face towards him; her body language oozing arrogance and disdain.

She later accused him of intending to introduce only ‘aspirational’ legislation and asked provocatively: “What’s the worth of aspirational legislation?” She went on in this vein, accusing him of “trying to bind future governments”.

Although her hostility diminished towards the end, this was one of the most aggressive, arrogant and rude interviews that I’ve seen Curtis conduct, and that’s saying something!

If you think Leigh Sales interview with Tony Abbott was a once off, take a look at her interview this week with Joe Hockey. I won’t go through it sentence by sentence, but if you play the video or read the transcript, you will see the same courteous, albeit persistent approach she took with Abbott. No rudeness, no arrogance.

Look too at her interview of Barnaby Joyce on 7.30 yesterday. Same technique, persistent but courteous; certainly not arrogant.

Finally, take a look at an interview of Christopher Pyne on the PM’s Gonski announcement by Emma Alberici on Lateline on Monday. Apart from Tony Abbott, is there a more irritating, obfuscatory, motor mouth than Christopher Pyne to interview? Yet Alberici kept her cool, was consistently courteous while pressing Pyne for answers, and showed no signs of arrogance and rudeness.

The point of this piece is that it is possible to be a ‘tough’ interviewer, to ask probing questions, to be persistent, to press for an answer, even to the extent of annoying the interviewee, without being rude or arrogant. Rudeness bespeaks disrespect; arrogance insinuates that the interviewer has knowledge or understanding or intellect or insight or foresight or intuition or judgement superior to the interviewee. Arrogance looks down the nose.

No journalist has the right to treat those elected to high office with disdain, or to be rude or arrogant. Yet the examples given in this piece illustrate how some journalists believe they have this right. Culprits are exposed: Sabra Lane, Lyndal Curtis, Michelle Grattan and the occasional man, guilty of disrespectful, condescending and impolite conduct that is unbecoming and unworthy of senior professional journalists. If their peers can behave with respect, such as Leigh Sales and Emma Alberici, and still conduct the probing interviews we expect from experienced journalists, why can’t Sabra Lane, Lyndal Curtis and Michelle Grattan? You would have to ask them, but one could not be blamed for suspecting partisan bias or simply antipathy.

Probing can easily tip over to arrogance. Good journalists avoid that error.

What do you think?