What’s got into our TV interviewers?

This piece is prompted by two recent episodes where the PM was interviewed in a manner that could only be described as aggressive, if not downright rude.

We know that politicians enjoy lowly status in the respectability stakes.  Broken promises, speaking with a forked tongue and partisan chatter have eroded regard for them.   But should that translate into so much disrespect for our leaders that interviewers feel entitled to address them and heavily question them to the point of insolence?

Last Thursday evening on 9 October, Kerry O’Brien interviewed Kevin Rudd about the financial crisis on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.  After an introduction during which O’Brien showed in his voice concern as he described the unfolding drama, he went on: “But absolutely nothing has stopped the slide of confidence for more than the blink of an eye. That must really worry you.”  Rudd responded by describing what had transpired, emphasizing the need not just for liquidity, but for fixing up the banking regulatory rules, concluding that he didn't believe we'd get confidence until they were fixed.  This provoked O’Brien into a more emotive “On that point, with all respect, fixing up for the future is a long way from many people's minds right now, they are deeply concerned about the present and the immediate future.”  Again Rudd began to patiently reiterate this two pronged approach, only to be interrupted by O’Brien with “But primarily about the liquidity, and the judgement of the market, day after day, is you guys, governments, George Bush, Gordon Brown, whoever; we don't really think you know what you're doing, or we don't think you're doing enough. That is the market's judgement, right or wrong?”

Rudd began to look uncomfortable as O’Brien’s barrage hit him.  Rudd’s critics said he ‘squirmed’. No wonder.  Again he explained what the IMF had said about Australia’s situation and the planned meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers, and reiterated the changes which needed to be made to the rules, including transparency, capital adequacy, prudential standards, corporate governance, and for those to be consistent across the major economies.

With a voice rising to an almost hysterical pitch, O’Brien continued “Okay let's concede the point for the sake of the argument. But that's not going to stop right now Australian house prices going into a slide. If what we heard on this program is right last night, that our own housing prices in this country are at such unsustainable levels that the debt binge of this country in households is also unsustainable and the only way for them to go is down. Does that bother you?”  Silly question.  Of course it’s going to bother any PM.  Rudd explained that the Government’s responsibility was to provide tough action to keep the economy strong relative to what is happening around the rest of the world, and to underpin and maintain the stability of our banking and financial system. [more]

Undeterred, O’Brien went on “What message do you have for people who feel they are at the mercy of the markets: stay calm, don't panic, don't rush to liquidate your assets?”  Second silly question.  What politician, let alone the PM, is going to publically support that sort of advice: “don't rush to liquidate your assets”.  Rudd stated the obvious – that he’s not in the business of giving advice to individual investors or mortgage holders.

Then O’Brien referred to an interview the night before with Professor Steven Keane who had pointed out that America's private debt levels are way beyond what they were going into and during the '29 Great Depression, and so are Australia's, ending with “That must worry you.”  Of course it would.  Rudd explained consumer credit and personal consumer debt has been growing year by year over a decade, and what the Government was doing.

O’Brien then said “Do you agree with him that Australia's housing, Australia's housing values, our real estate values, are unsustainable, and secondly, that developers by and large are not going to invest in new land and housing developments because they know the capital gain is simply not going to be there for the foreseeable future?”  Third silly question.  Rudd replied that he was not in the business of providing advice on the future shape of the Australian housing market.

On and on it went, O’Brien getting more and more exercised until he said “We could end in a global recession that sweeps Australia up in it. Is that not so?”  Fourth silly question.  What sort of PM would be canvassing “a global recession that sweeps Australia up in it” when the people are looking for reassurance from their leader?

O’Brien made certain this would be rated as one of his worst interviews by concluding: “What is your biggest fear for Australia, right now, what is your nightmare for Australia?”  Fifth silly question.  Rudd’s reply hinted at his exasperation with O’Brien when he said “People running around throwing their hands in the air talking about nightmares is not leadership. That's commentary, and I am not in the business of commentary. The nation requires plain talking, straight talking, about the problems we face and the strengths we've got. And that's what I intend to keep doing.”

Mercifully, O’Brien then called it a day, and brought the awful interview to a close.

Why is it that interviewers, even of the high calibre of Kerry O’Brien, ask questions to which the answer is obvious, such as “That must really worry you.” or questions that no sensible political leader would or should answer, such as “What message do you have for people who feel they are at the mercy of the markets: stay calm, don't panic, don't rush to liquidate your assets?”  He must know these questions are inapt and unanswerable. Was he looking for a ‘Gotcha’ moment?  Or had the near-hysteria surrounding the awful situation overtaken common sense?  Was there a personal element of substantial stock market loss?

Contrast O’Brien’s demeanour interviewing Rudd with his demeanour interviewing John Stewart, Chairman of the Australian Bankers' Association and National Australia Bank chief executive, on Monday night 13 October. The latter resembled a ‘love-in’ rather than a hard hitting interview.  Why the difference?

The second episode was on Channel Nine’s Sixty Minutes last Sunday.  The Prime Minister, having been all weekend at a meeting of key ministers and financial advisers at which momentous decisions to protect Australia’s banking system were taken, looked tired as he fronted for an interview by Liam Bartlett.  Rudd outlined what decisions had been taken before taking questions.  After answering a number of questions, Bartlett addressed the worrisome issue of possible job losses following the financial upheaval, a matter alluded to by Wayne Swan earlier in the day.  Rudd conceded there may well be job losses, but that was not enough for Bartlett.  In his rich resonant voice he shot his insistent and repeated question “But how many jobs will be lost?”  Silly question.  Who on earth would know?  What sane political leader would hazard even a rough guess?  So why did Bartlett ask the question, so assertively, so demandingly?  Who knows?

It is understandable that interviewers get frustrated when they can’t get straight answers from politicians, but they will never succeed if they ask questions that are unanswerable or too politically hazardous for a politician to answer.  Kerry O’Brien experienced similar frustration in the days of John Howard and Peter Costello, but seems not to have learned that answerable questions are the only ones that will evoke the desired response.

It is obvious too that linguistic style and some expressions irritate.  Rudd often answers his own questions.  In this interview he used some of his favourites: “tough, decisive action” and “do you know something?”  All politicians have their sayings: To avoid a yes or no answer Costello used “Let me make this point’; Howard often said “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”  It’s not worth letting such quirks annoy. 

So it boils down to what’s reasonable for a journalist to subject our leaders to, and not just Government leaders. Opposition leaders too are subject to harassment, even intimidation, occasionally rudeness by interviewers.  Where has gone the respect to which elected leaders are entitled?  What right do journalists have to overstep the bounds of courtesy?  Where has politeness and good manners gone?  What has got into our TV interviewers?

The most commendable aspect of these sorry stories and others like them is the laudable patience of the political leaders being subjected to such media interrogation.  Not once do I recall any of them retaliating, or loosing temper.  I expect they know, as does the media, that any loss of temper or even mild loss of ‘coolness’ would be reported disparagingly all through the media to the subject’s embarrassment and disadvantage.  If only interviewers showed as much forbearance as their longsuffering subjects.

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15/10/2008I was astounded to hear Kerry O'Brien in panic mode when he interviewed Rudd. I dearly wished I could intervene and ask Kerry what he was trying to achieve with the irresponsible questions he put so aggressively. I didn't see the 60 minutes interview - mostly I avoid the programme because it is usually packed with gossip, innuendo and rubbishy reporting. Sometimes I wonder whether interviewers feel it their duty to break a political leader's cool. Is it, I wonder, that if the interviewer causes his/her prey to retaliate and/or lose their temper, gives the interviewer a higher standing among his peers? Being perceived as, like JWH, 'a man of steel'?
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