Media people yearn for the scoop, the breaking story they get to first. They dream of being ahead of the pack, of upstaging their competitors. They pursue their dreams every day. But today’s politicians watch every word they utter, fearful of saying something that will come back to haunt them, as it can so easily with today’s instantaneous communications technology. They worry about spilling the beans about party machinations, about what has been said behind closed party doors. There are of course a few exceptions; some enjoy backgrounding, leaking and sabotage. But more than anything else they are nervous about letting slip party strategy and tactics.
Herein resides the conflict between the media and the politicians. They are in constant battle – the media intent on drawing out of the politicians what the politicians do not want to reveal, and the politicians determined to thwart them. This is the basis of the charade we see played out daily on TV and radio. The media personalities that indulge in this line of questioning seem to enjoy the joust, the politicians themselves may sometimes enjoy it too but usually look uncomfortable, whereas those forced to witness the contest usually end up frustrated, annoyed or plain bored. This is the ‘silly questions syndrome’. A few contemporary examples illustrate the several forms it takes. [more]
Based upon Penny Wong’s statement earlier that day that the Government’s ETS would create jobs, on ABC TV’s Lateline on Tuesday Tony Jones was hell bent on extracting from her precisely how many jobs would be created. Obviously she cannot know this, and even if she thought she did know, she would not be about to tell Tony Jones, for fear that this figure would be stored in the video clip archives and resurrected later when and if that figure was not achieved. She went part of the way by saying that Treasury modelling indicated that there would likely be a thirty-fold increase in jobs in the renewable energy sector. But that was not enough for Tony. As is his style, he hammered her again and again with the same question, and got the same response while viewers winced and wondered when he would give up and get onto a more productive line of questioning. Tony Jones is habituated to this approach, as is Kerry O’Brien, but despite their frequent use of it, they seldom enjoy a ‘gotcha’ moment.
This might be called ‘the numbers game’. It’s played over and over again; only the subject changes – forecast job losses or created, unemployment figures, extent of deficit, amount of debt, amount of the ‘cash splash’ spent versus the amount saved, revenue forecasts, and so on. The questioner always wants precise figures; the politician can’t and won’t give them, and so on and on the exchange goes ad nauseam.
A variant is the ‘will you guarantee’ game. The interviewer knows no politician will guarantee any policy outcome with the certainty journalists desire. So why do they try so hard to get an answer? Do they think that barrister-like approach appeals? Well it might appeal to the opponents of the interviewee, but it angers the supporters, and bores and irritates all those in between.
On Wednesday’s Fox News the interviewer persistently questioned Barnaby Joyce about the Coalition’s approach to the Government’s IR legislation, specifically what Coalition amendments were so sacrosanct that if not accepted the Coalition would vote against the legislation. She was trying to corner Barnaby into admitting where the line in the sand had been drawn that the Coalition would not cross, even if that resulted in it being labelled as still wedded to WorkChoices.. He was too clever to answer that, saying it would not be smart ‘to telegraph the Coalition’s punches’. Christopher Pyne said the same thing later in the day, and Malcolm Turnbull said it would be foolish to imperil his negotiating position. They were all correct, yet three journalists pressed them relentlessly for an answer no prudent politician would or should give.
This might be called the ‘tell me your secret’ game. The subject changes, but the quest is the same – digging out hints of tactics, bits of dirt, slivers of intrigue, the smell of dissatisfaction, dissent and disloyalty, and understandably the response is to cover-up.
Another example of silly questions was seen in a doorstop when Turnbull was tackled by journalists about the so-called party room ‘faceoff’ between himself and Peter Costello over the Coalition’s stance on IR, emblazoned across the front page of Wednesday’s Australian. He was never about to reveal the full extent of the faceoff, nor should he have to. He tried to sidestep the question and talk about his favourite theme ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, but the journalists were interested only in the internal tensions between he and Costello, and the ongoing leadership speculation. The GFC, ETS and IR were far less important, certainly far less interesting. While it is not surprising the media find tensions and leadership more entertaining and light-hearted than the crises we face, it does nothing to advance sensible, serious discourse on matters of critical importance to us all.
This might be called ‘the let’s turn the knife’ game. The personalities change, but the strategy is the same. It resembles the ‘pecked chook syndrome’. We saw it most flagrantly when Simon Crean , Mark Latham and Brendan Nelson were the object of attention; we seem to be seeing it now in slow motion with Malcolm Turnbull.
The purpose of this piece is to highlight the questionable role the media plays in promoting balanced political discourse. While journalists have the right and responsibility to probe politicians about their policies, their statements and their cohesion, the ubiquitous ‘silly questions syndrome’ is a serious malady that undermines the value of the media and the respect it seeks so earnestly.
Silly questions are reprehensible, irritating, time-wasting, boring and unproductive. Is there any known remedy? Must we suffer this ineptitude indefinitely?