As Leigh Sales interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 7.30
last week, was she hoping it might remind viewers of her interview of Tony Abbott six months earlier, one that attracted widespread applause for its probing, her persistence, and her command of the interview? Looking back, she may be disappointed that this time she came off second best, that she showed her hand so early in the interview, and that she exposed so openly her disdain for our nation's leader.
Her opening gambit, before her subject had had a chance to avoid a question or to obfuscate, gave her game away: ”After recent events, aren't Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?”
Note her words: ”dysfunctional mess”
and ”consigned to opposition as soon as possible”
. Judgemental? Of course. Pejorative? Yes. A good way to start? No.
Her opening remark begs the question: “What was Sales’ intent for this interview with the nation’s leader?” To embarrass? To belittle? To intimidate? To set up the interview to give Sales the upper hand? To serve as an introduction to the issue of ‘trust’ that she intended to pursue later? Only Sales would know if any of these applied.
The interview has been forensically analysed by journalism expert Peter Clarke in Anatomy of Sales -v- Gillard interview
in Australians for Honest Politics.
His analysis is from the point of view of an expert in media interviews, especially with politicians. It is worth a read if for no other reason than it gives an academic journalist’s perspective. This piece does not attempt to replicate or compete with that analysis; instead it attempts to analyse the interview through the eyes of an ordinary citizen, one who viewed it as it occurred.
My first reaction was emotional. Why was this senior journalist assailing our PM from the beginning? I wondered why was she so rude, so disrespectful of the most senior politician in the country. My annoyance increased as the interview progressed in the same vein. So infuriated was I that at the end I sent an email to Mark Scott, MD of the ABC, protesting at Sales’ impertinence, poor manners and disrespect.
On reflection, I asked myself what Sales’ intent really was, and came up with the following possibilities.
I imagine that primarily she wanted this interview to be lauded as was her interview of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on 7.30
on 22 August, for which she won a Walkley Award. The citation said that she “pressed him on his attack on the Government over the mining tax and carbon tax. The fiery exchanges saw Mr Abbott eventually admit he had not read a statement from miner BHP which was central to the attack.”
For her to have the same intent for the Gillard interview as she did for the Abbott one is understandable, even laudable.
But what other intent did Sales have?
Did she set out deliberately to demean and insult the PM, to show her, and her high office, disrespect?
If that were so, is that an acceptable intent for a senior journalist? And even if it were acceptable, ought it to have been so overt, so up front? If it was not Sales’ intent, she certainly messed up badly from the outset.
One would hope that, like any competent TV journalist interviewing a politician, she would have intended to elicit relevant information: facts and figures, explanations, reasons, opinions, plans and policies, information that would enlighten the viewer, information that would assist the viewer to make an assessment that would be useful come election day.
Let’s see what she did achieve in this regard by analyzing her questions and the responses they evoked.
PM Julia Gillard responded to Sales brusque opening question by agreeing that she too was ‘appalled’ by the week, but argued that in the end people would judge the Government on what it had achieved, on its plans. She then listed its achievements.
Sales brushed that aside, and elaborated on what emerged as her central agenda: ”But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor's plans for the future when you've had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?”
Building on the notion of ‘dysfunction’, Sales now makes overt the issue of ‘trust’, a dependable theme for any political journalist.
This time it is the PM that brushes aside Sales’ direct question of trust. She answers obliquely by reiterating the considerable achievements of her Government, implying that the people can
trust a Government that gets so much done. Critics would label PM Gillard’s response as obfuscation, or at least avoidance of the question.
Sales was having nothing of her answer. Labelling the Government’s achievements somewhat pejoratively as ‘a laundry list’, she cheekily assails the PM with: ”let me give you one back”
. Sales then reads her own list, the theme this time being a list of ‘broken promises’, and ‘mistakes’, leading to ”how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you're planning to do going forwards?”
Here we see more on the ‘trust’ theme – but now it’s nuanced to ‘broken promises’ and ‘faith’. She was not going to let go of that. Viewers could be excused if they saw this as echoing the Coalition’s ‘who do you trust’ theme, used first during the 2004 election campaign by John Howard, now repeated by Tony Abbott.
The PM offered to go through Sales’ long list of ‘misdemeanors’, but Sales was not interested: ”But Prime Minister, you're not addressing my central problem there, which was that there was a broken promise ...”
, and when the PM said she disagreed with her list, Sales interrupted with ”No, no, there was a broken promise there and there is a long list of initiatives that the Government has introduced that have been failures or have not come to fruition. The most recent of course last week, the media reforms. Let me put it to you ...”
And when the PM addressed Sales’ list, ending with the live cattle export issue, she interrupted again with: ”It was very messy in the way that it was done though.”
Sales was determined to hammer the PM relentlessly with her ‘long list’ of ‘broken promises’, ‘failures’, ‘messiness’. She was not going to let the PM escape, just as she had not allowed Abbott to escape. That was her intent – no escape!
She is now almost half way through her twelve-minute interview, and has not asked one question that might elicit useful information about policies and plans. All the questions had centered on trust, faith, broken promises, mistakes, misdemeanors, and messiness. If that was her intent, she was certainly on song.
There was no way the PM was going to respond to the accusation of messiness, so she pressed on: ”Now, on the rest of the list, you can keep going through it, but when we've worked through some very difficult things like carbon pricing, our eyes have always been on what is best for the nation, what's in the national interest, what's in the interest of a strong, prosperous, fair, smart future and I am very happy to be judged on that.”
Not to be deterred from her claim of messiness in governance, Sales cited the concerns of Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean about the process of government, and in particular the media law reform last week, quoting them as saying that ”it was mishandled and that it was a debacle.”
, adding: ”Doesn't that go to the very heart of the way you run government when senior ministers in your own team have stepped down and made that criticism?”
The PM responded by acknowledging the centrality of cabinet debate and went on to explain the protracted processes that preceded the presentation of the media bills.
But Sales, like other commentators, had already decided that the process was appalling, so pressed on with: ”How is it good government that your minister, presumably with your approval, produced legislation with a minimal consultation of cabinet and the caucus and then demanded it be passed in just a week's time without amendments and without negotiation?”
As the PM reiterated the prior inquiries (Convergence and Finkelstein reviews), Sales interrupted with: ”… I'm just asking why you put legislation up with one week's notice and said, "No negotiation, no amendments".”
Sales sounded like a schoolmistress reprimanding a wayward schoolgirl.
Julia Gillard patiently went through the reviews again, but again Sales, somewhat defensively, interposed with: ”Well the content of the reports of the reviews weren't unknown, but the content of the legislation was unknown until Stephen Conroy produced it.”
The PM again pointed out that the changes had been publicized in the newspapers, and after more interruptions, Sales retorted: ”If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you'd have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.”
She was not going to let go of her portraiture of the Gillard Government as one characterized by mistakes, misdemeanors, mishandling, and messiness.
The PM pointed out that in a minority government everything had to be negotiated and that she ”wasn't prepared to cross-trade and do any deal to get these bills through”
, but Sales came back, rather sarcastically, with: ”So you were quite happy with how that process was handled last week from woe to go, the media reforms?”
Once again, PM Gillard began to explain the process, but perhaps sensing the pointlessness of this in the face of a obstinate interviewer ended with: "…our focus has to be relentless on what it is we need to do to strengthen our nation for the future and what we need to do to support families today.”
Three quarters of the interview, nine minutes, had already elapsed, without one question that probed policy issues. All had focussed on trust, and what Sales saw as mistakes, misdemeanors, messiness and botched process. Now it was time to assail the PM with leadership issues: ”You said today that last week's events make it clear now that you have the confidence of your colleagues. Isn't the reality though that many of your colleagues are in despair about your leadership and about the ALP's prospects in the election, but that they just don't see a viable alternative?
” Sales’ provocation continued.
Julia Gillard, whose patience must now have been wearing thin, replied briefly that her leadership had been tested once again and that she had the ‘emphatic’ endorsement of the party. She concluded: ”Leigh, it's over. I don't think that any of this is worth speaking about anymore.”
But Sales was not finished, adding condescendingly: ”But you can understand, can't you, how Australians would be looking at your side of politics and feeling very nervous about taking a gamble on you again given that a number of senior members of your own cabinet have stepped down in recent days, criticized the process by which you govern and basically indicated they don't have any confidence or faith in your leadership?”
Once more, our PM, with patience that most of us would have difficulty mustering, repeated that the events of last week were indeed appalling and self-indulgent, but finished with: ”What is then appropriate for me as Prime Minister is to renew the team with quality and talent and that's what I've done today.”
But her mea culpa
was not enough for Sales who impudently came back with another ‘but’: ”But Prime Minister, I don't think that Australians can quite so neatly as you have done draw a line under everything they've seen for the past few years and then just ignore it and do what you want them to do which is to concentrate on what you're promising going forwards.”
Sales obviously believes she has her finger on the pulse of the nation.
The ever patient Gillard concluded this wearisome interview with a confident assertion that she and Labor were in the best position to lead our nation ” through in what can be a very rough and tumble world.” Twelve minutes had elapsed, the interview was over, but not one question had addressed policy details, or plans, or prospects for our nation in the Asian Century under Labor, and under the alternative, the very matters about which voters need to be informed. Every question was directed to issues of trust, to Sales’ recital of the broken promises, the mistakes, the misdemeanors, the messiness, the mishandlings, the botched processes, which by implication brought into question Labor’s and the PM’s competence to govern. And at the end came the ubiquitous leadership issue; no journalist worth his or her salt would miss that.
Will this interview win Sales another Walkley Award? Perhaps a Wonkley!
It is easy to be critical, so let’s examine how Sales might have approached the interview. Here are some possible questions, ones that would address the matters that Sales had on her agenda, as well as policy matters: Prime Minister, it has been a tumultuous week for you and Labor. How do you plan to overcome the damage that you yourself acknowledge has been done to the Labor brand?
You have said that the leadership issue is now ‘done and dusted’, and you have emerged as the leader, seemingly now beyond challenge. How will you approach the task of healing the wounds that have been inflicted by this latest leadership challenge, particularly among those who supported Kevin Rudd, many of whom have resigned?
Are you confident that there will be no more leadership challenges and no more sabotage by Rudd supporters?
There have been criticisms from both within your party and from without about how some legislation has been presented; I’m referring specifically to the recent media law reforms. Would you care to comment about this, and whether the four bills that were not presented will be presented when parliament next meets.
Do you think these bills might have passed if more time had been available for their consideration?
John Howard made a feature of ‘trust’ in his 2004 campaign, and Mr Abbott has often labelled you as ‘untrustworthy’. How do you plan to engender a sense of trust among voters?
The opinion polls suggest that voters have doubts about Labor’s capacity to manage the nation’s affairs into the next term, and concerns about your leadership. How do you propose to address these doubts and concerns?
You have several important pieces of legislation in progress but not yet complete; I’m referring specifically to the NDIS and the Gonski reforms to school education. Many have queried how these desirable reforms can be funded now and in the future. While I’m not asking you to reveal budget discussions, can you give us some insight into how you are approaching the funding issue?
Much has been made of the harm that the carbon tax is doing to the economy. What evidence is there about its impact to date?
Has it made any difference to Australia’s carbon emissions?
You have been accused of promising that there would be no carbon tax under a government you lead, and the Opposition has continually assailed you with this. How will you counter that accusation of lying?
You have spoken of the Asian Century. Could you elaborate for me how Australia might take advantage of it?
Explain to me and to our viewers how Labor’s policies would be more beneficial to this country than the Coalition’s.
One could go on and on in this vein.
No doubt, those who enjoy seeing our PM hammered mercilessly applauded Leigh Sales' interview, and would categorize the above questions as insufficiently probing, far too soft, or even as Dorothy Dixers. But they would at least stand a chance of eliciting answers that would inform voters about the PM’s intentions, her trustworthiness, her capacity to lead, Labor’s plans for the time ahead, and how it compared with the alternative. Their intent would be to uncover informative facts, opinions, policies and plans. In contrast, the intent of Leigh Sales’ interview seemed to be to demean, to belittle, to show disrespect for our PM, and by implication the office of PM. It focussed on a collection of what Sales considered were Labor’s and the PM’s failings, misdemeanors, and botched processes. She seemed intent on hammering issues of trust and leadership, implying that trust was irrecoverable and leadership still in doubt. If these indeed were her intentions, and also to expose her own feelings about, and attitudes towards the PM and the party she leads, she succeeded brilliantly.
Viewers were left no wiser though about Labor’s policies or plans for the next six months and the next term. If it was Sales intent to inform them, she failed miserably, but that seems to have not been on her agenda. Only she would know; we can judge only on what we saw.
Words are but one aspect of communication. View the video and observe her tone of voice and her body language yourself. Despite her overt hostility, Sales lost control of the interview as Julia Gillard calmly and patiently answered each thrust she made. In contrast to her Abbott interview, this time she came out the loser, in more ways than one.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the prospect that Sales’ attitude may reflect an emerging culture at the ABC among some journalists there – one antagonistic to the PM and Labor, a culture that gives ‘permission’ to lesser journalists to follow Sales’ lead. The crucial question is whether ABC Managing Director Mark Scott permits such a culture. Viewers will be watching carefully in future with this question in mind.
What do you think? If you intend to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to: Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, Tony Burke, Doug Cameron, Jason Clare, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Simon Crean, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, David Feeney, Martin Ferguson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Peter Garrett, Ed Husic, Andrew Leigh, Jenny Macklin, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Amanda Rishworth, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Tony Windsor and Penny Wong.