How do you rate our TV and radio journalists?

What was intended to be a two part piece needs another – this is about TV and radio journalists.

Some of these are the most acerbic and intimidating interrogators.  They look for and enjoy the gotcha moment, and because they are well known for this propensity, politicians are wary of them and cautious with their remarks for fear of them returning in a disadvantageous video clip.  I am most familiar with national journalists.  Let’s start with Kerry O’Brien. [more]

The 7.30 Report has been the scene of some historic combat between politician and interviewer.  Who will forget the interview when John Howard uttered those historic words that he would ‘probably...certainly’ retire part way through the next term.  Some Liberals believe that O’Brien leans to Labor; as well he might if one can judge from his demeanour during the 2007 election call, but he shows little of that as he harangues Labor politicians as intently as Coalition members.  He has a confronting style that prefers “surely it’s obvious that...” or “but don’t you think that...” to the open questioning style “tell us about...”.  It’s as if he is intent on taking an adversarial approach and wrong-footing his adversary from the outset.  Picture O’Brien confronting Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull - do they look comfortable?  Not as a rule.  They look somewhat apprehensive wondering what’s coming, and they answer with a level of hesitancy commensurate with the traps they perceive O’Brien may being laying for them.  The question though is whether this is good journalism or good entertainment.  When someone from one’s non-preferred side of politics is being grilled, I suppose it serves as entertainment, but otherwise seems less productive than a less combative style.  I wish sometimes that the interviewee would retaliate, as did Bob Hawke and Paul Keating when confronted with this style of questioning, but when in O’Brien’s interview with him last week Rudd asserted his right to answer the way he wished, he was labelled by the media as ‘testy’.  Pity he wasn’t more so; frankly I’m weary of intimidatory interviewing.

Interviews should be to inform the viewer rather than harass the interviewee.  Now if a politician is obfuscating, avoiding the truth, giving devious answers or changing the subject to avoid answering, we need interviewers who can pin them down, extract the facts, and insist on the truth.  But that ought to be a reaction to the interviewee’s responses rather than an initial gambit.

My contention is that an interview is between two actively participating persons, both of whom contribute powerfully to the process and the outcome.  Interviewers cannot claim to be neutral conduits.  Yet that is what many journalists would have us believe, and have us assume that the main player is the interviewee.  Even those working in the ‘hard’ field of subatomic physics now insist that the observer cannot be separated from that being observed.  Journalists need to accept that their attitudes, biases and approach have a profound influence on the outcome of their interviews and take care to use techniques that elicit what the public needs to know, rather than scoring a few points or celebrating a gotcha moment or making a scoop, or simply entertaining.

I notice that when O’Brien is interviewing a non-political person his approach is quite different – facilitative, courteous, respectful.  Why could this not be so with politicians?  We seem to have entered a blind alley with no way out but to go back to the beginning and see if political interviewing can be re-invented to produce more helpful and informative outcomes, and become less of a gladiatorial encounter.

Tony Jones is another fine TV journalist, but on Lateline he too exhibits an approach similar to O’Brien, often more flagrantly so.  His interviews with politicians seem aimed at the gotcha moment, and his pleasure at achieving that is obvious.  His encounter with Rudd last week when he wanted him to nominate the anticipated total debt in dollars is a case in point.  It would have immediately defused Jones’ questioning if Rudd had said up-front that the total debt would be around $300 billion, but it seemed as if Rudd’s minders had advised against that and rather to express it as a percentage of GDP.  Rudd seemed determined to spell out the elements of the debt before coming to the total lest he not have the chance to do so if he gave the figure first.  Anyway Jones was hell-bent on getting Rudd to say ‘billions’ and so the charade went on and on with both parties contributing to the unproductive dialogue that will doubtless be replayed over and again, much to Jones’ delight.  His approach to politicians contrasts with his interviews with other subjects when he can be charming, urbane and even-handed.  He behaves differently on Q&A where he is entertaining, quick witted and much gentler on the politicians, who, not surprisingly, respond with more frankness and generosity than is ever seen during his one-to-one interviews.  If he could take that approach to the latter interviews they might be more informative, certainly less combative.

That this approach does work is evidenced by Leigh Sales who shares Lateline.  She is very sharp, researches her material meticulously, and asks searching questions, but does so without harrying her subject.  However, she can persistently ask pointed questions when she doesn’t get straight answers.  She strikes me as more successful in getting informative answers than her ABC colleagues, and I believe that is the product of her facilitative approach.

Two quality journalists on commercial TV, Laurie Oakes on Channel Nine’s Sunday program and Paul Bongiorno on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press have a similar approach.  Although both, particularly Oakes, can be tough on politicians when they obfuscate, their initial approach is conciliatory, seeking information of value to the viewer.  My preference is for that style of interviewing.  Another who combines humour in his Riley Diary with sensible political comment is Channel Seven’s Mark Riley,

ABC’s Insiders generally seems to be a balanced programme, except when Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman sit in the ‘right chair’ when we get an earful of their unremitting bias.  Yesterday, after some biting comments about Rudd not saying the ‘billions’ word and ridicule of the display of hard hats all week, a sensible discourse on budget matters took place, with first-timer Michael Stutchbury making a solid contribution along with the always-sensible comments of Lenore Taylor, the sharp wit of David Marr, the observations of Paul Kelly, and the gentle moderation of Barrie Cassidy, whom some see as pro-Labor, but who seems fair and balanced.

I don’t receive ABC2 so I can’t comment on Barrie Cassidy there, or his co-presenter Virginia Trioli.

On ABC News and the 7.30 Report and Lateline Chris Uhlmann and Michael Brissennden report.  Uhlmann’s presentations vary in quality; he is better when he’s not trying to be funny.  Brissenden is somewhat impassive but reliable.  We do miss Maxine McKew.

On the business side, Stephen Long is well informed but almost always gloomy.  Ali Moore and her Lateline Business presenters are universally competent.  The ABC’s overseas reporters are strong performers. 

A side effect of aggressive interviewing is that less accomplished journalists feel entitled to take the same approach when they are on panels.  Sometimes they are downright rude, which diminishes the politician in the eyes of the viewers.  We all have feelings about politicians, some of them uncomplimentary, but what purpose is served by journalists putting them down in public, in making them targets for discourteous questions and ridicule.  After all, they are elected by us to run the country or to hold the government of the day accountable, so why not show them the respect that the job they do deserves.  As an aside, at a doorstop in Perth last week a journalist asked the PM, there with the WA Premier to announce infrastructure projects, what he thought about a Liberal website purported to display the party’s ‘hot conservative babes’.  Understandably, he side-stepped the question, but our earnest journo persisted until he finally worked out that the PM was not interested.  No wonder we wring our hands at the standard of TV journalism in this country.  And in case anyone had missed this stellar piece of journalism, it found its way into the pages of The Australian under the edifying headline Turnbull’s tottywatch.

On ABC 774 Melbourne radio Jon Faine has built up a reputation for being a fearless interrogator.  His is a good radio journalist but his approach is similar to O’Brien and Jones.  What surprises me is that his confronting approach is tolerated by the interviewees; I suppose those who know his style ignore his abrasiveness.   His sometime-substitute Walid Ali is a milder journalist, but to my mind more successful.  From transcripts, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell seems to be another aggressive interviewer.  I don’t listen to him.

Some of the interviewers on ABC AM, The World Today and PM, take a similar assertive approach.  Alexander Kirk and Lyndall Curtis are particularly prone to this, and I note today the usually gentle Emma Griffith was taking the same approach.  They would get more from their interviews if they were less intimidatory with their questioning.

When interviewers are aggressive it seems to stir talkback callers to similar behaviour.  The electronic media would better serve the community if it set out to inform rather than create antagonism and anger that reflects on politicians and the political process.  What purpose is there in creating angst, unreasonable demands and carping criticism?  Perhaps I’m missing the point.  Maybe this aids and abets the real purpose – to attract viewers/listeners, to stir up controversy, to entertain, and to improve ratings.

Please share your views with us.

Rate This Post

Current rating: NaN / 5 | Rated 0 times

Bushfire Bill

27/05/2009The state of play in Australian political journalism does indeed seem to be that it's a gotcha game. I feel about "gotcha moments" the same way as I feel about an intercept try in Rugby League. A team is pressing on their opponent's line. In an attempt to score a try before the six tackle handover, someone from the attacking side throws a desperate "Hail Mary" pass, attempting to cutout players and surprise their hard pressed opposition. But they try to cut out one too many. A defender rushes forward against the run of play, intercepts the pass in mid air and runs the entire length of the field to score under the posts, unopposed, as all attackers had come forward and couldn't reverse direction to catch the runaway quickly enough. Certain defeat is turned into glorious victory. Play music. Cue credits. We see continual references in political journalism to how Rudd might be a one-term government. Usually they pooh-pooh it, as shaun Carney did this morning. He called the Liberals' whimsy that this was a one term government "wishful thinking", but then proceeded to say that Rudd's failure to get passionate about the Budget could make that "come closer". It reveals his, and many other journalists' secret position: they want a one term government, either because it's exciting for them, or they're just straight-out conservative supporters. Carney speaks of Rudd not showing enough passion, certainly not enough to cancel out 11 years of Howard propaganda concerning "saving Australia" from the excesses of Keating. But I think Carney himself has fallen victim to the Howard (and perhaps more likely, the Costello) brainwashing. He's looking for a gotcha moment. Rudd doesn't sell the Budget enough. For this read: "Rudd is not scaring the horses enough, and when he does I'll accuse him of scaring the horses." Others have their favourites: the allegedly "crying" air hostess, brought to tears by a nasty Kevin Rudd over his peculiar preferences in mid-air menus. We now know it wasn't a peculiar preference. We now know the hostess didn't even cry. We now know [i]there was no food at all[/i]. Never mind, this one (we were told on Insiders) would "run and run". How did the journalists uttering these words know this? Because they would write the stories themselves. They would make [i]sure[/i] the story would run and run. It died within days, a victim of the Budget and the Swine Flu. Tony Jones on Lateline tried to get Rudd to utter the words "billion" and "three-hundred" in the same sentence. That was an attempted gotcha moment. When he couldn't, the story became how Rudd [i]refused[/i] to utter the two words! Talk about damned-if-you-do versus damned-if-you-don't! Rudd was said to be shy, indeed irrationally scared of saying the scary syllables, the line went, scared of giving the Opposition a handy grab line. That this "Grab line" would have been written up with glee by the likes of Jones or his pals in the print media is supposed to be the little secret that nobody discusses. The very people who say Rudd is scared of others making cheap points are the ones who themselves put the cheap points into circulation. Another example is Akerman's futile and laughable reliance on the 15 year-old Heiner "Affair" to simultaneously bring down the entire Queensland government, the Prime Minister and (for good measure, I presume) the Governor General! Gotcha! Many Liberals and many journalists believe that the present government can be turned into a "oncer" if only some senior minister (preferably the [i]Prime[/i] Minister) can be tripped into throwing that desperate Hail Mary pass which is intercepted and carried over the line at the other end of the field, maybe by Joe Hockey, maybe by the "brilliant parliamentary performer" Malcolm Turnbull. They yearn for another "Keating Banana Republic" line, harkening back to the days when a perfectly reasonable comment made by Paul Keating about the Australian economy's potential to become a mine for the rest of the world was turned into the "three words that destroyed a nation" (and a government). They're unlikely to get it from Rudd. The public continues to maintain "a fair degree of confidence in Labor's economic competence," as Carney disingenuously puts it. Well, I suppose that's one way of describing the almost three years of record poll results for Labor and their Leader since 2006, during which time the Opposition has failed to outpoint it even once (something that took Carney about a year to admit). One thinks that the only possible way the Liberals and Nationals are even going to get on the scoreboard is with a intercept try. But getting on the scoreboard is only the first step. It's the final tally when the full time whistle is blown that actually decides the game's outcome, not the odd mistake by an otherwise relentlessly overpowering government that has the public's wholehearted approval and thanks for what it is doing to keep their jobs, their homes and their families safe. Rudd does have a hard task, trying to prove a negative, trying to convince people that while things aren't great, they're a lot better than they would have been if nothing had been done to stimulate the economy. It's like the Y2K Bug: that nothing happened is now regarded as proving that nothing was [i]ever going[/i] to happen. Rudd, if anything, needs to be aware that he could be a victim of his own success. But he needs to spruik a fine line between unmitigated gloom and upbeat spin. Talking the prospects of an economy too far down may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know, because a journalist said so, just the other day. http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/cool-calm-and-collected-not-cutting-it-with-voters-20090526-bm0x.html?page=-1

janice

27/05/2009You've done it again, Bushfire Bill LOL. You have packaged my own thinking better than I could ever do myself so the only thing left for me to say is that I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. Like you, Ad astra, I'm weary of the intimidatory and aggressive interviewing style as applied to politicians. I'm weary of all the trivia beat ups that are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence across the media spectrum - trivia that is not even based on facts and are there to ridicule or put a blot on someone's character. I'm tired of trying to sort out how much, if any, of reported stories is fact and not purely and simply humbug to confuse the public.

Bilko

27/05/2009My respect for Tv and radio journo's is very low when clowns like Laws,A Jones ,Zemanick et al use to get incomes in the zillions but cry foul if our polies or anyone except "sports" stars get (in)decent wages. My other half a Laws listener use to argue with him to herself that is, and when I commented why waste time listening to him, I received "that look". As I have commented elsewhere tell the news don't creat it. BB and Janice I am in accord with your views," You can fool some of the people etc ctc but the Libs seem to try it all the time

Ad astra reply

27/05/2009BB, I agree with janice that your analogy is powerful. Although I'm not familiar with that football code, your description resonates. Shaun Carney's piece today is more egotistical that is usual for him, resting almost solely as it does on assertions for which he offers no evidence. First his heading: [i]"Cool, calm and collected not cutting it with voters"[/i]. What's his evidence that Labor is 'not cutting it'? Essential Research just last Monday found by 50% to 36% that those polled considered the budget was good for them, even more so among the lower socio-economic groups. 46% agreed with the Government that ‘it was necessary to have a deficit budget to protect jobs and get Australia out of recession’, while only 34% agreed with the Opposition that ‘the Government has lost control of the economy and has run up too much debt’. Those data doesn't suggest a lack of 'cutting through'. His piece begins [i]"Labor must show some passion for its own economic strategy."[/i] This is Carney's opinion; he offers nothing to support it. He goes on [i]"Last week was definitely the Government's worst in its 18-month life."[/i] Again opinion; many might agree; many would not. What was it that made it the 'worst'. That's not stated either. We're just expected to swallow what Carney thinks is a self-evident truth. I guess some of his mates said so. Then he takes up the 'lack of passion' theme. Doesn't he watch Question Time? If the passion exhibited there by Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard, Lindsay Tanner and Anthony Albanese does not rate, what on earth does he expect? Their performances were one of the most impassioned I've ever seen. They exhibited the multiple infrastructure projects in hand, ridiculed Opposition members' keenness to get on the infrastructure bandwagon in their electorates while voting against them in parliament, and attacked the Opposition relentlessly for its hypocrisy. In building his case Carney goes on to opine [i]"If the Government continues to fall into the trap of going for cool PR over hot debate during the next year, it will find itself in considerable political trouble."[/i] Even if the debate was as cool as he insists, what evidence is there that the public prefers 'hot' debate to a 'cool' exposition of the facts? I could go one, but as an example of a piece almost totally unsupported by evidence, and therefore presumably based on Carney's opinion, it is a classic example of an attempt to make opinions seem to be factual, and as you indicate BB, is a flagrant exercise in wishful thinking, as if saying something often enough, such as Rudd will lead 'a one-term government', will make it happen. Carney should read what Peter Brent said today in [i]Mumble[/i] in a short piece titled [i]The power of the media?[/i] [quote]“There is no doubt the press gallery and media in general have a significant influence on how people see governments and oppositions and hence how they vote. It's a complicated story with lots of chicken and eggs. “But there's a specific subset: the idea that if the media reports that a party is "doing well", this will translate into it being so. The prevalence of this explains why in parliament the parties play to the press gallery (so they will report "the government/opposition had a good day today"), why The Australian during 2007 kept finding silver linings for John Howard in its Newspolls and (partially) the high levels of self-perceived importance among many in the press gallery, “It also explains why today some are over-egging the Rudd government's troubles from last week: if they describe how the political ground has shifted forcefully enough, it will help it become true. But there is no evidence yet that the public has turned off this extremely dull government. “Related was the leaked Crosby-Textor analysis a couple of years ago which indicated that that outfit believes that who people expect to win an election is a strong determinant of the result. “This is just silly, simple-minded and contrary to human nature - the Australian variety anyway. The idea presumably comes from America, where there is great belief in the "bandwagon effect". I don't know enough about that country to judge, but it sure doesn't apply in Australia, where if anything does it's the opposite, the "underdog effect". The expectation of a John Hewson win helped explain Paul Keating's 1993 victory, and the opposite - that Keating would wiggle off the hook again - probably increased John Howard's 1996 majority. “Malcolm Turnbull has an excuse, as his remaining leader depends in part on good media reviews. But the same doesn't apply to the government. And journos produce better work when they operate on the assumption that they are not going to change one person's vote.”[/quote] janice, I share your frustration. Today Christian Kerr in [i]House Rules Blog[/i] in [i]The Australian[/i] in a piece [i]Wait-and-see approach nets a rare win[/i], ends up asserting [quote]"Most ordinary voters will sympathise with Turnbull’s wait-and-see position. They will approve of his pledge of bipartisan support of a target to cut Australia’s emissions by up to 25 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020."[/quote] Will they? How does he know? A hunch? Press Gallery chatter? Who knows? No evidence offered, or even considered necessary. Bilko, Being a Victorian, I haven't listened to the ones you mentioned; the snippets of Laws and Jones I've heard on Media Watch is enough for me.

Bushfire Bill

27/05/2009[i]Will they? How does he know? A hunch? Press Gallery chatter? Who knows? No evidence offered, or even considered necessary.[/i] AA, you speak of what I call "The Fearless Prediction Syndrome". This is when a political journalist makes a bold assertion, unsupported by facts... a "gut feeling" pronouncement. Milne is an expert at it, as is Akerman, as is Peter Hartcher (thought, to my mind strangely, by some, to be one of the "quality" journos... I can still remember Hartcher going on about John Howard "striding triumphantly down the Boulevard Of Ideas" after a Quadrant dinner-cum-love-fest in his honour... but I digress). They make the bold assertion and will be the first to remind their readers that it came true - [i]if it does indeed come true[/i]. Of course, if you give a monkey enough typewriters he'll come up with [i]Hamlet[/i]. Likewise, if you allow a political journo to spruik bold assertions often enough eventually one of them will turn out to be correct. For the bold assertions that turn to dust (usually before the paper they are printed upon can be used for wrapping fish and chips) we never hear a harkening back, ever. They're forgotten before they're remembered. I once wrote to the ABC Television news when, in their 2005 Budget bulletin (the night after the actual Budget), they showed happy-faced Coalition members triumphantly rolling into Parliament from their Comm Cars. The spoken headline was, [i]"They're on a winner... and they know it!"[/i]. I left writing my letter to the ABC Complaints Department for a week until the Newspoll came out showing that the Howard government had [i]dropped[/i] 1% in popularity. How, I asked, could the ABC possibly head their post-Budget bulletin with the words, "They're on a winner... and they know it?" when the polls showed that they were - quite literally - on a [i]loser[/i], that they had [i]lost[/i] public support? Why couldn't they wait to [i]see[/i] if the Coalition was indeed on a winner? The reply came back that the ABC reporter who covered the Budget (Jim Middleton at the time) was an experienced political journalist and he called it as he saw it. But, I wrote back, he called it [i]wrong[/i]. Why bother to make the bold assertion in the first place, without any evidence but the regulation smiles on the Coalition dials? The reply was less effusive the second time around. I was referred to the ABC's Code Of Conduct which proscribed bias in the news reporting. Therefore, the argument went, the ABC being prohibited from being biased [i]were not biased[/i]. QED. My third letter on the subject was ignored. I guess I was put on the "Crackpot" list. And I didn't even use green ink! I didn't write vertically in the margins! Needless to say, we never heard another word from Jim Middleton about "winners" and how they "knew it". Political journalists possess the conceit that they are gurus. Therefore, as gurus do, they make pronouncements. But like the Rainmaker scammer, the pronouncements that fall flat on their faces are quietly forgotten. Until journalists in this fair land realise that the Rudd government has rewritten the rule book on what impresses the punters, they will continue to believe that intercept tries will reverse the fortunes of the game. They will continue to hope against hope that Rudd's will be a one-term government. And they will continue to turn off their readers with their silly pontifications.

Ad astra reply

27/05/2009BB, From the interesting account of your communication with the ABC, it seems as if you may have had an effect. Let’s use that experience as encouragement for us all to keep hacking away at journalists who suffer from "The Fearless Prediction Syndrome", which seems to occupy a taxonomic position similar to your ‘Rainmaker Syndrome’. This afternoon on the [i]House Rules Blog[/i] in [i]The Australian[/i], Christian Kerr wrote a piece [i]Just the man to run the country in tough times[/i] after the BRW Rich List featured Malcolm Turnbull’s supposed wealth. The responses are worth reading, even if the article isn’t. Although there are some who defend Kerr and Turnbull, I was surprised how many took Kerr to task, and sideswiped Turnbull in the process. It will be interesting to see if this feedback changes his approach. You can read it at http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/houserules/index.php/theaustralian/comments/just_the_man_to_run_the_country_in_tough_times/

Bushfire Bill

27/05/2009Read that. Still can't make up my mind whether Kerr was being ironic. I hope to God he was, because the alternative is to horrible to contemplate.

janice

28/05/2009I have only just read House Rules and I must say I found the comments quite surprising in that there were few in agreement with Christian Kerr. I'm afraid though that Mr. Kerr actually believes what he wrote (he puts the reaction of his bloggers down to 'forgetting to take their medication'), and he has followed it up with another similar piece under the heading 'Turnbull cries poor'. Your run-in with the ABC is most interesting Bushfire Bill. I've never got further with the ABC than a stereotyped acknowledgement and silence thereafter, so maybe you did actually hit a raw nerve there. It will take years, if at all, for the ABC to re-discover its old self and return to honest, unbiased reporting designed to inform the public rather than go the way of the tabloids and stir up unsubstantiated and irrevelant tripe as food for gossipmongers. For me, the sullying of our National Broadcaster is the worst crime Howard committed against the Australian people.

Ad astra reply

28/05/2009janice, I think you're right. In his piece [i]Turnbull cries poor[/i] http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/houserules/index.php/theaustralian/comments/turnbull_cries_poor/ Christian Kerr seems to be on the same theme as yesterday: [i]"...He[/i] [Turnbull] [i]seems to be the sort of leader we want in an economic downturn.[/i] When he says: [i]"The Liberals might even try subliminally spinning Turnbull is the man for tough times."[/i] this reads like gratituous advice to his preferred party. He likes to suggest in his response to his bloggers that he's just 'stirring the possum', but two days in a row stirring the same possum suggests that this is no possum but a position in which he believes - [i]Turnbull the leader for an economic downturn, a man for tough times[/i], and for which he hopes. Many of his respondents too think that's Kerr's position.

Just Me

28/05/2009Kerr ain't fooling anybody about his supposed neutrality.

Ad astra reply

28/05/2009Tonight Niall Ferguson hosts a programme on ABC1 at 8.30 that features his informative book [i]The Ascent of Money[/i] which was mentioned in a piece on TPS posted on May 5 [i]Is the GFC a manifestation of chaos?[/i] http://www.thepoliticalsword.com/post/2009/05/05/Is-the-GFC-a-manifestation-of-chaos.aspx

Ad astra reply

28/05/2009Just Me, Agree that Christian Kerr writes like a Coalition promoter, and his bloggers are on to him.
How many umbrellas are there if I start with two and take 2 away?