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.