Brian Edwards Media

At Last A Current Affairs Show!

The past two weeks have seen the welcome return of Agenda, now renamed Q & A and fronted by Paul Holmes. Holmes is a considerable improvement on previous host Rawdon Christie, who was fine on Dragons’ Den, but completely out of his depth as a political interviewer. But Paul will have to remember that Q & A is not Holmes and not an appropriate vehicle for his personal opinions. His role on our only significant political programme should be as a facilitator – a role in which he is unsurpassed – and not as a contributor to the debate.

That said, the presence of a seasoned professional has given the show a more relaxed and confident feel. And Holmes is no slouch as an interviewer. His interviews have a softer edge to them than Guyon Espiner’s and are the better for it. The highly abrasive, interruptive style that has in the past been characteristic of interviewers like Plunkett, Hosking, Espiner and Larry Williams generally produces more heat than light and has less to do with informing the public than with the interviewer’s ego.

Holmes’ interview with new Labour President Andrew Little was a case in point. It began brilliantly:

PAUL: Good morning to you, Labour Party President and General Secretary of the EPMU Andrew Little.

ANDREW: Good morning, Paul.

PAUL: Who am I speaking to this morning.

ANDREW: You’re talking to Andrew Little.

PAUL: Am I speaking to the President of the Labour Party or am I speaking to the General Secretary of the EPMU?

ANDREW: Well, you’re talking to me about a range of issues, and when I came here I was told I was coming here with both hats on so I will answer the question. Now listen this thing about the…

PAUL: Well, the point I’m trying to make, I suppose,  is that there is potential for you to end up in a conflicted situation, isn’t there?  You’re interested in the Labour Party and not necessarily interested in your members.

ANDREW: Not at all. This is a story looking for some facts.

Though the atmosphere was friendly, Holmes continued to pursue Little on the potential for a conflict of interest between his role as General Secretary of the EPMU and his new job. There were  plenty of ‘facts’ to back up Holmes’ assertion of such a conflict and the new Labour President’s  replies were less than persuasive. Little is impressive, but his somewhat peremptory and over-confident manner of dismissing criticism will not serve him well in future interviews.

Espiner had interviewed Prime Minister John Key earlier in the programme. I have been forceful in my criticism of Espiner’s interviewing style in the past, but he is articulate, highly intelligent and extremely well-informed. He seemed to have abandoned the pit-bull in favour of the fossicking beagle in his interview with Key, a sign one hopes of a more mature approach to the job rather than of deference or political leaning. Journalists are entitled to observe and comment on Key’s honeymoon with the voters, but not to share the same hotel room.

I thought it was a very good interview. But not from Key’s point of view. There was an extraordinary lack of practical detail in his answers, a fact not missed by the programme’s panel. He waffled. There will be a limit to the number of times he can say, “Well, we’re working on it,’ before voters decide that the pre-election impression of him as a politician stronger on image than on substance may well have been right.

Not so Judith Collins whom Espiner interviewed on the second show. I was prepared to dislike her intensely.  Watching her sitting next to Tony Ryall in Parliament, I was constantly reminded of the fast-talking TV frontwoman ‘Gina Hardfaced-Bitch’ on the Australian sketch comedy series Fast Forward. Cold, impassive, stony-hearted.  

The Espiner interview revealed a very different person.  Collins’ performance was contained, certainly. She kept her answers brief and to the point and, unlike so many of her colleagues on both sides of the house, was familiar and comfortable with the words Yes and No. She was, in a word, straightforward. And, as the interview progressed, she allowed herself, her interviewer and the television audience the luxury of an occasional smile. An interviewer can always tell when another interviewer likes ‘the talent’. I could see that Espiner liked Collins. Why not?  She seemed almost… warm.

My assumptions about her likely approach to penal policy also proved incorrect. Collins talked a lot about rehabilitation and her emphasis, to my astonishment, was on reducing our prison population, already the second highest per capita in the developed world, rather than locking more offenders up and throwing away the key.  Espiner rarely misses a beat, but he really should have asked how such progressive thinking gelled with National and ACT’s  proposed ‘three strikes and you’re out’ legislation.  

It will be interesting to see whether Collins can back up her words with action. Liberal penal policies are anathema to Kiwis who see punishment, whether of felons or their own children, as the only effective deterrent to bad behaviour.

Q & A is a really good programme. It meets Lord Reith’s requirement of public service television that it should ‘inform, educate and entertain’.  So it was sad to see the second programme descend to the level of tabloid journalism. New Speaker, Lockwood Smith, was a legitimate subject for the programme, but his love-life was not. That part of the interview belonged in the Woman’s Weekly not on Q & A.  Maybe this was an attempt to increase the programme’s ratings. But the way to do that is for TVNZ to have the guts to put the programme on in peak time. They might be astonished to discover how many people would watch it.

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  1. The Q&A interview of Key is unwatchable – not in a technical sense – but for its content. Espiner was either in awe of Key or too nice to ask the hard questions. For example; all that drivel about home insulation and no mention of the fact the policy is a truncated version on one started by Labour.
    When are we going to have someone with the balls (no pun intended) to challenge Key and others with some robust critical analysis of policy. All we have seen since November is carping about Labour and no initiatives – especially on tfhe economic front. Cycleways and 9 day fortnights are nto going to cut it.

  2. Sorry but I disagree that the Espiner/Key interview was poor. I actually thought Espiner did better than usual in the extent to which he pressed Key. That’s not to say there isn’t much more to be asked but it’s a move in the right direction at least.
    I thought Holmes on the other hand looked superfluous to the show and seemed like ads for all they interrupted the good stuff. His show-bizzy style seemed anachronistic and junky. I can’t deny Holmes is a great interviewer in some contexts, but I don’t think Q+A is one of them.

    • I thought I was pretty kind to Espiner, Bryonny. I don’t think Holmes is ‘superfluous’, but he needs to be reminded that this is meant to be reasonably serious current affairs show. Last Sunday we had a stand-up comedy routine from him at the start of the show and another Woman’s Weekly interview with Helen and Peter at the end.

  3. Yes I agree with you on that.

  4. This morning’s interview with Pita Sharples was another example of Holmes getting his oar in on an issue way too close to his own heart, given his oft-rumoured, ‘Super Mayoral’ aspirations….

    Ok, Paul, we get it. YOU don’t think Maori should have electoral representation in Auckland or NZ. Thanks for that, but can we hear more of the panelists opinions please?

    • But what a wonderful guy Sharples is – honest, straighforward, passionate, brilliant mind, hugely articulate and a superb communicator. It all showed in the interview. And actually I didn’t really have any complaint about Paul either. I’m coming round to the view that he’s brightened up the show considerably and, if its ratings improve, we’ll all be better informed.

  5. Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting.