Brian Edwards Media

The Plunket Enigma

Photo: Radio New Zealand

Photo: Radio New Zealand

Sometime after my unceremonious sacking by Sharon Crosby as host of Top of the Morning, I was interviewed on Morning Report by Sean Plunket. I was surprised by the vehemence of Plunket’s questioning. His theme was that there had been a clear conflict of interest between my role as media advisor to the Prime Minister and my role as host of the Saturday morning programme. Had Top of the Morning been a political or current affairs show, he would have been quite right. But it wasn’t. It was a magazine show, devoid of any political content. Of the 750-odd interviews I did on the programme, only three were with politicians and in every case dealt with the guest’s life and times, not with their political views. Interestingly enough, I interviewed Jenny Shipley on the programme, but never Helen Clark.

The high moral ground which Plunket was occupying then seems to sit uneasily with his current assertion that he should be allowed to engage in political commentary outside his job as Radio New Zealand’s top current affairs interviewer on Morning Report. He should not. The issue here is one of perception. Whether he writes approvingly or disapprovingly of a party’s or politician’s policies or performance, his own political independence as an interviewer will be challenged and compromised. I suspect that Radio New Zealand will be flooded with complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. He would, in my view, be a liability to the company rather than an asset and unemployable in his current role.

Most interviewers are intelligent and informed people and it would be nonsense to think that they do not have personal political opinions and preferences. But as professionals, they understand that they must leave those opinions and preferences behind when they are doing their job.  In the late 60s and early 70s I was regularly interviewing politicians on the television programme Gallery. Privately I was a Labour supporter. But I never allowed that to influence my interviews. Indeed, there is a danger that I may have overcompensated to avoid that impression. Certainly, the then Leader of the Opposition, Norman Kirk, saw me as anything  but an ally.

Despite Kirk’s opposition, I stood for Labour in Miramar in the 1972 general election. That, of necessity, spelled the end of my career as a current affairs interviewer. Though I could have conducted interviews in a perfectly fair and disinterested manner, as I had before, no-one would have believed it. The cat was out of the bag. There would have been a perception of bias.

If Plunket starts writing about politics, he will invite that perception every time he expresses a view.

There was to be a sequel to my interview with Plunket on Morning Report. Some years later Judy and I were running a training session with a major New Zealand organization. During a break for coffee, one of the principals observed that they had been pleasantly surprised by our fees. They’d paid much more for a previous session with someone else. After a lot of cajoling they told us what they’d paid and who had done the training. Both pieces of information were surprising. The fee was indeed considerable and the trainer was Sean Plunket.

But the most surprising piece of information was yet to come. They had, they said,  made several appearances on Morning Report and been interviewed by Plunket both before and after the training. Had Plunket softened his interviews as a result of his business relationship with the organization? On the contrary, they were surprised to find him just as hostile as ever.

That, at least, did not surprise me. Plunket is a professional and he retained his professionalism even while interviewing his own clients.

But it still won’t do. The most telling part of this episode is that after the training  his (and later our) clients expected him to go more easily on them and were surprised when he didn’t.  Had his radio  audience been aware of this situation, that expectation would have extended to them too.

My understanding is that Plunket no longer does media training and it’s entirely possible that this was a one-off. He is also not the only radio or television interviewer to do a bit of training on the side. What is concerning is that neither he nor some of his supporters in this case, seem to grasp that the reality of their neutrality as political interviewers is not enough. There must be a public perception of that neutrality as well.

 

 

 

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32 Comments:

  1. Perception is a funny chap. I swear that Sean has always soft-pedalled the current Ministers. Indeed he has even offered suggestions for better answers to questions asked. The shouting over the top of Opposition interviewees, however, is clear. eg Pete Hodgson. I just assumed that Sean was in the Right side of politics. I even thought he might phone English, Key, Smith and tell them that they should keep quiet, don’t answer the phone! :smile:

    • Perception is a funny chap. I swear that Sean has always soft-pedalled the current Ministers.

      I’m not suggesting that Plunkett is biased in his interviewing. I very much doubt it. My own experience suggests that when everyone thinks you’re against their particular party or interest group, you’re probably doing a good job.

  2. I have pretty much stopped listening to Morning Report these days…I’m tired of waking up, not to the news so much, but badgering and hectoring when interviewer and interviewee are at loggerheads. Is this the only way to elicit information these days?
    Meanwhile Geoff seems to get the puppy stories.

    • I have pretty much stopped listening to Morning Report these days…I’m tired of waking up, not to the news so much, but badgering and hectoring when interviewer and interviewee are at loggerheads. Is this the only way to elicit information these days?

      I’m afraid it is. You might like to have a look at my earlier post “Sir Robin Day’s Code for Television Interviewers”.

  3. If one can conduct political interviews without letting one’s own political affiliations get in the way, it is equally possible to write a political column without showing the colour of one’s underwear providing one is even handed.

    There are plenty of political columnists who write and give no clue as to their political allegiences. As you know there is one regular columnist, and her name escapes me, who is married to Murray McCully. Whilst I might make a guess as to her allegience, I would commend her by saying that her columns are neutral. The Espiner brothers write and interview with no problems. So, I see no problem or conflict about Plunkett writing a column as long as he does not nail his political underpants to the mast. I wonder if RNZ would be so pompous about this if he were to write a political blog for their website.

    • If one can conduct political interviews without letting one’s own political affiliations get in the way, it is equally possible to write a political column without showing the colour of one’s underwear providing one is even handed.

      Possibly. But a column without the author’s opinions would not be very interesting. I think the perception problem arises when the columnist has to interview the person he’s been writing about. In that forum he is expected to be neutral, setting his own opinions aside. In terms of perception, the opinions expressed in the column are likely to affect the viewer’s assessment of the interview. This already happens. Espiner is constantly being accused (wrongly in my submission) of being tougher on one side than the other. The same is true of Plunket.

      So I don’t think RNZ is being pompous. They have a valuable “property”, in the form of Plunket which they want to protect. His value is inseparable from his reputation as a disinterested and fair-minded iinterrogator. I can see that that could well be threatened if he starts voicing his own political opinions in another forum.

      Murray McCully’s partner is the brilliant Jane Clifton. I agree that she is entirely even-handed. It would be rather insulting to assume that a woman must share or be beholden to her partner’s views .

  4. PS: I actually do know how to spell allegiance!

  5. I am not sure that Peter Martin’s dislike of Plunkett’s style is relevant to the topic, but since he raises it I have to say that I listen to MR just because of this robust interviewing style. One should not agree to be interviewed unless one has something to say and one is prepared to answer questions truthfully. Too many interviewees hide behind verbiage and platitudes and they deserve to be bullied. And unlike TV they cannot rely on their mode of dress (see previous blog) to distract from the paucity of the arguments.

  6. Well Ben a couple of points I guess. Not every interview is conducted in a hectoring manner…which leads one to wonder why. Is there an agenda in operation? Is it just style?Is it profiling?
    And like questions to Ministers in Parliament, one may not like the answer given, but does that mean one should ignore it and keep asking the question, such as Brian commented on in his post on the Turei interview.
    The journalist you are thinking of is Jane Clifton. I am at a loss as to how one would think her work isn’t compromised by her relationship with McCully.

    • The journalist you are thinking of is Jane Clifton. I am at a loss as to how one would think her work isn’t compromised by her relationship with McCully.

      They aren’t compromised, Peter, because she is her own person. I can assure you that if Judy and I appeared together on Jim Mora’s panel, all hell would be likely to break out on a whole variety of issues. She would certainly consider the idea that her political views must inevitably reflect mine as highly insulting.

  7. Sure Brian…but how does Clifton not report something she is party to say at over dinner with her husband and some of his collegues? Is it compromise by omission? Do her and her husband never discuss politics at all? Is she tougher or have deeper insight on another party or politican because she has information her husband has let slip?

    • Sure Brian…but how does Clifton not report something she is party to say at over dinner with her husband and some of his collegues?

      I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating here, Peter. I’ve been reading Jane Clifton in the Listener for years and found her absolutely even-handed. And very funny as well. Trust me, as a Labour supporter I was all too ready to find evidence of skulduggery. There was none. This is all slightly academic since Jane is a columnist and not an interviewer.

  8. All I can say is that I gree totally re Jane Clifton. I was not suggesting for one moment that she would reflect the views of MM, and from her columns I would find it impossible discern her political views which is why I cannot understand why Plunkett could not do the same. However I suppose ultimately the boss has the right to decide what work employees may do outside of their employment so I would have thought on that basis alone Plunket would have no chance of winning his case.

    • All I can say is that I gree totally re Jane Clifton.

      OK, but Clifton only does one thing – she’s a political columnist and commentator. She isn’t also employed as an interviewer.

  9. Jane Clifton??? Jesus, Yesterday called and it wants its political journalist back.

    Like everyone else, I don’t bother with the Listener anymore (paying for Jane and Joanne Black? No thank you, I can get toffy nosed bitches for free from any number of my female facebook friends , and those ones are younger and hotter) and on the evidence of her radio appearances she is completely out of touch with modern New Zealand. All she seems to bring to the table nowadays is a certain dull 1980′s Pakeha upper class frivolousness. Like Ralston, she no longer understands the country she writes about, and it shows.

    Like many here I find Morning Report an increasing turn off, not turn on. Morning Report is in serious need of a good shake up, I would start with Plunkett and Robinson – they are both past their use by dates. Geoff Robinson is turning into Ralda Familton, only he isn’t doing infomercials for ZB from the cosmetics counter at Farmers. The program is in my opinion showing the strain of underfunding with a boring, repetitious format the incessantly recycles the same stories through the same predictable two presenter angles. It needs more money (shutdown Concert FM if they have to – Morning Report is that important IMHO) and it needs fresh voices.

    It doesn’t need the creeping curse “your texts & emails” where opinion is substituted for news and reporting, and it doesn’t need the apparently obligatory (cheap) stupid “human interest” story just before the top of the hour.

    • Jane Clifton??? Jesus, Yesterday called and it wants its political journalist back.

      For heaven’s sake, if you don’t like the programme, say so!

    • Geoff Robinson is turning into Ralda Familton, only he isn’t doing infomercials for ZB from the cosmetics counter at Farmers.

      I’m not sure I understand this reference, Tom. Relda Familton, a very talented broadcaster, died well over a decade ago. So I’m pretty sure she’s not advertising cosmetics in Farmers!

  10. Can’t see how Sean Plunket can be an impartial RNZ interviewer as well as a political columnist writing for Metro magazine. Those two roles run almost counter to each other. He has to appear neutral in order to keep his credibility quotient up high. And that’s hard to do when writing political columns, because he will forever be revealing – intentional or not – his personal predilections. And that’s why the head honchos at RNZ are so against it. They can foresee “accessibility” problems with their boy having those all-important tête-à-têtes with certain pollies who may be on the other side of the political divide from where Sean is camped. He’s vulnerable to becoming persona non grata with those pollies whose egos are brittle and whose sensibilities are easily offended.

    Reading through these posts, last night, I didn’t know about Jane Clifton’s tie-up with McCully. Jane’s observations have always been insightful and balanced, with that all-important ring of Truth. But, I’d have to say from hereon in, that I’ll be reading her Listener musings through rose-tinted glasses. On NewstalkZB, this morning, I was a tad wary of what she was expressing re MMP referenda. See? Reality and perception don’t necessarily dovetail comfortably with one another. Especially when it comes to political commentary.

    Hey, Ianmac: Meow!

  11. Given then that Clifton appears to be able to maintain integrity with a possible conflict of interest, it would seem that if Plunkett doesn’t comment in his column ‘approvingly or disapprovingly of a party’s or politician’s policies or performance’ , then all should be well.

    I wonder if Radio New Zealand hasn’t prejudged his ability to write in this manner. Perhaps he ought to be given a chance.Should he transgress then presumably he leaves RNZ and pursues other options.

    Is he that essential to Morning Report or RNZ?

    • Given then that Clifton appears to be able to maintain integrity with a possible conflict of interest, it would seem that if Plunkett doesn’t comment in his column ‘approvingly or disapprovingly of a party’s or politician’s policies or performance’ , then all should be well.

      I think the Clifton comparison is misleading. She only has one role – as a columnist. The comparison seems to assume that her relationship with a cabinet minister constitutes a second role and that the two are in conflict. They aren’t. As I said, she is her own person.

      I can’t say whether Plunket is considered “essential” to MR or not. But my general observation is that no-one is essential in this business.

  12. OK, but Clifton only does one thing

    And TV reviews … and hasn’t McCully been broadcasting minister/spokersperson :-)

    • hasn’t McCully been broadcasting minister/spokersperson :-)

      If he has, National doesn’t seem to know about it. He’s previously held portfolios in Customs, Housing, Tourism, ACC, Sport, Fitness and Leisure, and is currently Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sport and Recreation and the Rugby World Cup.

  13. Hi Merv. Read your post. Much more interesting without the usual vitriol.

  14. On a related matter what is it with RNZ that it seems to be in a permanent state of warfare with its presenters? This is just the latest in a long line of vitriolic disputes. Perhaps someone should offer both sides some relationship counselling. Do you wear a tin hat and flak jacket when you go on the Afternoon Programme?

    • Do you wear a tin hat and flak jacket when you go on the Afternoon Programme?

      No. You have to separate the management and the Board of RNZ from the producers and broadcasters. The people on Afternoons couldn’t be nicer. I’m on there this afternoon, by the way.

  15. The issue here is one of perception. Whether he writes approvingly or disapprovingly of a party’s or politician’s policies or performance, his own political independence as an interviewer will be challenged and compromised. … He would, in my view, be a liability to the company rather than an asset and unemployable in his current role.

    Am interested … do you believe that Guyon Espiner has been compromised by his column in North & South? Is Colin Epsiner compromised by his blog? He has certainly ‘taken sides’ on occasion, but I suspect the Press thinks his blog’s a bonus, rather than a detriment.

    • Is Colin Epsiner compromised by his blog? He has certainly ‘taken sides’ on occasion, but I suspect the Press thinks his blog’s a bonus, rather than a detriment.

      I’m not familiar with Colin Espiner’s work. I write the occasional blog, but rarely read them. If he’s employed as an impartial interviewer by a broadcaster or publication, then the potential for conflict of interest and a perception of imbalance remain. I’m not sure we can take this much further. As someone who has been both political interviewer and commentator (though never at the same time) this is my firmly held view and has been for many years. I may be wrong, but that’s what I think. There may also be an exception to be made in the case of “political editors” like Guyon Espiner, for example. Espiner is employed by TVNZ in that role and the company clearly sees it as appropriate to use his expertise in both the commenting and interviewing roles. Plunket, on the other hand, is employed – as far as I know – solely as an interviewer. I’m not absolutely confident in the distinction, but it may have some force. In any event, I’d prefer to see Espiner (Guyon) just commentating and not interviewing as well. It’s from his interviews, incidentally, that the frequent accusations of bias arise, that he treats one group differently from another. That does tend to support my general view re perception.

  16. “After a lot of cajoling they told us what they’d paid and who had done the training.”

    Surely this revelation won’t help your client the next time they face Sean Plunkett? In an earlier post you announced the Greens were so broke in 1990 they wanted free training, and eventually paid through a barter deal. What’s your policy on client confidentiality?

    • Surely this revelation won’t help your client the next time they face Sean Plunkett? In an earlier post you announced the Greens were so broke in 1990 they wanted free training, and eventually paid through a barter deal. What’s your policy on client confidentiality?

      We did not and will not name the company. That is our policy with all our clients. We’re entirely happy, however, for clients to tell people we have trained them, if they so wish. Your comment seems to imply that Mr Plunket might not be so happy. You may well be right. That is one of the problems with conflicts of interest.

      Political parties seem to come into a different category. MPs are elected public servants and answerable to the public. It’s virtually impossible to keep the fact that one is training politicians secret. Our relationship with Helen Clark was public knowledge in no time at all. It’s also worth reminding you that the training we did with the Greens, who had just emerged from the Values Party, was 20 years ago. The current Green Party is an entirely different beast and we’re not training them.