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Watched the second episode of The Nation. Two fairly simple conclusions: Stephen Parker can’t  chair; Duncan Garner can’t interview.

Parker was completely unable to rein in Radio Live’s  Mitch Harris, who seemed to think that the best form of interview is where the interviewee  is not allowed  to answer the question.

Garner’s interview with Gerry Brownlee exemplified the scattergun approach to cross-examination where you fire at random in the hope that one of your projectiles will hit the mark.

Duncan’s interview philosophy appears to have three  aims: to demonstrate that he is a fearsome interrogator; to show that he is a mate and the equal of the person he is interviewing;  and to score a few headlines in tomorrow’s papers.

He isn’t a fearsome interviewer. He’s a pseudo fearsome interviewer. Fearsome interviewers set traps for their victims. They are patient. They lie in wait. Pseudo fearsome interviewers jump out and go ‘Boo!’, then ‘Boo!’ again and ‘Boo!’ again. It doesn’t take long for their interviewees to understand that they really aren’t scary at all.

Garner is a ‘proposition’ interviewer. He puts propositions to his subjects which he knows they are bound  to reject. And he puts them repeatedly in the hope that, against all odds, their resistance to the (Garner) truth will suddenly crumble and they will confess all. ‘Yes, yes, Duncan, (Sob!) you’re right, I’m going to rape and plunder our clean, green New Zealand landscape (Sob!) and allow open-cast mining in every city, town and hamlet from North Cape to the Bluff.  (Sob!) Bless me, Duncan, for I have sinned.’

Sadly, though predictably, these mea culpas are never forthcoming. So the pseudo fearsome interviewer has little option but result to desperate absurdity:

DUNCAN       Would you put your ministerial career on the line saying that yes you’ll mine the Barrier?

GERRY           When you go out for a public discussion and you ask the public to give you their opinion and you’ve got an open mind …

DUNCAN       Would you put your job on the line and say yes I think we’ll mine the Barrier?

GERRY           That’s a dumb question.

DUNCAN       Just answer it.

GERRY           That’s an absolutely dumb question.

DUNCAN       Why don’t you answer it? I’m asking you if you genuinely think in your heart of hearts whether the Barrier will be mined.

GERRY           In my heart of hearts I can see an opportunity there that I think is very difficult to pass up, but I’m not the final arbiter.

DUNCAN       It’s also very difficult to happen isn’t it?

GERRY           That’s your opinion, and I’ve read your blog site so I know where you’re coming from.

DUNCAN       I’m glad you read it. Thank you very much Gerry for coming in.

Duncan calls Brownlee ‘Gerry’ throughout the interview. Brownlee is a Minister of the Crown and Duncan is a TV hack. Why is the TV hack calling the Minister of the Crown by his Christian name? To make sure we all understand that Duncan is on an equal footing with Brownlee, that he knows him really well, that, outside the studio, they’re mates, as Duncan is with all the Ministers and probably the PM as well.

Later in the show, Stephen Parker (quite properly) discloses that he was formerly Brownlee’s press secretary. It’s the right thing to do, but it serves to remind us of the overly cosy relationship that exists in this country between political journalists and members of parliament. The result is that most of the political interviews you see on New Zealand television have more in common with On the Mat or Big Time Wrestling than they have with the serious examination of political issues or the performance of our elected leaders. What we’re watching is a choreographed charade of make-believe antagonism and pretend dispute.

It is unfair to single out Duncan Garner. The journalistically incestuous nature of this small society means that any arms-length relationship between politicians and hacks is virtually impossible.  I recall watching John Campbell interview Winston Peters, from memory during the Owen Glenn affair. Campbell seems intent on taking no prisoners. His questioning is forceful and abrasive. Winston is against the ropes. You think, ‘This is a rout, Peters must hate him.’ Then, at the end of the interview, Campbell says something like,  ’Lovely to have you on the show.’ Winston offers his winning boyish smile.  

What is evident is that we have difficulty getting this interviewing business right. Our interviewers are either lapdogs or pit bulls. The happy medium seems to escape them. The reason, I suspect, is that most are less interested in revealing the truth than in point-scoring or self-promotion. And some are just hopeless.

Still, The Nation does attempt to examine political issues in depth and is willing to devote considerable time to that examination. A pattern seems to be emerging of having one serious journalist (this week Fran O’Sullivan) on the panel and one entertaining flake, but on the whole, and despite the bizarre direction,  I think it works. Stephen Parker needs to go to lion-taming school and  Duncan Garner should be forced to watch 200 Hard Talk interviews with BBC World’s  Stephen Sackur back to back. After that, who knows might happen?

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8 Comments:

  1. In the infamous panel “interview” with an absent Winston Peters just before the last election,I was horrified at the whole set up. But in particular Duncan Garner’s slobbering, obsessive attack was like watching a bully high on P. I have never considered voting for NZF, but in my eyes it damned Duncan Garner permanently as a self-serving incompetent political interviewer.

  2. Idiots the lot of them, wouldnt call any of them a journalists a**hole. The so called sports journalists are just as bad

  3. Agree 1 “political editors” (sic) actually mere reporters / “journalists” are like most TV media ( and radio viz Sean The Beltway Kid Plunkett ) who think THEY are the newsmakers, i.e., this is important news because I am important so my presenting what purports to be news and more importantly my spurious opinions are (more) important than you mere ignorant plebs’ opinions.
    2 The media / politicians pool and relationship is too small, incestuous, and too cozy and riven with conflicts of interest. One has only to observe the number of journalists who are bought off ( ie co-option ) and go over to “the dark(er?) side” as Ministerial press secretaries – oops sorry, communications managers for the bigger money at the taxpayer’s expense.
    3 Too many interviewers use first names of interviewees, especially Ministers of the Crown, including the PM. in a pretentious attempt to big-note themselves as being on a faux chummy equal footing basis with the interview eg “Well, Helen me ol’ lezzer china, …” They should use the titles Minister and / or Mr Ms Dr etc. out of respect for the office no matter how much they ( or the audience ) dislikes or disagrees with the interviewee and even if the interviewee is despicable or unpopular or how low-esteemed politicians are in polls generally. Mediarats would do well to remember they are also way down the public’s ratings in trustworthiness.
    IMHO both politicians and media are part of the politco-media complex ( itself another manifestation of the technocratic “new class” ) in a symbiotic loop feeding off each other. See for example their use of a shared micro-dialect using bureaucratic-media newspeak and technical jargon viz “across the issue” (covering the issue, “issues around” (problems with), ‘gaining traction” (gaining momentum /ground, getting publicity), on that track ( in that excerpt) etc.
    4 Self-promotion by interviewers, presenters and journalists especially in the electronic media is rife, egotistical and venal – as they build their inflated self-images to increase their market value.
    5 The rise and prevalence of journalist blogs is another pernicious example of this.
    6 Garner is a classic example of this. An old hand useless interviewer whose “traps” or ambushes were such long-winded “propostions” that even the dimmest interviewees could see it coming after the first phrase and well before the transparent telegraphed “punchline” was Ian Fraser with his faux gravitas. ( Lindsay will like that one!lol!)
    6 “First we kill the lawyers,” as Shakespeare put it in I think Henry IV (?) Next on the list should be the second profession – Now we cross to our reporter on the street corner, …” ;-P

  4. Not keen on that blog, Brian. “Respected seer does not speak with superior sneer.” That’s an old Chinese proverb that I just made up.

    You expressed some general principles that I agree with, but (especially in the second blog) they were buried in bile that you’d be unlikely to present to a paying customer. And I don’t think asserting “voice of experience” or “robust” quite covers it.

    Crabby = good. Nasty = I don’t think so.

    • Not keen on that blog, Brian. “Respected seer does not speak with superior sneer.” That’s an old Chinese proverb that I just made up.

      Well, since yours is an opinion I normally respect, earlwj, I re-read the blog to see if it was sneering or crabby. I don’t think it was at all. My description of Mr Garner’s interviewing style was, I think, accurate, as were my comments about the concerningly incestuous nature of journalist/politician relationships in New Zealand. It also seems to me that if you want to interview Ministers in such an aggressive and, I would say, impertinent way, you may have to expect some fairly strong criticism. And you will note that I said it was unfair to single out Mr Garner. Hardly a ‘superior sneer’. And finally, we ‘respected seers’ lay no claim to being saints as well.

  5. Not having seen said programme I was not going to comment but I do have to say that with the exception of Ianmac’s contribution your thoughts do seem to have enticed out the ‘nutty slack’.

  6. “.. seem to have enticed out the ‘nutty slack’.

    Ben,”not having seen said programme”, hardly qualifies you to make that comment, does it?

  7. It seems Garner’s inability to interview is but one of his many failings as a ‘journalist’

    http://www.thestandard.org.nz/nats-homophobic-dog-whistling-continues/#comment-202631