Brian Edwards Media

So you’d like to moderate a TV leaders’ debate. But have you got the right stuff?

Chairing a television debate between two party leaders during an election campaign is probably  the most difficult thing an interviewer can do. The stakes will never be higher and each leader’s aim will be to monopolise the available time by out-talking his or her opponent. Volume can come into the mix as much as, and sometimes more than, debating skill.

The moderator’s job is:

  • To ensure that the two sides get more or less equal time not only in the overall debate but within each question area;
  • To play devil’s advocate to both sides and with equal force;
  • To keep order.

To  achieve this, he or she:

  • Must have a natural authority;
  • Must not be overawed by the debaters or their status;
  • Must enjoy their respect;
  • Must be willing to read the riot act to them if things get out of hand;
  • Must, like a Rugby World Cup referee, not unreasonably restrict the free flow of play by being unnecessarily pedantic;
  • Must, regardless of gender, have a good strong voice.

If the moderator is unable to be heard when the debaters are talking over one another or if he is too lacking in confidence to interrupt and demand that they behave like civilised people, then he shouldn’t be doing the job. 

In the first Leaders’ Debate, I thought Guyon Espiner did reasonably well. He is highly intelligent and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues. But the ridiculously limited time available for debate of each issue, in what was an insanely over-crowded commercial hour-and-a-half, made his job extremely difficult. Highly confident in his role as interviewer in the relative tranquillity of the Q & A studio, he seemed nervous and ill at ease for much of the debate. His natural authority in the Sunday morning forum seemed to have deserted him. His attempts to get Key and Goff to stop talking over one another were at times tentative and unconvincing. And his voice, which is just fine in a quiet studio, lacked the strength and depth necessary to demand attention.

I hope this doesn’t sound unnecessarily harsh. Espiner met two of the three requirements of the moderator’s job: My impression is that he gave Key and Goff more or less equal time in the overall debate, if not always within the individual topic segment; and he played devil’s advocate to both sides.

But the task he was given bordered on mission impossible. In its determination to entertain rather than inform viewers, TVNZ had tried to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. As the robot in Lost in Space used to say, ‘It does not compute.’ (Not to mention, ‘Danger, danger, Will Robinson!)

‘Could you have done it better, Brian?’

Maybe, but not when I was Guyon’s age. If you want to find a description of the worst piece of chairing in the history of New Zealand television, turn to pages 152 to 150 of The Public Eye which I wrote in 1970. It describes a 15 minute shouting match on the current affairs programme Gallery between Rob Muldoon and Labour’s Dr Martyn Finlay just before the 1969 general election. Finlay can barely be heard over Muldoon and the chair can’t be heard at all. There was public outrage at the total unfairness (to Finlay) of this exchange, accompanied by calls for the sacking of the completely ineffectual and generally hopeless moderator.

His name was Brian Edwards.  

[This is how Professor Barry Gustafson described the Muldoon/Finlay confrontation in his biography of Rob Muldoon His Way:  ‘On 21 November, a week before polling day…. there was a televised debate on the current affairs programme Gallery. Muldoon and Labour’s Dr Martyn Finlay ended a confrontation, which had been dominated by Muldoon, shouting at each other. The cameras remained on Muldoon who kept talking, while Finlay was screaming, sometimes inaudibly, off-camera and the Chairman, Dr Brian Edwards, was trying vainly to gain control of the situation. While it was not an edifying spectacle, it was gripping television and highlighted Muldoon’s fearsome and arrogant strength in debate.’]

Ah, those were the days!

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  1. Are you saying there’s an opening? I’m more than happy to tell both of them off equally…

    BE: I think you’d be great, Geoffie. But have another read. Since I’m an idiot, the second half of the post was missing.

  2. 2

    Diane Gilliam-Weeks

    Would love to!

  3. I would suggest that the moderator is given a control button to cut either of the offenders amplification through their microphones.

  4. It, the “debate”, was cast into an entertainment format to sell advertising.

    The moderator was simply a member of the clownscape that populates TV1.

    Infotainment is the name of the game.

    Even the USA TV stations take it seriously and do not “entertainise” it or suck hole advertisers.

    Why the hell cannot NZ TV stop being an advertiser’s slut just occasionally? Like every 3 years for a few hours?

  5. I back myself to be able to do it. I’ve got the brains, I’ve got the knowledge, I’ve got the confidence, I’ve got a clear-speaking voice, I’ve got an air of unmistakeable authority about me, I am comfortable in my own skin. And, most importantly — unlike the sparring, unruly combatants — I’m not proudful and uppity.

  6. 6

    There is one broadcaster who reigns supreme in cutting through the crap and meeting all of your criteria. She is too smart to work for television.

    She displays no personal hubris, arrogance or bias. She is direct, incisive and ruthless in dealing with the bullshit.

    She seems utterly fearless and takes no shit from tinpot politicians.

    Have you guessed?

    She is, of course, Mary Wilson of Checkpoint.

    RNZ proclaims the turgid Morning Report as its flagship current affairs programme. Uh-uh. It’s Checkpoint – always been gutsy.

    I smile when people rant and rail about TV news. Try steam wireless at 5 p.m.

    Whatever Ms Wilson gets paid, it’s nowhere near enough.

  7. Yes pjr. In the House microphones are only live when the designated person speaks. Mind you, we would probably miss the ad-libbed riposte.

  8. The other day I posted; As someone who didn’t really enjoy the previous Labour administration, I can only say that I have absolutely no memory of Helen Clark ever coming close to quietly allowing her opponent to have their fair say in a debate. Talking over them, interrupting them, doing everything she could to steal their oxygen was absolutely fundamental to her debating style. But then maybe that’s my bias showing.

    In response you chided me; BE Your second paragraph certainly isn’t correct. I worked with the lady for 12 years. Talking over was not her style, unless her opponent started it.

    I am going to take today’s comment that BE each leader’s aim will be to monopolise the available time by out-talking his or her opponent. as tacit admission that, at least when it comes to leader’s debates (which is what I was actually refering too), I was not so wrong after all

    BE: No, I’m afraid you are wrong. My generalisation did not apply to Helen. She was not given to ‘talking over’ either interviewers or her opponents. Your logic was correct, just not in this case.

  9. You may be right about the worst chairing of a debate, although I think there are a lot of other contenders.
    On the other hand, did you not chair the finest “debate” on New Zealand television? That was the one where a strike was essentially ended on live TV. It was a dispute in the Post Office if I remember correctly. Anyone who can manage that can forget about any minor travails.

    BE: Spare my blushes, but yes.

  10. I agree Mary Wilson has become the new Kim Hill-suffer no fools.

  11. Brian, is the moderator sharing a ‘between us’ insider joke on screen with one of the leaders likely to send any signals to the audience? And if so, what might they be? Or would that be unprofessional of the moderator and totally bad form?

  12. Please not Mary Wilson, I don’t want to listen to her lambasting the leaders the whole time and not letting them get a word in.

    Obviously Brian we’ll have to agree to disagree. I agree with you there was one exception to the rule amongst recent major party leaders. But my exception is Don Brash, not Helen Clark. If you remember he took a huge hit two elections ago for *not* retaliating when Helen shouted him down every time he tried to make a point. His excuse: I didn’t want to be rude to a woman! Naturally this excuse made things worse for him (rightfully so in my view).

    BE: I remember the Brash incident (or non-incident) very well. And I agree that he was pilloried for ‘being a gentleman’. But this was not because Clark was ‘shouting him down’. There was bedlam from the audience in that debate and, if you wanted to be heard, you had to shout. Helen was shouting to be heard. Brash coped less with with the boisterous audience. What may be true is that the Labour component were shouting him down, just as the National component were shouting Helen down. A generally unseemly affair.

  13. Are we to go through this campaign focusing on the merits and demerits of the debates/moderators, or is there a chance we could discuss the policies of the parties and how each party is performing in the overall context of the campaign?

  14. I’m in the anti-Mary Wilson camp: it appears she gets paid by the word. I don’t recall one (italics) of her victims ever finishing a sentence: cut through the crap she may, and with varying degrees of success, but she also has a tendancy to confuse the meat with the offal.

  15. Paul Holmes could be back on song, again; I heard Florence + the Machine just before the mid-day news.

  16. Now c’mon, settle down.

    Kim Hill plays football (soccer to kiwis).

    Mary Wilson (like Sean Plunket used to) alternates between rugby union and rugby league.

  17. 17

    Zinc, if you’ve never heard Mary Wilson’s “victims” finish a sentence either you haven’t been listening often enough or closely enough. She only eviscerates the bullshitters when they try dodging the issue.

  18. Having been on the other side of the microphone to Mary Wilson, in a previous life, I have to say that she always let me finish – once I learnt to stick to the point.

  19. I’m with Zinc.
    Mary seems to believe that not listening to what people say, or not getting the answer she wants, means she can ask the question again. I can’t say it happens for all subjects, but for ones that I have expert knowledge on, she or her researchers are incredibly ill informed. When the expert gives a factual answer, choosing words carefully because they have precise meanings, Mary interrupts with her preconceived answer that often bears no resemblance to what the expert said. And when the person doesn’t agree with her, she gets more hectoring. She also doesn’t realise that a lot of questions, especially the ones she asks, can’t be answered with a yes or no. There are conditional and qualified responses needed as the exceptions are actually often more important.
    It gets so bad, I feel that the juvenilia on other radio stations actually makes more sense.
    Whether you like her or otherwise, at least Kim does listen to the answer. I’m certain Mary doesn’t.

  20. For interviewing and debating, in the Old Days.

    They even let each other finish speaking (most of the time), before offering their rebuttals.

    *sigh* The good old days…