Brian Edwards Media

In praise of television and the television interviewer!

Fearless Lantern-jawed TV Interviewer 1969

Browsing through the TV channels in our hotel room in Singapore I came across an interview with Lindsay Tanner, a former Finance Minister in Kevin Rudd’s Labour Government, who resigned from parliament when Julia Gillard deposed Rudd in June 2010. Much of the interview concerned public criticisms which Tanner had recently made of the Gillard administration, but what interested me most were his comments on the trivialisation of politics by the media and, in particular, the media and public obsession with the image of political leaders rather than the substance of their parties’ policies and record in office.  

He’s right of course. It would be much better if we interested ourselves in policy and performance rather than personality when deciding which political party to support and vote for. But it isn’t going to happen. Television and,  to a much lesser degree, radio have seen to that.

As late as the year 1BT (‘Before Television’’), which in this country was 1959, most voters’ familiarity with politicians was  limited to hearing them speak in Parliament, seeing their picture in the paper or attending a public meeting around election time. The voter had, if you like, a fairly long-distance view of the people running the country. Television, both literally and figuratively,  would reveal them in ever more extreme close-up. Personality politics was born. 

One outcome of this was that the personality and performance (in a media sense) of party leaders assumed increasing  and, one could argue, disproportionate importance in the voter’s mind, while both tribal loyalty and decision-making based purely on a party’s ideology or platform correspondingly decreased.

Television came to New Zealand in 1960. By 1969, when I first appeared on the national television scene, ‘presidential-style-politics’ was already a reality. How a leader ‘came across’ and what you ‘felt’ about him or her would play a significant part in how you cast your vote on election day. Think  Marshall,  Kirk, Rowling, Muldoon, Lange…. Fast forward to Clark, Goff, Key, Shearer.

I’m inclined to agree with Lindsay Tanner that judging politicians on how they come across on television isn’t entirely sensible, since how they come across may have very little to do with their actual qualifications as the guardians of the national interest.

On the other hand, how you ‘feel’ about a politician when you see them on television may be quite a reliable guide to the merits and demerits of their personality. I’m a great believer in the worth of impression, intuition, and gut-feeling in judging other people. The lingering television close-up, which in real life would amount to offensive staring, provides a unique opportunity for impressionistic, intuitive, gut-feeling judgements.

And then of course there are those pesky interviewers. I complain from time to time about the unnecessary rudeness of some of the current radio and television  practitioners of my former trade. But they perform a valuable and perhaps essential function in a democracy: they hold politicians to account on our behalf. And no amount of media training will make it possible for a politician to pull the wool over the viewer’s eyes when the politician is faced with an at least competent interviewer.

This is what the great doyen of British interviewers, Sir Robin Day, had to say about the televised political interview:

“When a TV interviewer questions a politician, this is one of the rare occasions, perhaps the only occasion outside Parliament, when a politician’s performance cannot be completely manipulated or packaged or artificially hyped. Some TV answers can, of course, be prepared by scriptwriters and committed to memory, but not all. The answers cannot be on autocue as for an address to camera.

 “The image-maker can advise on how to sit, or what hairstyle to have, or on voice quality. But once the interview has started, the politician is on his or her own… Provided there is time for probing  cross-examination, the politician cannot be wholly shielded against the unexpected. The politician’s own brain is seen to operate. His or her real personality tends to burst out. Truth is liable to raise its lovely head.”

(I really do like that sentence: “Truth is liable to raise its lovely head.”)

Sometimes, when I’m invited to talk to university students about media training, I ask them this question:

“Let’s assume you’re flatting in Auckland and your parents live in Palmerston North. You and your flatmates have been charged by the police with cultivating cannabis plants in the back garden. You’ve no intention of telling your parents about this and will lie though your teeth if necessary. Which would be easier: limiting your contact with your parents to emails and texts; talking to them on the phone; or facing them across the dining room table?”

They usually get the point:  It’s easy to lie in print; more difficult to lie on radio, and most difficult to lie when you’re face to face with a television interviewer – and the nation. The eyes have it.

So while I agree that we are too preoccupied with the images which politicians project  and I accept that television has played a major role in fostering that preoccupation, I also believe that the unique role which  the medium  plays in holding politicians to account more than compensates for its failings.

Which is just one reason why programmes like Q & A and The Nation should  be screened in prime time and not at sparrowfart on the weekend.

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16 Comments:

  1. It would be interesting to know how many viewers see past the canned language and read the body language.

    I suspect it’s quite easy to notice when the words don’t match the action, more often than not without conciously thinking about it.

    Many viewers may be naturally skeptical of what is said unnaturally, no matter how groomed by media training.

    BE: Yes. More or less Robin Day’s point.

  2. Ridiculous to think that Romney can now be leading in many polls after Obama’s poor debate performance. The world will be a worse place because Obama performed poorly? Shouldn’t be allowed to happen!

    BE: Well yes, it really makes my point. The curious thing is that the Americans don’t seem to go in for the probing one-on-oneinterview with politicians. They’re too respectful and polite. The exception is Fox News which goes to the other extreme, bullying and shouting down interviewees who don’t share the network’s far right views.

    Obama’s difficulty may be that he’s an orator rather than a debater. And he reacts well to an audience. In the presidential debates the audience appears to be under instruction to keep quiet. So there’s little or no feedback and Obama, in my submission, needs feedback. No doubt he’ll improve in debates 2 and 3.

  3. Thats why I like David Shearer. Its himself, warts and all. He gives the impression either in person, print or on radio or television that your enjoying the ‘lovely truth’. Well, compared to the PM at least.

    I think it is more than apparent from recent political debacles that we have our very own ‘bullshit mountain’ and we most definitely and sorely need some Fearless Lantern-jawed TV Interviewers’ on at prime time.

    Any ideas?

    BE: I don’t know about ‘lantern-jawed’, but I think we have some very talented political interviewers already. Without ranking them in any order, I’d include Duncan Garner, Rachel Smalley, Mary Wilson, Paul Holmes, Sean Plunkett and Mike Hosking. Any other ideas?

  4. Brian, if we do have interviewers that will cut it I guess whats needed is the prime time program format that allows them to seriously interview politicians. I don’t believe we need the ‘infotainment’ format or the follow up critique by a gaggle of commentators either. Just what levers could be pulled to get such a program on at prime time, you would have much better idea than most.

    BE: Complain, complain, complain. Start a Facebook campaign. That’s my best shot, Kat.

  5. But Brian, under the NZ state TV system when the interviewee is very often the Prime Minister, an interviewers effective ‘boss’ (who is after all only ‘one’ phone call away from the TVNZ board/management), how on earth can any ‘political’ interview on State TV be seen to be ‘objective’ in any real way? I’ve always thought that this ‘taboo’ journalistic reality in NZ(never to be talked about onscreen or in print) somewhat overshadowed any kind of journalistic ‘intent’ no matter how insightful the read. In fact, because of its natural lean, I now look at state TV’s ‘journalistic’ integrity as being little more than ‘a silence of the lambs’ situation where we go through young polli journo ‘lambs’ at an amazing rate (at which point they go overseas to work for the Queen, or go to 3 news?). So many ‘casualties’ is proof enough for what has to be a somewhat ‘tainted’ playing field isn’t it?
    The above is why I think state TV is way past its use by date and is need of a very ‘real’ overhaul if not a complete fire-sale (give the NZ on Air money to the creators, not the retailers).
    Nowadays especially, we need ‘real’ questions and ‘real’ answers from TV which is ultimately why no ones watching ‘polli’ shows anymore, the journos no longer serve the viewers at all, they serve their political or corporate boss’s(it is somewhat obvious).
    Either way, they have completely forgotten their audience. A ‘Faustian’ conclusion if there is such a word?

    BE: I’m sorry to disabuse you, but the idea of politicians, including Ministers of Broadcasting, issuing programme instructions to broadcasters really is a fiction. There are one or two examples from the late 60s and early 70s, but in a long career of quite controversial broadcasting, much of it in the political arena, I have never once been subject to political interference. For one thing, the law requires (or at least required) any Broadcasting Minister, issuing an instruction to the NZBC (as it then was), Radio or Television New Zealand, to table the instruction in Parliament. What did happen in the early days was that a nervous producer, worried about how the politicians might react, might decide not to do something which he thought would offend them. There was, if you like, self-censorship from the bottom up, not from the top down. There are jelly-livered people in all organisations. But here’s an example from 1970. I did an extremely probing and critical interview with the then Head of the SIS, Brigadier Gilbert on Gallery. In it I named several SIS agents spying on (mainly Chinese) students in the universities. After the recorded programme which would be broadcast the following day, the Brigadier was furious. He said he had been treated like a criminal and the programme would not proceed. He would have it stopped. Bruce Broadhead, the Head of current affairs, was regarded by many people as a grey bureaucrat. He replied to the Brigadier that this was the NZBC’s programme, not his. He would have to invoke an instruction from the Minister of Broadcasting if he wanted it stopped. And the NZBC would strenuously resist such a move. The Brigadier then said he was going to ring the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, which he did from the studios. The outcome was that the programme went to air the following night, with the names of the agents bleeped out, which was not really a surprise. Giving their names was probably a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Broadhead had demonstrated considerable courage in resisting political interference. He was a journalist. Journalists don’t like to be pushed around.

  6. Good point Kat and hey Jon Stewart does it well sans politicians , maybe we need a rant format show.

  7. I wouldn’t trust a politician as far as I could throw one, so I don’t care to see any of them on TV. They are, for the most part, totally untrustworthy and self-serving; paying lip service in their never-ending quest to strike the right chord with Joe Dumb-Assed Public.

    Q & A and The Nation are scheduled in a way that reflects the viewers’ interest in these two programmes. When the likes of Paul Holmes is still considered one of NZ’s pre-eminent TV interviewers, you’re better off watching ‘Praise Be’ or an American televangelist on weekend mornings TV.

    BE: So the politicians are all crooks and the viewers are all idiots. Hmmm. An alternative view might be that it’s difficult to stick to your principles under a political system where expressng a contrary view to the collective view of Cabinet is not allowed; and it’s the programmers, who think the viewers are idiots, who’ve buried Q&A and The Nation at sparrowfart on Saturday and Sunday.

  8. John Campbell has a great questioning style and this year he has upped the stakes on important issues instead of broadcasting fluffy ducks. His problem is that Ministers are loathe to front on important issues. The PM can appear for beer drinking publicity, a kiss on the cheek for supporters, and vacuous interviewing on radio, but be far too busy to front for Campbell Live. Suppose Campbell Live team will be especially out of favour for last night’s program on security and Dotcom.
    http://www.3news.co.nz/The-New-Zealand-institutions-that-broke-our-trust/tabid/367/articleID/272227/Default.aspx

    BE: Totally agree. I haven’t counted how many Ministerial no-shows there’ve been this year, but it’s considerable and shows remarkable arrogance and contempt not just for the media but for the voters. I also agree with what you say about John. He has become an advocate for people not getting a fair deal. In particular, his campaign on behalf of the people of Christchurch has been superb. Close Up doesn’t begin to compare and will not be missed.

  9. Interesting blog. The last two times I saw Key on Campbell he was very good. I wouldn’t say he ‘beat’ Campbell – that would suggest a battle rather than an interview, but it was clear Key was more than able to defend his views and make his points.
    Of course that didn’t suit the people who like to portray Key as ‘smile and wave’, but then again that was the 2009 Party line.
    Not sure what we are supposed to think now. Can Trevor enlighten us ?
    Shearer is, indeed, warts and all. Now where have I heard that expression in politics before…? Ah yes, that’s right.

    BE: Just to make my position clear: I think Shearer is a good and decent man. He might make a good Prime Minister. But he has not had an apprenticeship in politics and still doesn’t know the ropes. That’s concerning in someone to whom we are going to entrust the running of the country. And if you look at this country’s political history, the shooting stars burn out quickly. The lovely David Lange is perhaps the prime example.

  10. Richard, your observations and conclusions of the interview with Key and Campbell are grossly inaccurate. John Key, when under pressure from the interviewer has a habit of making up his own questions and then answering them himself. This strange technique is catching on, since our Minister of Education appears to follow a similar method in avoidance behaviour when confronted with questions from the media.

  11. Notice, on tonight’s Campbell Live, how our esteemed PM was playing cat-and-mouse, again?
    I swear, that John Key is more slippery than an eel coated in lanolin.

  12. Re talented interviewers … have you checked out Julian Wilcox on Native Affairs?

    BE: Yes, I should have added him to the list. A very talented interviewer.

  13. Q & A + The nation are on at that time slot so that very few people will watch them,that’s why the NATZ got rid of T V 7 where it was repeated on Sunday night. T V 7 was starting to look like a proper public T V channel, cant have the plebs thinking can we!
    I watch a lot of Oz T V (Work here) ABC have Tony Jones on Q & A at 2130 hrs, 4 Corners on at 2030 hrs with Kerry O’Brian, both top interviewers far better than anything we have in NZ. In between the two shows Media Watch with Johnathan Holmes, look out if you put a foot wrong there,all these shows are on Monday night.
    Then we have SBS with all the doco’s, Dateline & The Cutting Edge, we are spoiled for choice.
    What I am getting at is that we are very poorly served with current affairs in NZ, just the way the poli’s want it, no in depth interviews & no accountability.

    BE: Agree with all of that, especially your last sentence.

  14. Speaking of public image and the media…you may have to re-visit your criticisms of Mr Shearer. His media trainers have done a surprising job of turning the wreck around…he’s not 100% confident…but he’s very close judging by recent performances.

  15. When I arrived in eNZed in 1971, in August, the whole country was buzzing about a July TV interviwer who was now the hotest political interviewer in New Zealand yes it was BE he had solved the Post Office Crisis with commmonsense and courtesy I was told and he seemed such a nice person on camera! He continued to grow and demand attention and gave as good a he got and make us consider ou politicans for wha they had not got and what they did not say. Yeh really.
    The problem that New Zealand has right now is that TV News and Current Affairs is about drama and personal presence on camera and not about the story and the people involved. The language used and the words put together fit a junior high essay on occasion and the lack of real commentary with facts and proven information makes our on air political commentary light fluffy and sad except the two well hidden weekend programmes
    Oh for the return of those good current affairs debates and arguments on TV that we all long for Go for it Brian Edwards

  16. So, who is telling public figures to begin every answer with “So,….? Thank you for earlier reference to my classic novella of East End life ‘The Bespoke Overcoat’.