Brian Edwards Media

On Shane Taurima and why we don’t want political eunuchs as interviewers.

Fearless Lantern-jawed TV Interviewer 1969

Fearless Lantern-jawed TV Interviewer 1969

 

In May 1970 I was interviewed by a Truth reporter called Martin Smith. The conversation revolved around my interviewing on the top-rating current affairs programme Gallery.

Smith’s story duly appeared on the front page of Truth and began as follows:

TV personality Brian Edwards admits he has a political bias.

There was ‘no interviewer around’ who did not have a political bias, he told Truth.

‘Like the viewers, we are only human beings,’ he said.

And he has allowed this bias to colour some of his interviews, he told Truth.

Next to the story was a photograph of me with the caption ‘Brian Edwards… political bias’

Rob Muldoon once said to me that he was often misquoted in the media and invariably complained. ‘There are some things I just know I could not possibly have said.’

I knew I could not possibly have said I was politically biased and had allowed this bias to colour my interviews. It was not merely entirely untrue but would have been professionally suicidal. What I had said was that I had political opinions, as every interviewer did.

Within 24 hours I had received a letter from the Deputy Director-General of the NZBC, Lionel Sceats,  making it abundantly clear that, if the story were true, my contract with the Corporation would be terminated. I had no alternative but to sue Truth for defamation. 

The case was heard before the Chief Justice, Sir Richard Wild. It ended dramatically with this exchange between my counsel, Peter Williams, and reporter Martin Smith – no longer working for Truth – whom we had subpoenaed:

Williams: You will see written in the article the words ‘TV personality Brian Edwards admits he has a political bias.’

Smith: Yes.

Williams: When you interviewed Brian Edwards, plaintiff in this case, did he at any time use the word ‘bias’?

Smith: No.

Williams: You see further down the same article – read this carefully – ‘And he has allowed this bias to colour some of his interviews, he told Truth’. Did Brian Edwards say that to you in the interview?

Smith: No.

Truth made an offer; we agreed on a sum; and the case was settled.

Two years later, I was selected to be Labour candidate for Miramar in the 1972 General Election. ‘There you see,’ several of my National Party opponents said, ‘we always knew his interviews were biased against the government.’

And who could blame them?

I was reminded of all of this when it emerged that former Q & A interviewer  Shane Taurima  had thrown his hat in the ring for the Labour candidacy in the by-election for Rawhiti-Ikaroa.

It didn’t take long for Herald media columnist John Drinnan to join the dots:

‘In my opinion his decision to stand for Labour inevitably leads to reflections on past interviews for Q & A when he took a sometimes overly dogged approach interviewing Government ministers.’

My colleague on The Nation, Bill Ralston, put it more strongly:

‘Shane Taurima interviewed Hekia Parata last year and I watched his quite aggressive approach to her and to Paula Bennett. And I thought at the time, “Boy, you’re a Labour leftie!”  And, sure enough, he is.’

Behind this sort of reasoning lies the concept that an interviewer who holds personal opinions about the merit or lack of merit of a political party will, by definition, be unable to interview a member of that party in an objective and disinterested manner. His questioning will be coloured by his personal support for or opposition to that party. He will be biased in favour of one and against another.

The theory does not allow for the possibility of professional distance. In effect it posits that the only interviewer capable of such distance would be one with no political opinions or beliefs, a political eunuch.

Unfortunately such a person would be unable to interview anyone on politics or probably anything else. He would be mindless.

My own experience as a political interviewer suggests that, if anything, personal support for a political party is likely to lead to more rather than less aggressive questioning of representatives of that party. As a strong Labour supporter during my interviewing career in the late sixties and early seventies, I was hyperconscious of the need not merely to be impartial in my interviewing but to be seen to be impartial. As a result I may well have overcompensated. Certainly the then Leader of the Opposition, Norman Kirk, saw me as no friend of the Labour Party or of him. Quite the contrary.

As for Shane Taurima, I was initially critical on this site of his somewhat eccentric and overly aggressive interviewing style. But I put it down to the fact that, as a new boy to Pakeha current affairs television, and following in the footsteps of Paul Holmes, he was merely trying to make his mark. And if he got stuck into more National Party people than Labour, that’s because National was in government and held the reins of power. It’s the norm.

Having, albeit unsuccessfully, sought the Labour Party candidacy for Rawhiti-Ikaroa may nonetheless mean that Taurima will not be able to work as a political interviewer again, at least not in public service radio or television. He has nailed his colours to the mast.

I suffered the same fate but make no complaint. I simply applied my broadcasting skills in other areas. But here’s a question: Could I, a former Labour Party candidate, media advisor for 12 years to Helen Clark and declared Socialist, now conduct a fair, balanced and disinterested interview with John Key or any member of his Cabinet? Absolutely. And the same goes for David Shearer, Russel Norman, Meteria Turei, Winston Peters, Peter Sharples, Tariana Turia or… Well, I might have a little difficulty with John Banks.

What the job involves  should have nothing whatsoever to do with the interviewer’s personal beliefs or political allegiance. His or her mandate when interviewing those in power or those seeking power is essentially to act as devil’s advocate on behalf of the electorate. Political eunuchs need not apply.

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49 Comments:

  1. You’re right- Party affiliation changes things, IMO

    • John, just a question. Did you ever write a piece on Maggie Barry when she threw her hat in the ring to become a National MP? Or Richard Long?

      • 1.1.1

        yes re Maggie Barry – though her broadcasting career was limited at that stage – she was drive time host on RadioLive – did richard long stand?

  2. The theory does not allow for the possibility of professional distance. In effect It posits that the only interviewer capable of such distance would be one with no political opinions or beliefs, a political eunuch.

    Which, of course, is utterly ridiculous. You’re expressing “poitical opinions” every election day, and I’m the kind of old crank who firmly views voting as not only a right, but a fundamental responsibility of citizenship in a parliamentary democracy.

    But I find it rather hard to see what “professional distance” exists when you’re blatantly involved in party politics while conducting political interviews. Just as I would find it rather difficult to take a business writer seriously if it came out that he was filing stories slating a company around the same time he was applying for a job with its direct competitor.

    • There would certainly be a perception of probable bias on the part of an interviewer who was ‘blatantly’ involved in party politics and I agree that that perception would probably make him or her unsuited to the job. It might nonetheless be the case that he/she would be capable of maintaining what I’ve called ‘a professional distance’ in their work.

      A slightly different problem in New Zealand arises when current affairs interviewers also become media trainers and end up interviewing the people they’ve trained.

      • 2.1.1

        Where things get… complicated, is that Taurima isn’t just an autocue reader but “general manager of Maori and Pacific Programmes” at TVNZ, which I assume is a senior editorial role. As I said, I don’t think anyone wants TVNZ news and current affairs stuffed with “political eunuchs” but everyone should hope New Zealand’s public(-ish) broadcasters have robust and transparent standards around ‘management of conflicts of interest’ – and not just political ones.

  3. In the UK I think ex MPs/cabinet ministers have made a sucessful transition to journalism and political interviewing; Matthew Parris is one that comes to mind and I think there are others. Possibly NZ is too small for that. I can’t see why it should not happen. It would be entertaining to see JK turn his hand to jounalism when he retires.

    On the matter of your defamation case NZ Truth could perhaps have anticipated the Arkell v Pressdram defence.

    • For those unfamiliar with that case:

      Arkell v. Pressdram (1971)

      Solicitor (Goodman Derrick & Co.):

      We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter. Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

      Private Eye:

      We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

      [No further reply] 

  4. Right on the noggin Brian. Excellent overview of the paradoxical nature of the role of political journalist. You didn’t directly reflect on the strangeness of NZ’s peculiar situation with regard to the dominant TV channel being owned and crewed(the party politically appointed board)by the incumbent political party. I still have the opinion that the very long queue of what I call “the disappeared” of NZ journalism, does not reflect at all favorably on the state ownership of media model that we seem to so unable to dislodge from our psyche. I would love to see you do a piece on the ‘disappeared’ of NZ political journalism. High time.

    • 4.1

      Great idea. Then there’s the disappeared comedians (e.g. Dave Smith) and public servants. You’d need a separate piece on the Muldoon years, of course.

      What Brian Edwards says about journalists also applies to public servants. In my first career as a public servant I had to maintain a professional distance from my own views and preferences, and had no trouble doing so. There were many others in the same position. I fine the responses of Ralston and the like quite je jeune.

  5. I always thought Brendan Horan was too biased to be a weather presenter

  6. I watched the Paula Bennett interview and had the same thoughts as Bill Ralston. She wasn’t being evasive and generally gives a straight answer to a straight question, unlike Parrata, and at the end of the interview I was no better informed because of his obsessive hectoring on one particular stat.
    I thought his approach was a bit dumb, he didn’t seem to be properly prepared like Espiner and compensated for this by haranguing her.
    All it no doubt achieved was Ministers thinking what’s the point in going on QandA and viewers wondering if perhaps time would be better used mowing the lawns.

    • I didn’t see this particular interviews and so can’t comment. But I’ve seen a lot of her other responses to questions in parliament and the media and concluded that there is no better evader of the straight answer to a straight question than Paula Bennett.

    • I watched the Taurima interview of Hekia and Paula Benett. I thought he was straight forward, hard and his questions were relevant compared to some sychophants I have also watched interviewing other politicians or commenting. I had no idea that he was Labour until he threw his hat into the Ikaroa-Rawhiti ring. He actually made Q&A far more interesting and worth viewing. I’m not saying this because I’m Labour. I’m not but I used to be. Campbell on TV 3 is another one worth viewing. I think journalists in the media are lacking in guts, and don’t do the hard investigation or probing for answers. Some are down right sychophantic.

      • “Campbell on TV 3 is another one worth viewing.” Jeeezzzzzz, I’ve tried and tried but just can’t stop myself being distracted by his facial hand-wringing, and “dreadfully, seriously concerned for all things” frowning, and the staring at me from over his eyebrows. Worse than Kim Hill. It’s bloody un-nerving and I can’t ever come away having heard his message. I bet he looks just as troubled and intense when he’s asking one of his kids to pass the tomato sauce.

        Back to the point, of course ‘biased’ interviewers can interview in a balanced and unbiased way – if they have class, which few seem to have.

        • 6.2.1.1

          Which does raise the question, ‘why are we seeing the interviewer?’ I know what he looks like, I want to see the ‘deer in the headlights’ that is the interviewed, especially the shifting eyes, the turned-down mouth and the barely-concealed disdain from the likes of Parata.

      • 6.2.2

        It seems that we stopped hiring TV journalists and started hiring potential media personalities.

        All the cool kids are blogging, now.

  7. From my observation interviewers do in time let their colours show. I long suspected Holmes was not a member of the Green Party. Objectively is a subtle business and not one particularly suited to humans. I would think it actually helpful for an interviewer to declare a bais. That way one can understand prejudices and adjust accordingly.

    • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t? Maybe. But their bosses wouldn’t allow it and I suspect it would make their job impossible at any rate. Every time a politician was faced with a sticky question they’d say, “Ah, there goes that bias of yours again, Mr Interviewer!’ Rob Muldoon once told me that he occasionally used that tactic himself. “Typical Labour Party line, Mr Walker!”

  8. I have no doubt that you passionately and deeply believe that you can hold political views and be unbiased in a role as journalist. That would be the hallmark of a true professional.

    Unfortunately, in this matter it’s not what you believe that holds true, Brian, but public perception. (Though it could also be said that public perception is not immutable…)

    • 8.1

      A good interview is insightful and revealing and comprehensive. Bias is irrelevant.

  9. In your opinion, Brian, how much “professional distance” should the Lamb put between itself and the Lion?

  10. 10

    In my entirely unprofessional opinion, balance in an interview must be between the questions of the interviewer and the responses of the subject. I don’t expect the interviewer to be only interested in his/her own opinions but to explore thoroughly the opinions of the subject. If that is what you mean by professional distance, I agree. I think many current interviews fail that test.

  11. I think there are bigger problems in political interviews than possible political leanings of the interviewer.

    It seems to be common practice to try and quickly trip up the target or at least elicit a juicy soundbite, and if there is no success then they quickly move on to the next topic, often unre3loated to the previous.

    There is very limited pressing on important questions until a satisfactory response is received.

    I imagine media training involves delaying techniques (using repeat phrases) until inevitably (an usually quickly) the interview moves on.

    • “I imagine media training involves delaying techniques (using repeat phrases) until inevitably (an usually quickly) the interview moves on.”

      I guess that depends on the media trainers. Our core advice to clients hasn’t changed in more than a quarter of a century: Be straightforward, tell the truth, admit our mistakes. It’s practical rather than moral advice. That’s simply the only thing that works.

      • A lot of MPs obviously don’t have that sort of training.

        Many of them don’t seem to understand that people are turned off by party parroting, and we can often pick when body language doesn’t match spoken language. Repeating the same crap month after month doesn’t suddenly change any of that.

        All struggle when in awkward situations but there is a noticeable difference between speaking for themselves and putting on an act.

        From what I’ve seen Clark was usually good, as are Key, Sharples, Turia, Dunne, Harawira. I don’t always agree with the message but hear a reasonably genuine messenger.

        Goff last term was bad, Shearer was terrible but training seems to be improving him towards Goff’s standard.

        Norman and Turei may not be as bad as Hughes but recite far too much. Winston is a calculating smoocher. I’ve seen Banks speaking openly but more often not.

        Why are so many seemingly convinced that reciting other people’s carefully crafted claptrap will eventually work?

  12. made me smile

  13. Apologies for the multiple posts WordPress was saying I had already made that reply so I was trying to rephrase the response . Didn’t expect each reply to be posted

  14. 14

    Adolf Fiinkensein

    I think Mr Edwards is right. It most certainly IS possible for a politically motivated journalist to conduct a fair and balanced interview. The difficulty in New Zealand appears to be there are very few journalists who have the maturity and good sense to do so.

    Those whose names cross my mind are John Armstrong, Fran O’Sullivan and Audrey Young. There may be one or two others but they don’t leap out at me.

  15. Adolf
    The 1st of April was last month

  16. I really don’t see an issue with Taurima continuing to be involved in the editorial of Maori and Pacific programmes, it shouldn’t be a problem. Remember we let Paul Henry be an on air host for a number of years after he stood for the National Party.

  17. I really don’t think it matters too much if interviewers reveal their political stripes. We already know they have their own political leanings — which is perfectly natural — so why pretend they have to be neutral? It might be a good thing that we know, because it puts them on notice to try and be fair and not biased.

    In the age of instant info via the web, not that many are too interested in seeing pollies being interviewed, save for the bloggers. But every now and then, they excel. I think that TV 3 deserve a special mention for the excellent way their reporters went about bringing the abuser-of-waiters to heel. Well done!

    • Agree with your first para but not your second. I’m not in favour of smug, self-satisfied lynch mobs. Have a look at my post on Gilmore. Cheers.

  18. The BBC interviewers always seem to interrupt Conservatives more. I would assume for the following reasons:1) The political views of the interviewers and their editors.2) They are far more familiar with the left wing arguments.3) Conservative representatives actually try to argue their case – Labour just read out the party spin line. If the interviewer asks a question then Labour robots punish them by taking an even longer time to answer going on and on by which time you’ve forgotten what the interviewer asked.4) Conservative, and often Lib Dem interviewees, still have the decency to engage in the interview. Labour do not.5) By its pressure on the BBC in the early Blair years Labour have destroyed normal political debate, when two opposing views would be interviewed together.

  19. Hello Brian – I DO believe that interviewers can and should behave professionally no matter their political views. What I have lost patience with is the incessant attack that interviewees are subject to when it becomes clear that they are not going to give a straight answer to a straight question. Let them hang themselves on their evasion (to mix a metaphor). Asking the same question over and over and over and getting no reply over and over and over is a waste of time. Next question, next evasive reply. Here’s a Youtube clip I like “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPGtxTL-0X4″.

  20. I find it interesting that Taurima was forced to give up his job before any Labour candidate was appointed. He is, as far as I know, not in the running to become an MP. The suggestion that he shouldn’t be involved in interviewing politicians is nonsense.

  21. “Mr Taurima said he hadn’t thought ‘at all’ about whether he’d like to be on Labour’s list.

    He wouldn’t be drawn on whether the party had offered a high placing at the next election.

    The weekend’s result should have made one thing clear, Mr Taurima said. ‘All the claims that I’d been shoulder tapped and all the rest of it – it goes to show it was a thorough and robust process. It’s just a shame some of my former colleagues thought that is something I would have even thought about.’”

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10886634

  22. “I really don’t think it matters too much if interviewers reveal their political stripes.”

    I think the main issue is that the interviewer doesn’t fawn all over their subject, and if they don’t think they can ask the hard questions they should recuse themselves from the interview. I recall Lindsay Perigo interviewing Roger Douglas on one occasion in the late 80s. Perigo was usually quite a tough interviewer but this time his heart didn’t seem to be in it. Perigo of course was a big supporter of Douglas and his reforms. Given his strong support for Douglas, maybe Perigo couldn’t understand the opposition to Douglas and his policies. That lack of understanding I suspect might have influenced the interview that I saw.

  23. Unfortunately, Brian, not all political intervewers are as thoroughly professional as you.

  24. Going back a few posts – body language.
    Peter Dunne and John Key both looked VERY uncomfortable, even slightly guilty and tense on tv news just now [10:30 ish ] TV3 over possible leeks.
    As opposed to in the select committee Dunne looked fairly much at ease. Yes, I know it is edited, ha.