How Sales dropped the ball on Abbott

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher & editor-in-chief at No Fibs

Margo Kingston is an Australian journalist, author, and commentator. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.

Margo Kingston

@margokingston1

Recovered journalist uncovered in 2013. #frightbat Queen in 2014.

Our Paper’s page 1 lead: Tony Abbott’s cave-in to divisive policy of backbench… http://t.co/29aAjklUBI, see more http://t.co/lQk04myaF4 – 5 hours ago

Margo Kingston

https://twitter.com/TonyAbbottMHR/statuses/326990975195029504

By Peter Clarke,

April 25, 2013

Late last year, Leigh Sales interviewed Tony Abbott live on the 730 Report. Sales was sharp and persistent, Abbott poorly prepared and struggling. Sales beat claims of bias and won a coveted Walkley Award for TV interviewing.

Naturally viewers were relishing the prospect of a return bout, and Sales and the program promoted the interview on social media. It now seems that if Abbott agrees to be interviewed on an ABC current affairs program it is a ‘get’. Because of the history and the ongoing tensions between the office of the opposition leader and the ABC, there is an additional expectation from the audience.

Unlike Sales’ interviews with Prime Minister Gillard, there is no history between Sales and Abbott around key policy areas or even how they engage in these set-piece, contested, political interviews. Rather, each interview appears to be built from the ground up, as if it was the first one. Their rarity causes a fundamental problem in the continuity of enquiry.

I first reviewed Sales’ performance in a piece about her interview with Gillard after she stared down Rudd to retain her leadership, in which I was quite critical of both participants. I have long been an admirer of Sales, and cite her as one of the best we have.

Or I used to.

Something happened in that Gillard interview which diminished the natural and hard-won interviewing skills Sales had clearly demonstrated. She gleaned very little useful insight or information for citizens. Last night’s interview with Abbott was calmer and smoother than the Gillard one or Sales’ last interview with Abbott, but, again, very little content of real value emerged. 

In fact, the most troubling aspect of the interview last night was that Sales did not appear to be listening acutely enough to Abbott’s answers. Alongside all the integrated skills and techniques in a top interviewer’s toolkit, LISTENING remains the key attribute. Without it, the ‘hollow dance’ becomes even more superficial.

This Abbott interview was roughly the same duration as the Gillard one – just over thirteen minutes. It was (as was the Gillard interview) pre-recorded. And Abbott was not in the studio with Sales. Here is a brief analysis of the interview transcript. 

In her set-up, Sales frames the interview as an enquiry into the Coalition’s economic plan, stating that “your vote will boil down” to your judgement on how well the Labor government handled the Global Financial Crisis and associated spending. Her opening remarks to Abbott followed that line until she ask the gift (for Abbott) question: Are you asking the public to elect you on blind faith?

In my article on Sales’ Gillard interview, I suggested that the interview never recovered from asking a broad diffuse and opinionated first question. Sales’ opening gambit with Gillard:

After recent events, aren’t Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?

Notice the similarity in form and approach? Gillard walked through the giant gap. So did Abbott.

Sales could have chosen, as her set-up promised, a specific, targeted first question around economic policy to stop Abbott being able to rely on the generalised, abstract discourse politicians favour to avoid the question and stay on message. But Sales went for the flourish again, and it let her down, again.

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The economy is going to be one of the most important factors deciding this election, and in many ways your vote will boil down to whether you think Labor has done a good job of steering Australia through the Global Financial Crisis or whether you agree with the Coalition that Government spending has been excessive.
Whoever wins the next election will be facing up to a possible decade of budget deficits, thanks to pressure on revenue and growing demands for government services, especially in health.If the polls are to be believed, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is on track to be the next prime minister and he’ll be the one who has to manage the challenging budget situation.Mr Abbott joined me from Melbourne a short time ago.Tony Abbott, come September, you will most likely be the Prime Minister. You’ve so far released just a handful of policies and no broad economic plan. Are you asking the public to elect you on blind faith?

 

Abbott uses the well tried technique of first picking up, not on the question, but the implication in Sales’ set-up of the likelihood of an Abbott government. This places a buffer between his overall answer and the thrust (however diffuse) of Sales’ question. It also is part of a suite of constant messages, including this one – that Abbott and his team are “taking nothing for granted”.

Then he answers the question obliquely by making the quite extraordinary claim that he is “available every day” (ironic in the context of his rare appearances at tougher interviews).

Then Abbott throws up a mini-campaign style list of slogans. He carefully uses the very general, abstract form of words, “shape and structure is very clear”.

TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: Well, Leigh, a couple of points. The first point is that I take nothing for granted. My team takes nothing for granted. We’re working very hard every day because we know that while this might be a pretty poor government, they’re clever at low politics, so we take nothing for granted.

The second point I make is that I’m available every day. Very few days would go by without my being available to the public and we’ve put out our Real Solutions plan, we’ve put out the Strong Australia book, and while the NBN policy that we released a couple of weeks back is the first formal detailed policy of the election year, there are many specific policy commitments out there to abolish carbon tax, abolish the mining tax, reduce red tape by a billion dollars a year to stop the boats, to introduce a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme. So I think the shape and structure of a incoming Coalition government is very clear.

Leigh chooses, out of the list of slogans, the “Our Plan” booklet. Is her question sharp and specific enough? She opines that the booklet contains largely “aspirations” not ”concrete plans” (ostensibly what this interview is aimed at rectifying to some extent). The logic here is on track. Here was an instant opportunity to become very specific, to press Abbott on actual “plans”. But here begins the dance between the two around the semantics of “plans” versus “commitments”.

Again Sales chooses a generalised “flourish question” based on “misleading Australians” thereby subverting any real forensic enquiry around specifics.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned your document Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians, but it’s largely made up of aspirations not actual concrete plans. Are you misleading Australians when you say that you have a comprehensive plan?

Abbott sidesteps the question and reverts to very generalised coalition claims including “everyone understands” and conflates “plans” and “commitments” quite effectively

TONY ABBOTT: Well, as I said, there are some 50 specific commitments that we’ve made and I think everyone understands that if they do change the government, we will abolish the carbon tax, abolish the mining tax, get the budget back in the black, stop the boats, build things like the East-West Link here in Melbourne, the Pacific Highway duplication, the WestConnex project. We will have further commitments to make obviously on things like the Bruce Highway. I think people understand this, but above all else, what they understand is that if they want decent economic management, if they want to make sure that Australia keeps its triple A rating, if they want a pathway back to surplus, they do need to change the government.

Sales seizes upon the “pathway back to surplus” claim from the end of his answer. She is more forceful and starts to tackle the “plan” versus “aspiration” or “commitment” conflation by Abbott.

But, as always, precise language counts. Should Sales have used a “you just said …” form instead of “But when you say something like …” form which removes the precision and targeting of his claim.

LEIGH SALES: But when you say something like, “We’ll get the budget back in black,” that’s an aspiration, that’s no actually a plan. How will you get the budget back in black when we’re talking about deficits of tens of billions of dollars?

Abbott further conflates “commitments” and “plans” ignoring Sales’ attempts at logic.

He does give something quite specific albeit with a measure of ambiguity. Is he saying that the coalition target is to reduce the public service by 20,000? He bolsters that impression by mentioning a saving of $4 billion. His last sentence changes the thrust of the Sales’ question from “how will you get the budget …” back to “where are your “plans”?

TONY ABBOTT: We’ve already said that there are certain commitments that this government has made that we won’t go ahead with. We won’t go ahead with the so-called Schoolkids Bonus because that’s a cash splash with borrowed money with nothing to do with education. We won’t be proceeding with the superannuation low income offset because it’s funded by the mining tax, which is raising no money. We will, by natural attrition, reduce the size of the Commonwealth public sector payroll, because that’s 20,000 more now than it was in 2007. That’s about $4 billion over the forward estimates. We won’t have $6.5 billion worth of border protection blowouts because we will change policy to stop the boats. So, I think there’s plenty out there, Leigh.

From that list, Sales raises the $70 billion potential savings implicitly required by the coalition citing shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey

LEIGH SALES: All of that’s a lot short of about $70 billion, which is where Joe Hockey put the potential savings you’d have to find.

Surely, this is a mistake by Sales? If ever there was a moment to interrupt (a technique so criticized by many of her detractors on social media), this is it.

What is the correct figure then, Mr Abbott? What is the precise size of the savings a coalition government is facing and planning for?

Then remarkably, Abbott zooms across the Tasman to use New Zealand as some kind of budgetary exemplar.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, that’s not a correct figure. Yes, we do have to find significant savings, but it’s nothing like that figure. Nothing like that figure at all. And let’s look, if I may for a moment take you across the Tasman to New Zealand. The New Zealand National Government is on track to get total government spending down from 35 to just 30 per cent of GDP without savage cuts by two things. First, they’ve made changes that have promoted economic growth, and second, they have religiously guarded against additional new spending. And that’s where this government has gone so wrong. Every day we have ministers talking about difficulties with the revenue and every day the Prime Minister is out there announcing billions in new spending.

Again Sales uses Abbott’s claim to challenge its underpinnings. However, it is only a brief assertion with no clear, forensic challenging question attached.

LEIGH SALES: But you’ve brought in the international comparison. Labor’s public social spending as a percentage of GDP is below the OECD average, it’s below New Zealand. Government debt in Australia as a percentage of GDP is also lower than virtually every other developed nation. When you look at the stats and the international comparisons, Australia’s spending and debt is certainly not excessive.

Abbott uses the absence of an actual question to introduce another detail, sticking to his New Zealand reference. This is obfuscation in the raw.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, let’s not forget that New Zealand doesn’t have state governments and we do have state governments, and sure, the Commonwealth looks alright in isolation against New Zealand, but throw in state governments and I’m afraid the situation is quite different.

Sales re-asserts her point but again it now desperately needs a strong direct question to Abbott to elicit something clearer and more informative. It is another statement with no question. That’s two in a row.

LEIGH SALES: But my point is internationally our levels of debt and our levels of spending are not excessive.

It’s another gift for Abbott. He uses the easy opportunity to peddle another political claim. At this point in the interview, there is hardly any pressure on Abbott at all to answer relevant and important questions. He is cruising. Sales is looking for handholds but she is still suffering from her ineffective opening gambit. Time is ticking and each second elapsed in this style is strongly to Abbott’s advantage, as he now demonstrates by ignoring yet again the occurrence of the GFC.

He even manages a Whitlam mention to drive home the point of Labor economic incompetence”

TONY ABBOTT: Well I don’t believe that is a fair statement, if I may say so, Leigh. The fact is we do have lower debt than some countries, but that’s because we had no debt, no debt, back in 2007 thanks to the good work first of the Hawke-Keating government, but then the Howard-Costello government. Now, debt has increased more rapidly as a percentage of GDP under this government than at any time since modern accounting records were first kept back in 1970. So, the expansion of debt under this government is worse than Whitlam.

Sales uses her research to challenge Abbott, but again no question. That is three in a row in a major accountability interview. One has to ask the basic question: did Sales have a clear idea of WHAT SHE WANTED TO FIND OUT?

Again, a small language form point but it matters. Sales, certainly in this interview, uses “softened” forms of words such as “Well, if you want to talk about …”. Would a blunter more direct form be better and shift the dynamic, like You claim fiscal profligacy …”

LEIGH SALES: Well if you want to talk about fiscal profligacy, the IMF has looked at 200 years of government financial records across 55 leading economies and it identified only two periods of irresponsible spending in Australia in recent years and they were both during the Howard years.

Again, inevitably, the opposition leader exploits the absence of the pressure of a real forensic question to answer his own question by to extolling  surpluses under the Howard government.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, the interesting thing about the Howard Government is that the Howard Government delivered surpluses in 11 of its last 11 budgets. So, 10 out of 11 surpluses for the Howard Government and over the life of the Howard Government we averaged surpluses of almost one per cent of GDP. The last Labor surplus was back in 1989. That was the last Labor surplus. And so far, Treasurer Swan has given us the four biggest deficits in Australian history.

Sales ignores the answer and cites an opinion or critique from former coalition treasurer, Peter Costello. It has a slight non-sequitur feel about it at this juncture. And moving from Costello’s opinion to a question based on an assumption is thin. Again, the question lies at the weaker end of forensic and is very general: “is that the sort of approach …?

We are well into the interview. Nothing has really happened yet. The process seems disjointed. The effectiveness of the exchange is clearly suffering from very generalised questions where policy specifics are required and using statements instead of questions.

LEIGH SALES: In the memoirs of the former Treasurer Peter Costello, he writes of you, “… never one to be held back by the financial consequences of decisions. He had grandiose plans for public expenditure.” Is that the sort of approach Australia needs in a Prime Minister when we have a predicted decade or so of budget deficits?

Abbott again enjoys the easy ride and defuses criticism of his fiscal approach deftly while adding a sting about “cost effectiveness evaluation”.

TONY ABBOTT: Well obviously when I was the Health Minister it was important to invest appropriately in new treatments, in medical research and so on. The interesting thing about the kind of proposals that I put forward as Health Minister is that they were all subject to rigorous cost-effectiveness evaluation. That’s the beauty of PBS and Medicare spending of the Commonwealth under our system: it’s all subject to rigorous cost-effectiveness evaluation. And frankly, if it does pass cost-effectiveness tests, mostly it’s worth doing. The problem is that none of the big spending of this government has been subject to serious cost-effectiveness evaluation.

Well that didn’t go anywhere, so Sales leaps back to an earlier Abbott answer regarding “Our Plan”. She asks a clear, relevant, reasonably specific question at last. Unfortunately, so many of these political interviews are littered with passives. A verb in the passive voice is shorn, by definition, of the agent of an action and much loved by politicians because clear accountability is submerged. Surely, interviewers in an accountability interview, especially with the putative next Prime Minister of the country, would do better to use an active voice wherever possible. It makes a difference!

Are you not clearly contradicting that “lower taxes” policy by your promise to impose a 1.5 percent levy …?

LEIGH SALES: You spoke earlier about your document Our Plan and it includes the statement that, “We have an economic plan for Australia, a plan to lower taxes to stimulate economic growth.” Isn’t that promise contradicted by your policy to impose a 1.5 per cent levy on big business to fund a maternity leave scheme?

Sales struck a sliver of gold here. Abbott is forced into the old “ I hear what you are saying … “line. The key words here are “no net increase in tax”.This is the first sniff of news.

Abbottt wraps himself in caveats. This could have been a turning point. The content was significant. The dynamic had shifted. The question was specific. And further questions were on the verge of clarifying one of Abbott’s big “commitments”, one much criticised by his own side of politics. Rich pickings on offer…

TONY ABBOTT: I hear what you’re saying, Leigh, and I know that there are some people who are unhappy about that element of our policy. But let’s never forget that we are abolishing the carbon tax, we’re abolishing the mining tax and what we want to do is have a modest reduction in company tax that will mean that for big businesses, there is no net increase in tax, despite the paid parental leave levy and of course small business will get a company tax cut and a paid parental leave without having to pay the levy.

Sales does press Abbott further. Slightly. This is where a tighter, sharper less general, abstract question was needed.

LEIGH SALES: So can we clarify: will it be fully offset for big businesses?

Sales seeks “clarification” but we as citizens are left with less clarity. In a few words, Abbott elbows himself some more wiggle room in relation to paid parental leave.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, my hope – and we can’t finalise the fiscal position, we can’t finalise the timings of these initiatives until we’ve seen the pre-election fiscal outlook and I fear that that will be much worse than the Government is currently letting on. My hope is that we are able to introduce paid parental leave at the same time as we have an offsetting company tax cut.

There are no follow-ups. Suddenly, Sales jumps again. Abbott was seemingly much better prepared for this interview with Sales both in terms of lines and talking points and how to anticipate and deal with her themes and questions.

If there was going to be one certainty, Sales would ask about the NSW O’Farrell government’s signing up to the Gillard government’s Gonski plan. One can imagine Abbott’s minders discussing what Sales might ask and how.

As it turned out, Sales chose a very weak question form that lay totally in the realm of predictability. Again, very general with truck size gaps to drive through and the use of “why” which is the weakest and most open-ended of the traditional journalistic interrogatives.

There seems to be little evidence of exactly what Sales was wanting to find out here. Was it not time to forensically enquire about the DETAILS of Gonski? Press Abbott on key aspects and details? More clearly gauge where he actually stood. Examine his values around education especially around a “needs based approach”. Again, a rich vein to mine?

Sales chose the more political rather than policy aspect. Or weaving the two together.

LEIGH SALES: Let’s turn to education. If Barry O’Farrell, the Liberal leader of the largest state, thinks that the Gonski plan is a good idea, then why doesn’t the federal Liberal leader?

Sales let’s Abbott get away with the cheeky avoidance in the beginning of his answer. This is another clear invitation to intervene, engage and challenge. That’s her job. What we get is more obfuscation and avoidance naturally and more precious seconds slipping by.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, it’s too early to say exactly what the Gonski plan is. The Prime Minister hasn’t really come clean. We don’t know all the details of what was agreed between herself and Barry O’Farrell. Look, I’m sure Barry believes that this is in the best interests of NSW and if the Prime Minister can deliver on it, fine, but the Prime Minister has a very poor record of actually delivering, a really hopeless record of actually delivering. This is a government which is great at making promises, but hopeless at keeping them.

Another very predictable but fair question from Sales. Still no real pressure on Abbott.

LEIGH SALES: Well Barry O’Farrell obviously has some confidence that this promise will be delivered on. Now that his government has signed a deal with the Commonwealth, is that a deal that you will honour?

This next passage from Abbott is truly remarkable. If Sales had done her job better earlier, by now the opposition leader would be severely circumscribed and much more wary making these statements. What he is actually saying is ‘education is a drag on the economy – not an investment’ (to say nothing of educational equity). This debate has been going on for years. Gonski is all about these issues and ideologies. For Abbott to slide so easily by without strong challenge is one of the real disgraces of this interview.

If “the existing system is not broken” as Abbott claims, what on earth have the education and Gonski debate been about?

Sales doesn’t even flinch when Abbott avers: “everything right now, Leigh, has to be tested against that framework: how is it going to help us get back to surplus? How is it gonna make our economy more productive?”

I suppose, by default, we do hear this statement of “values” however generalised and undefended. Slim pickings?

TONY ABBOTT: What we’ve said is we want to wait and see whether the Prime Minister can bring about a nationally consistent approach. And we’re not prepared to commit at this point in time to anything short of that. Let’s face it: the existing system is not broken. I don’t say it can’t be improved. I don’t say that we wouldn’t under perfect circumstances want to put more money into schools, but these aren’t perfect circumstances. Our triple A credit rating is at risk if there’s not a path back to surplus, and frankly, everything right now, Leigh, has to be tested against that framework: how is it going to help us get back to surplus? How is it gonna make our economy more productive?

So that is the education policy part of the interview done with.

I simply do not understand what prompts Sales, after all that had preceded this point in a very flabby interview, to ask such a question as this. Again, what EXACTLY was she seeking to discover? It is very hard to discern. Is Sales becoming addicted to the flourish, the “smart arse” question form? If so, it is certainly hampering her effectiveness.

LEIGH SALES: Before we go, in your own mind, what is the biggest hurdle to you becoming Prime Minister in September?

TONY ABBOTT: Well it’s not about me, Leigh. It really isn’t. It’s got to be about our country. Now, …

LEIGH SALES: Well what’s the biggest hurdle, though?

As he has demonstrated all through this interview, Abbott exploits Sales’ lack of specific questioning and pressure to address narrower details and to seek values frameworks.

We all had to sit and listen to Abbott’s risible polemics about “milking incumbency, demonising the opposition” etc. Well, as John Howard would say at such moments – “Hullo?”

Perhaps at this wind down phase of the interview, a hearty laugh from Sales to underscore the absurdity of Abbott’s replies would have been appropriate?

TONY ABBOTT: Well it’s never easy to win an election from opposition, and as I say, this is a pretty hopeless government, but they’re pretty clever at politics and I suspect every day they will be out there a.) milking incumbency, b.) demonising the Opposition, c.) mortgaging the future in the hope of buying a few votes and d.) booby trapping the future in the hope that an incoming government will be saddled with a whole lot of commitments that make managing the budget very, very difficult indeed. It’s a pretty low and dishonourable government that way, but I think we are more than up to it.

Right in the dying moments (unfortunately), Sales conjures a slight sense of challenge around Abbott’s perceived character as a “hard man”.

But examine the exact form and language in the question. What real force does it have? Isn’t the form, ”Is it a problem for you …” a weak one?

LEIGH SALES: You yourself have written in your book Battlelines about the fact that you were the hard man of the Howard Government, you know, the headkicker, if you like. Is it a problem for you that Australians think that the hard man that we got to know over the Howard years is going to be a hard man as Prime Minister?

Abbott’s reply is pregnant with possibilities for further enquiry. But no, it’s over and another almost totally wasted thirteen minutes of crucial interview time has ebbed away.

TONY ABBOTT: Leigh, look, I accept that over the years, and I’ve been in public life for two decades at least, well really more than that one way or another now, and a lot of people have come to a lot of conclusions. But I also think that Australians are pretty fair-minded and they accept that people can grow if they move into a new position. I’d like to think that I have grown as Opposition Leader and I am confident that I can grow as Prime Minister should the public give me that extraordinary honour.

Sales, to match her overall very careful and largely deferential tone (compared to a more angular approach with Gillard) “books” up Abbott for further interviews as the election campaign unfolds. It borders on the emetic.

LEIGH SALES: Mr Abbott, thank you very much. We’ll look forward to seeing you again over the course of this election year.

TONY ABBOTT: Thank you so much, Leigh.

What can we say about such an empty interview? Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

Has the constant drumbeat of partisan attack on the ABC generally and Sales personally ultimately had the “desired effect”?

Has Abbott’s tactic of largely refusing to appear on serious ABC current affairs programs served to skew the whole process and context of these accountability interviews away from the crucial content more into an exciting hoped for blood sport?

Finally, what has happened to their “news sense” at ABC 730? At least two clear, news angles emerged: around the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, its exact timing and the offsets for large companies and around the future funding of the Gonski reforms.

This interview was strongly promoted as an overview of Abbott’s policies against a background of the worrying paucity of clear policy detail from the coalition in this election lead-up period. Yet when the clear opportunities to winkle those details out arrived, the ball was dropped.

How very disappointing.

I look forward to reading and responding to your comments.

Read More:

Morrison’s brick wall on how he’ll stop the boats

Anatomy of Sales -v- Gillard interview

Peter Clarke is the author of The Interview: A Hollow Dance Looking for New Moves in Australian Journalism Today edited by Matthew Ricketson, published by Palgrave McMillan.

Comments

  1. Susan in Regional NSW says:

    Interesting article, thank you.

    I too am really curious as to why Ms Sales went so soft on Mr Abbott in last night’s interview.

    Is there a chance it was a directive from above? I for one would not be surprised.

    Who in their right mind knowingly upsets their potential new boss?

    She neither followed up with further questions relating to answers given, nor asked probing questions.

    Imho it was just an opportunity for Mr Abbott to say “Look at me, you ABC lefties, I really am a nice guy.Just look how politely I am answering these questions.”

    Pathetic and so exceedingly disappointing.

    So now that Aunty is cowed, is there any MSM outlet who will question Mr Abbott as he should be over the dearth of policies his party demonstrate?
    I doubt it very much because if he got even a whiff of an in depth uncompromising interview he would run a mile and refuse to appear.

    I frequently wonder how the late Paul Lyneham or Richard Carlton would have dealt with Mr Abbott.
    Definitely not in the kid glove manner shown by Ms Sales last night.

    Unfortunately for me she did herself lasting damage as I will take her interviews with a grain of salt from now on.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Very interesting to read your take on the interview as it went to air. You are not alone in thinking back to earlier political interviewers both ABC and commercial. Male and female. Of course the ground continues to shift underneath journalism as the digital revolution rolls on. Those set-piece interview programs and gun practitioners from pre social media days emerged from such a different media and journalistic background. Many aspects of ABC journalism have improved as new technologies render production easier and more democratic. Localism for one. But these high level accountability interviews seem to have hit a wall. Media training and media minders are clearly part of the complex equation between the political class and the media class. Both have become more risk averse in their various intertwined ways.


  2. It was a very vanilla interview of Abbott


  3. Leigh might not follow up on her questions, but we can. Good article.


  4. very dissapointing interview. We are going to an election with practically nothing from the opposition to make a judgement call on. I dont want interviewers to make TA look a fool, that is far too easy, but I would like some sort of information on whitch to make an opinion. I guess by now everyone, including Leigh, konows that the opposition has nothing to offer, or did she get hauled over the coals for doing her job properly, last time around?


  5. Thanks Peter. Great forensic analysis of a boringly, disappointing and uninformative interview. Abbott certainly got to call the shots here and the differences between this and the PM’s interview are marked. I like Leigh Sales, but I think she’s been ‘got at’.
    I’m devastated by what’s been happening to our ABC.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Thanks Heather. We are becoming more concerned too. Of course these accountability interviews are telecast (and later spread digitally) into a very prismatic and fraught political environment. Everybody perceives them differently However, there does seem a pattern here. And two distinctly ineffective major accountability interviews with worrying aspects of technique apparent from a very professional competent journalist are a cause for serious reflection at the national broadcaster in my opinion. High level talent in broadcast journalism is at a premium in this country. And the new journalists emerging out of our many journalism schools are inevitably shaped by very different media and journalistic experiences.: a new and different breed. Change won’t stop. Nor the transformation of cultures such as that at the ABC. For better and for worse.

  6. Polyquats says:

    It was a really poor interview. Unfortunately, any fair criticism of it is lost in the rabid braying do the loony element on SM. If you dare criticise Sales on Twitter, you’re immediately lumped in with the extreme and obscene commentators.
    I found it boring. Nothing in the interview made me angry, upset, excited, or pleased. It gave me no new information. Well, except perhaps obliquely about the relationship between the OL’s office and 730.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Yes very obliquely and speculatively. I have noticed well how “rabid” SM can be around figures such as Sales. Thanks!


  7. Just another tiring, annoying ABC “political” interview, nothing ventured, nothing gained.


  8. When one does not get answered. One assumes, there are not any.

    It follows that Abbott has nothing to offer.


  9. I’d like Sales and the ABC to deny that this interview was not pre-orchestrated and that Abbot was not presented with the questions beforehand or that the questions that Abbot was prepared to answer were presented to Sales beforehand.
    All in all Sales effort suggested that one of the rules was that Abbott be allowed to finish before the next questions and that there was to be no serious questioning or attempts to correct or verify what was said.
    Sales, you get a FAIL for this pathetic effort.
    Abbot, you get a FAIL in that you were totally unable to put any bones on questions that you appear to have know beforehand and just continued spouting the negative one-liners that you are famous for. Provided even more evidence that you are totally unfit to be the Prime Minister of this country.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Thanks for your comments (and challenge). I have seen these sentiments or akin to these quite widely now. I must say I just do not accept that the kind of pre-vetting or exchange of questions ever took place. If the journalistic culture had actually eroded to that extent at the ABC we are bereaved already. But call me a cock-eyed optimist if you will, I simply do not believe that happened during pre-production for this interview. However, the fact that you and many others are expressing these views, doubts and suspicions points to some loss of trust in and reliance on the quality and ethics of the ABC’s journalistic practice.


      • Given Sales usual treatment of Labor interviewees and initially Abbott her approach and demeanour appeared completely out of character. To the extent of being almost simpering in her questioning and approach. Abbott was given full range to complete questions without her usual interruption and there was no questioning of so called facts nor the glib Abbott throwaway lines. The was not attempt made to make Abbott justify what he was saying.
        The almost mechanistic response (regardless of his atrocious speech patterns ‘ahs’) was suggestive of someone who had prior knowledge of the questions or was delivering responses to questions that had already been agreed between the parties.
        While, like you, I would not like to believe that the ABC has been traduced and become just another part of the mediocrity that we call the msm in Australia, previous behaviour of Ulhmann, and now Sales is suggestive of an undermining of the ABC’s journalistic independence.


  10. Thanks for this analysis, it gave clarity to my sense of discomfort throughout.

    I did wonder, when questions were not followed-up on, and the questions seemed to jump around, whether parts were removed or censored.

    Do you know if there is any way of finding that out?

    • Peter Clarke says:

      I can make enquiries but the norm for this type of interview would be to pre-record it as if live (if actual live is not an option). There would be some negotiations often around editing with certain high profile interviewees. I do really doubt editing was the problem you allude to here. I believe we need to look back to the underlying journalism and interview techniques. And I think we can only guess for the moment at the internal culture at 730 and what kind of “guidance” Sales is receiving. It worries me greatly that something seems to be “wrong”. Something has changed especially with the the previously lively, often charming and usually effective Sales interviewing approach.

  11. Lorraine Hyde says:

    It is an extremely disappointing situation that we can no longer rely on the ABC to investigate and report on political discourse, policies, plans and vision for this country. How are we the interested public going to learn answers to the questions we ask amongst ourselves regarding the future of the country? We don’t have access to the politicians to be able to ask the questions ourselves so we depend on the media to do it for us. They have let us down over the past few years. They have gone for the easy option by not investigating and reporting accurately, fairly and impartially on those aspects that will have long lasting effects on the future of the country. The commercial media have their profits to make and so we expect a different standard from them and are more forgiving of their often trite reporting. But there is no excuse for the ABC. Being funded by the taxpayers they have an obligation to investigate and report!!! We do not expect to see a commercial format, with lots of froth and bubble. We expect the hard questions to be asked, we expect the reporting to be fair and accurate and we expect the truth to be told. If the ABC can no longer deliver according to their charter then we should cease funding them

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Thanks Lorraine. A passionate declaration! I think you’d find many in support of your “hard questions” manifesto.

  12. Peter Clarke says:

    I shall address one of your points that bemuses us as well. At critical moments in the latest Abbott interview, Leigh Sales seemed to hold back. I have debated with people here about interviewers’ interrupting. Many (especially partisan supporters of either stripe) seem to see interrupting, pressing, challenging as somehow rude or unacceptable. I don’t. It is very much part of the role and essential to the outcomes of an accountability interview. Of course, stylistics comes into it. Some lucky interviewers have the persona and personality that allows them to be very pushy but not so “offensive”. Or they practise and develop that skill. Mind you, it is the whole package. I constantly remind journalism students that genuine CURIOSITY is the key ingredient. It powerfully communicates to the interviewee. A “gotcha” motivation is far less useful and productive I believe. Although unstoppable curiosity will very often get you to the same outcome. Add to that, CONFIDENCE and COURAGE. Then the sine qua non of interviewing: LISTENING. Closely and flexibly. Another aspect of this interview that made us wonder were the missed opportunities to chase down the obvious news moments (Paid parental leave, Gonski funding and even the actual planned for cuts in spending that Hockey put at $70 billion but a figure that Abbott with Sales rebuffed). That was quite remarkable for that program and that interviewer. Here endeth the lesson.


    • I agree with you completely Peter. Anyone can see the heavy bias towards the Liberals displayed by the Murdoch press, but I’ve watched with dismay ‘our ABC’ turning into a smaller version of these MSMs. Even down to cutting and pasting items from News Ltd! This would never have been tolerated once upon a time. I’ve written to the ABC many times as a paid up member of Friendsof the ABC but always receive answers that don’t address my complaints. The Abbott inteview with Sales was a disgrace.


  13. “Slick” Abbott … ““available every day” … for sideshows.

    Real solutions, Strong Australia book, NBN, abolish carbon tax, abolish mining tax, stop the boats ….. nothing there.

    Sack 20,000 Australians, No school kids bonus, no Superannuation offset ……… now were getting somewhere.

    New Zealand ? …. going by social media N.Z. doesn’t want “Slick” Abbott….. N.Z. doesn’t have to worry about “additional spending” they are rebuilding a city of 300,000 destroyed by an earthquake.

    BOF left “Slick” Abbott holding the wrong end of the pineapple …. and it showed.

    “Slick” Abbott …. “but they are pretty clever at politics” … who was the only politician to give an interview the day before Anzac Day when all the media would have something to say about him … even here in AFHP.

    “Slick” Abbott …………”It’s a pretty low and dishonourable government that way, but I think we are more than up to it.”

    The 1 way that “Slick’ Abbott will always be a winner, is fighting his way to get deeper into the sewer than anybody else.


  14. Also the question should be asked …. did “Slick” Abbott have the final say as to weather the interview should go to air ?

    Just as “Has Murdoch made up your mind who to vote for” “Slick” Abbott would be answering in the affirmative.

  15. Peter Clarke says:

    I am frankly becoming amazed at some of the more over imagined scenarios popping up. Abbott would not have veto rights. If that were the case, we would be in very dire territory indeed. I retain my belief in the pride and integrity of most ABC journalists.


  16. Looks like the right-wing plants are succeeding in destroying public confidence in the ABC. When a future government moves to close it down or sell it off who will stand in defense of the now almost indefensible ABC? Congratulations John Howard and RW fifth columnists.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      I don’t agree with your analysis. I believe the ABC will survive with e change of government. We tend to focus at times like this on a fairly although crucial aspect of the ABC’s overall operation. It is a large media organisation with significant reach geographically and demographically. It has a long history and deep roots. It has so far been relatively nimble, proactive and inventive digitally evolving into a media entity well beyond being a broadcaster. If you read Ken Inglis’ two volume history of the ABC, you will see there have been severe challenges to the ABC before from both sides of politics. As I say, it will change. But it will survive as a key part of our media mix and culture.


  17. Leigh -Fails– and why no question of ‘so Mr. Abbott are you suggesting we abolish State governments? That’s a headline grabber and why no classic Sales interruptions?

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Classic Sales interruptions? All decent political interviewers need to interrupt to be effective. But you are right, she was markedly restrained this time out. I noticed the states line too. But Leigh let a number of other biggies float past without delving further too: paid parental leave, Gonski and the exact size of the savings the coalition is planning for.


  18. Your analysis is acute Peter. I did not stay tuned until the end thereby forgetting to watch the Barry Humphries segment. Thank goodness for I view. Watching those Humphries’ eyes flashing with wit and intelligence I thought how wonderful it would have been to hear him interview Abbott. I am sure we would have all been transfixed. Instead poor Leigh flittered about like a moth dashing itself against a naked globe asking too many questions and receiving answers of little weight. . She would have been better to focus on a few areas and ask strategic follow-up questions with a clear idea of the information she wished to extract.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Thanks Dianne. I enjoyed Bazza too. Seeing him doing Weimar cabaret music. Actually, I do agree about using these relatively short duration accountability interviews for a quite narrow set of questions or themes. It is an opportunity to drill down, to reveal veiled values, how decisions were actually made and elusive but crucial details. Also time to challenge and pressure where required. I am suggesting maybe no more than three key issues or themes maximum for 13 minutes. I would rather learn and understand more deeply and authentically about fewer things per interview than almost nothing or be further mislead about many things.


      • As a final comment on this topic I think it should be stated that many people would have tuned into the Sales-Abbott interview hoping to see her deliver a knock out blow and would have been disappointed. Abbott was fully prepared unlike occasions when he is out-of-sorts and gets into a pickle: long belligerent stares, admissions of being evasive with the truth and of failing to read an important document etc. Sales is not alone in trying to get something out of Abbott on a ‘good day’. Most journalists can’t. I long for someone to ask him why he changes his mind so often that he must have to be reminded constantly what his position is. I would love to hear him discuss why he took the unusual step of studying to become a priest. I have read about why he left but not why he entered the seminary. There are plenty of people of deep faith who lead everyday lives but very, very few who feel they are called by God. I would be genuinely interested to hear Abbott discuss that fascinating matter.


  19. I write from the experience of being Jana Wendt’s political researcher on A Current Affair for a year, and the certainty that Leigh Sales is a journalist of impeccable integrity. There is no way Abbott had prior knowledge of questions or that any topics were off limits. The program tried its best to broadcast a good interview with a man who does not want to appear for fear of being forced out of the comfort zone the press gallery and his tactics have produced for him. In that zone he says cheap grabs for TV news, changes his line as it suits without being called on it, and walks away when unwanted questions are asked. Style over substance. He has mastered the modern media. He wags their tail, and, partly due to the existential crisis in mainstream media and in journalism itself, there has been no fightback.

    Serious interviews with Abbott are so few that each needs to be great. That’s incredible pressure for any journalist, let alone one who was dragged to ACMA for alleged bias when Abbott fell over in their last encounter, has been boycotted by him ever since, and needs him to be available for more interviews before the election. I thought she was tough. The problem with the interview is that it failed to nail down issues of importance to voters. Peter’s piece seeks to analyses why it failed, and how it might have succeeded if handled differently.

    Leaders have the standing to demand and get ‘as live’ interviews, ie pre-records that go to air as if they were live. I think this interview was ‘as live’. I agree that programs should advise whether a pre-record is edited or as live.

    I am proud to publish Peter’s interview reviews. They allow readers to get into the heads of journalists, and see the techniques they use. Journalists are after news. TV interviews want to make news. Intense preparation goes into planning big interviews and crafting questions designed to elicit information rather than rhetoric. The pressure of the moment can lead to mistakes – interviewing is an art as well as a craft.

    I reckon Peter’s work for @NoFibs has been groundbreaking, and I am very proud to publish him. It takes courage to critique the work of a leading journalist who commands almost universal respect and admiration in her profession, including from Peter and I.


    • @MK

      In other words “Slick” Abbott’s bullying (ACMA) is always going to be in the back of Journalists minds.

      I certainly didn’t set out to disparage Leigh Sales, in fact I like her interviewing techniques.

      I just wonder how much control she has over pre-recorded interviews … specially with “Slick” Abbott.


    • To see real fear of “Slick” Abbott replay “Slick” Abbott’s NBN policy from Fox Studios.

      Watch how M.Turnbull is all thumbs and defers to Abbott as if he’s afraid he’s going to cop a left hook.

      This is M.Turnbull who is a multi millionaire, who had close dealings with Kerry Packer and many other high profile movers and shakers and he defers to “Slick” Abbott who took out a $176k mortgage on his home and doesn’t even get close to being a decent human being like M.Turnbull.


  20. TA’s comments on NZ economy were a straight lift from article in that days AFR. opportunistic but appearing insightful


  21. Well J.Fraser, Malcolm is trying to sell and Pup and he knows it, which doesn’t say much for his supposed greater decency. We all know the real agenda is to stop I.P. competition from Foxtel. Imagine if the AFL or NRL could stream games themselves. Game over Foxtel. So much for our champions of “competition” and “free speech”.


  22. Reblogged this on lmrh5.


  23. Vanilla is the only word to describe the interview. I am very unhappy about the abuse that Leigh Sales has copped on twitter, it is unedifying and does not reflect well on passionate twitter users sadly. Though having sad that, I do understand the frustration that these same people felt. Ms Sales has set herself up as the ‘pre-eminent interview specialist’ in this country, her walkley & the gig with Hilary Clinton recently attest to that. Therefore there was a fair expectation from people on twitter to see a hard hitting, questioning interview… They didn’t get that. Bit like the star on the football team, if he does not perform, people start to question why he has the high profile & gets the big bikkies?

    So, while I abhor the feral & rabid flack that Ms Sales is getting, though I also find the journalist Fraternity being outraged on her behalf a tad Hypocritical as well. Outrage at nastiness fair call, that I will not argue, defending her interview style & substance itself, in light of previous interviews is not warranted and looks more like a partisan defence of a fellow journalist against the awful twitter hordes than journalistic judgement.


    • One thing I have noticed … like a union, journos will defend each other ‘unto the death’ so to speak, regardless of whether it is warranted. I remember NewsLtd strikes on behalf of journos who actually deserved being sacked, but the journos refused to allow for a sacking they didn’t sanction.

      That was why I was astounded that the team did NOT back up Mark Riley over the Abbott ‘freeze’ interview.

      So despite Leigh dropping the ball in this instance, they will defend her anyway. Same with reporters like Lewis, whom I consider a bottom-dweller and wouldn’t term his work journalism. Many of his comrades might despise his tactics etc, but they will defend him regardless. You see the same with doctors, and many other professions.

      Because many journalists are facing oblivion with the proliferation of social media commentators who DO have expertise and kudos, they will cling to each other hoping that united, they’ll survive. Unfortunately, many refuse to see that sinking to a low level instead of rising above the fray will hasten their demise.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      I deeply believe that key journalists/interviewers such as Leigh Sales in this rapidly evolving media environment are legitimately subject to careful critique. Abuse? No! On that we totally agree. I have noted the reflex leaping to Leigh’s defence by some of that “fraternity”/sorority. That is predictable but ultimately counter-productive. You use a footy analogy. If the star goal kicker fails at a really big game you can bet the coach and his assistants will be working the perceived problem until it is sorted if possible. Sadly, within a unit such as ABC 730, I wonder how much the culture allows or supports constant reviews and professional adaptation. The fact that Sales used almost exactly the same style of opening question in both the Gillard and Abbott interviews despite their manifest predictability to fail within the interview itself is a real cause for concern and doubt IMO. I am only speculating here but from what I know of those internal journalistic cultures, actually reflecting openly and honestly on techniques, performances and pathways to improvement are not high on the agenda. Rather it is more likely to be a gung-ho tribal reinforcing, self-justifying atmosphere. I have no idea the extent to which Leigh Sales herself is a “reflective practitioner”. Once, journalists were largely insulated from this intense level of contact with and feedback from their audiences. That has shifted forever. Those that resent and rebuff it are in for an even rougher ride. Those that adapt and weave it productively into their professional work will, given some genuine talent, prosper.


      • Peter, Jana always wanted critical debriefs – what worked, what didn’t and why, were chances missed, did we break news, what would newspapers run with. Could questions have delivered results if phrased/ordered differently, were chances to nail an issue missed. She only wanted my honest opinions, which was lucky because they are the only ones I give. She often disagreed with my views, and I with hers.

        Jana insisted political interviews were hers and took full responsibility and control of them. She did not do group think with producers, and worked only with her researcher.

        I don’t know how 7.30 works, but I sensed a whiff of group-think in the questions asked and the structure chosen. Hope I’m wrong. As I said on the night, Leigh was a breath of fresh air when she joined 730. Her casual yet intense curiosity produced engaged and interesting interviews. I feel her personal charm may be a reason Abbott and Gillard avoid face to face with her.

        Something has gone wrong, and I hope it is fixed soon.

  24. SpudBenBean says:

    Having seen what happened to Jon Faine, Stephen Long and Eric Campbell recently, I really don’t think it’s too far fetched for people to think Sales was made to tone it down. I’ve been a long time fan of Sales since her Lateline days. She has the ability to question, listen and challenge both sides of politics to get to the truth. All I could think when I watched the recent Abbott interview was “who is this imposter and what have you done to Leigh Sales”. I rarely watch ABC 730 anymore since Kerry O’Brien’s departure but do tune in for the ‘big’ interviews but sadly, that’s now obviously a waste of time.

    • Peter Clarke says:

      Your sentiments closely echo ours. To deny there is some kind of “problem” here is remiss IMO. Your words remind me how effective Leigh has been in the past. Let’s hope THAT Leigh is able to re-emerge.


      • Thanks for the great informative analysis Peter.
        I felt it was almost like a contract was drawn up with management beforehand to get the mongrel on.Softly, softly approach.
        One can only hope by the softly lure, he answers the next invo and gets drilled.
        Somehow, I doubt it. A reply from 4crns re Ashbygate investigation sums up their new attitude. It’s not the Aunty we once knew. She’s gone to the archives of history.


  25. It feels like we were all expecting Leigh Sales to single-handedly topple the Opposition Leader with one 12 or 13 minute interview. Part of the let down is driven by fear that she won’t get another chance at him, but I think (hope) she will, because she didn’t eviscerate him like last time. I look forward to another Sales/Abbott encounter closer to September 14 when it will really matter. On a completely separate note, did anyone else think that Abbott looked totally exhausted?

    • Peter Clarke says:

      I understand that comment. There is validity in it. But it is not where I am coming from. One thing I did not emphasise in the article is that I believe 13 minutes is relatively short for serious matters of complexity. Each encounter maybe should focus in on a maximum three themes/issues for that duration. As I have said elsewhere, better to have detail and depth on a limited range than almost nothing on a wider range.


  26. So what did we all learn from the ABC 730Reports lastest indepth interview with Tony Abbott?

    What should we expect from the ABC 730Report to make it different from other Channels and TV Shows?

    These are the questions I ponder.


  27. Reblogged this on The Kettle Press and commented:
    Some thoughtful responses to this excellent dissection, some rather partisan but that is the colour of politics. I agree, overall, with the article and would rather have seen Sales focus on several points, doggedly analyse them and to have been more forensic. However, I’m of the opinion that she wants to ensure Abbott returns for further interviews, and she is also in the position of having done such a good, Walkley award winning interview last time, of following up in equal style, not an easy task. She’s 1 for 2. Let’s see what happens in her next interview – provided Abbott fronts.

  28. Peter Clarke says:

    If you are right about that undercurrent of Sales and ABC730 wanting to ensure an Abbott return (and their is some “evidence” in the interview for that), it is a profound problem overall and an unfair added degree of difficulty for Sales herself to do her job forensically while being simultaneously aware of those sidebar pressures. It does go to that inherent weakness in our media set-up that the democratic role of our news media can be so easily subverted. How? Just don’t front. Walk away from doorstops or press conferences. Stonewall etc. I know the news executives at ABC are deeply troubled by this challenge especially considering the requirements within their ABC Editorial Policies. At the end of the day, during an election campaign, the ABC cannot afford to have its overall coverage constantly modulated and shaped by this tactic. If the tactic persists in various guises (and I have few doubts it will), the ABC may need to simply adapt and keep highlighting for its audiences the facts of the matter.


  29. I image after the interview screened Abbott’s office broke out the champagne with cheers of ‘plain Sales -ing, Lodge ahoy’!


  30. Thanks, Peter. Excellent analysis.


  31. Mark Scott..ABC >>>>He tells us tonight he once considered running for Parliament, under the banner of the NSW Liberal Party.

    And he tells us as well about his strong religious beliefs.

    He’s was even described (he says inaccurately) as one of ‘God’s secret agents… trying to bring the light and life of Jesus into one of the most hostile parts of society, the media.’ <<<<
    http://www.abc.net.au/sundayprofile/stories/s1687585.htm Leigh was good, since PM Gillard has been in power there has been a concerted effort by coation and CO to control the narrative. The latest Abbott-Sales 730 report interview WAS an example of that control over the narrative.


  32. Excellent analysis Peter Clarke, l saw the interview and agree with your critique.
    Long story short, people that didn`t see the interview, missed nothing.
    Viewers that watched the interview gained nothing.
    Mr-Rabbit was allowed to give non-detailed answers.
    Sales failed to dig at opportunities to dig.

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