By Peter Clarke
March 26, 2013

A little context …

Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.
The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde

What would Wilde have had to say about losing a conga-line of ministers, parliamentary secretaries and assorted whips?

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Another day, another interview. Or two, or three.

For an anchor of a nightly national current affairs program such as Leigh Sales @ABC730, this is her bedrock job: conducting set-piece accountability interviews and performing to the highest broadcast journalistic standards she and the team around her can aspire to and produce.

Last Monday night (25 March) was typical and unusual both. Her interviewee was the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. That’s standard. Sales has interviewed Gillard many times both as PM and earlier. And, at times, very effectively both in terms of the information that she elicited and the tone and dynamic of the interview itself.

Monday night’s interview did not fall into that category. It was clearly an unusual context with Gillard, after yet another Ruddesque encounter with losing her Prime Ministership, out in media land selling her message of ‘done and dusted’ and essentially telling Australian electors, ‘Nothing to see here’.

The repeated lines tended to work better on shows such as The Project.

The Project

The Project

Of course, there was much to be seen here and imagined and speculated about and grimaced over and long sighs expended upon, heads shaking all the while. We knew that. Leigh Sales had that as an inescapable reality as she sat at her desk, writing her leads and plotting her approach to what turned out to be a short interview considering the steaming pile of political slag the PM was standing in front of vainly attempting some verbal legerdemain and misdirection to divert our collective bemused and weary gaze.

Eleven minutes was a significantly short time to allocate to this interview considering the context. A brave producer would have devoted the whole program to it. A savvy one at least double the eleven minutes allocated – with a shorter, lighter piece as a program ender. Why? Because Sales started with a real disadvantage with both she and Gillard knowing how little time was available. Of course, I have no real way of knowing if that time constraint came from Gillard’s people or was a production decision @ABC730. Whatever the reason, it clearly worked as a structural given in Gillard’s favour. Compression became an essential technique for Sales trying to marshall facts, contexts, sharp forensic questions in the face of a steely, deeply determined, ‘don’t look here, look over there’ Prime Minister garnished with ersatz sociability.

Compression, one of the suite of skills and techniques in any experienced interviewer’s toolkit ,is nearly always necessary in some form no matter how much time is allotted for the interview. But here the degree of compression necessary hampered Sales’ ability to be as sharp and forensic as she needed to be to fulfill her role in one of the most challenging of accountability interviews.

This interview with Gillard was also pre-recorded. Does that matter? Yes and no. In my opinion live is always best. It brings an edge to a major set-piece interview. The interviewer needs to perform as if on a stage with an audience watching and so does the interviewee. Adrenaline is a’sluicing through. It tilts the advantage slightly in the interviewer’s favour. Having to throw to an interview with the words ‘A short time ago I was joined from Canberra by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’ inevitably shifts that degree of excitement and focus for the audience. In the flow of the program the ‘nowness’ is fractured ever so slightly. It does have an effect.

Note also the passive nature of the words used in Sales’ throw: ‘I was joined …’. Why not ‘I spoke to Julia Gillard …’, or ‘Julia Gillard joined me …’. An active voice with a named agent of an action signals to the audience this is an active event.

Most of these political interviews are conducted in abstract generalisations littered with passives with no clear agents of action and consequently shorn of potential responsibility for those actions. Why start with the throw?

In this era of kaleidoscopically fragmented time and space, actual ‘in the present’ media events hold a special power that connects us all to a more traditional, even primitive ‘around the campfire’ time and psychology that earlier mass media (as much radio still does) had as a key characteristic.

During the recording of the interview, lurking in a mental crevice in a number of minds, Sales’, Gillard’s, the producers’ and the media minders’, is the knowledge that editing is always an option. I know from years of experience doing both kinds of interviews, live and pre-recorded, a different mindset is in play during a pre-record. The live performance aspect is diminished, the commodity aspect increases. It is ‘in the can’.

Sales also had to interview Gillard remotely: the PM was in her Parliament House office, in her territory; Sales was in a Sydney studio. We see that arrangement and the accompanying media effect (interviewee on a screen etc.) countless times, but it does affect our perception and reading of the interview and needs a different set of skills from both Sales and, in this case, Gillard.

One key factor is the removal of direct eye contact and close-quarters body language in the same space. The vibe. Used and modulated skillfully, being together in the same space can be a huge advantage to an interviewer in an accountability interview where the interviewee is sure to resist the thrust of interrogation and investigation as Gillard had every reason and incentive to do in this one.

Interviewees who prefer the tactic, offence is the best defence’ can also arc up, radiate aggression and dominance while raising the stakes and pushing the boundaries of politeness and sociability. Often that aggression is softened or masked by the medium, even television, but can be keenly felt in the interview space itself.

These are simple, factual observations about the underlying skills and contexts for this kind of set-piece broadcast interview. They are not offered as excuses or justifications for Sales or Gillard. These were the cards dealt on this occasion.

They effect the dynamics and outcomes of an interview: duration, significant compression, pre-recording, geographically remote interviewee.


I now want to now work through Monday night’s interview in detail while occasionally gently suggesting how it might have gone with some different techniques and approaches. I am using the ABC transcript available online @ABC730;

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: A short time ago I was joined from Canberra by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister, thank you for joining us


LEIGH SALES: 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?

An unfortunate first question that perhaps the interview never quite recovered from. Recent events? Very generalised and abstract with no pointedness whatsoever. This is where Sales needed to be very specific and set the facts out in deft, sharp, concrete descriptions building on Chris Uhlmann’s set-up piece aired just before the interview. This was a contest interview where Sales needed to lay out unequivocally and strongly what she was challenging Gillard with. The sentence was awkward and convoluted. Sales shifted responsibility to a group, Australians, she could only, WITH DIFFICULTY, speak for in this generalised way. She should have taken agency for her statements herself.

‘Dysfunctional mess’ was an abstract value judgment that inevitably Gillard would not have accepted especially at the beginning of the interview. It didn’t work as an opening question and had almost no chance of working or being forensically effective.

Imagine if Sales had used one of the fundamental journalistic interrogatives – WHAT – and perhaps asked Julia Gillard after her concrete descriptions, “What specifically will you now do as Labor Leader and Prime Minister to … etc.

Gillard came well prepared with a ready-made narrative including some key words provided by the hollow men. She waltzed easily through the Sales generalisations and abstractions, briefly taking a leaf from the Peter Beattie playbook – she too was ‘appalled’ just like we were, all delivered in that slightly too glib and pre-digested style.

She also baited Sales with the word ‘achieved’. Sales swallowed the bait in her next question. Gillard had no real question to answer initially and started messaging with aplomb.

JULIA GILLARD: I can understand people being appalled when they watch the events of last week. As I said today, I was appalled too. But ultimately I believe, Leigh, people should judge the Government on what is achieved for our nation and for them in the lives of their families and the plans that we’ve got for the future. So even during last week when there was an unseemly display, even during that week, we passed into law disability care, the new system to make sure people with disabilities get a decent chance at life. We made sure that 3.5 million pensioners got more money. We made sure that there was more money in childcare for childcare workers and the week before that we saw record job creation numbers, the biggest monthly result in job creation in 13 years. So we have had a governing sense of purpose. What we’ve lacked is a sense of unity and now that is resolved.

LEIGH SALES: I’ll come to some of the achievements or the lack of achievements in a moment. But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor’s plans for future when you’ve had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?

Sales does not really get back on track in her follow-up question. The pretty useless word ‘dysfunction’ appeared again. She had a number of choices: to challenge ‘resolved’ and Gillard’s assertion of sudden, instant ‘unity’. Surely the key notion implied and offered by Gillard here was ‘trust’? That could have opened up a real line of enquiry and testing of assertions. However, Sales provided Gillard with that other key word that the PM had planted in her earlier answer. Gillard in a classic and much repeated media training tactic, seized upon ‘achievements’ from Sales and immediately bridged into a long sequence of pure political spin and propaganda even echoing Sales’ earlier use of ‘within their rights’ with the word ‘entitled’ and hinging smoothly off the word “achieved”.

JULIA GILLARD: People are entitled to look at what we’ve achieved, what we’ve said we would do and what we have done. We said we’d create jobs and keep strengthening our economy and we’ve done that. More than 900,000 jobs created, even during the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. We said we’d make a difference for school-kids, for skills, for apprenticeships for university places and we are improving schools, we’re seeing record numbers of apprenticeships and traineeships, more university places and more kids from poorer homes getting the chance to be the first in their family to ever go to university. We said we’d help families with cost-of-living pressures, paid parental leave, more money in childcare, less money paid in taxation. And we said we would set our nation up for the future for this Asian century of growth and change, and we’re doing that through things like rolling out the National Broadband Network. Now people can look at that: what we’ve seen we would do and what we have done. We’ve also done some big, hard controversial things, like putting a price on carbon, but they’ve been the right thing to do for the nation. We’ve got more to do, Leigh.

Gillard used the personal ‘Leigh’ in an attempt to disarm the interviewer, knowing Sales could not respond with ‘Julia’. This was playing with the rules of sociability. Gillard is very good at these tactics.

Sales now had a few choices. Probably parsing or challenging any of the claims from the Prime Minister would drag her further into the process of overt political messaging Gillard was determined to stick like glue to, wilfully ignoring the elephant in the room.

Sales responded to the tactic used by the PM with her laundry list and moved to counter or contrast the positive claims with a list of negative events and processes. This was promising. And she did attempt to bring Gillard back to the issue of trust. However she replaced the word ‘trust’ with ‘faith’, muddying the potency of the idea.

Would it have been more effective to conjure up ‘an average elector watching you right now, Prime Minister’, a more concrete device and ask, perhaps, ‘What will you do now to regain the trust of that confused and, appalled elector? A stream of spin from you here simply won’t do that. WHAT will you do specifically to start to regain that battered trust?’

LEIGH SALES: Well, Prime Minister, you’ve given me a laundry list there, so let me give you one back. When people look at what you’ve done, they also see a promise not to introduce a carbon tax broken, they see a promise to deliver a budget surplus this year broken, an East Timor solution for asylum seekers proposed then withdrawn, a Malaysia solution proposed and then abandoned, even as today we see a ship sink and people killed in another incident, a ban on live cattle imports imposed and then withdrawn, the disastrous appointment of Peter Slipper, the redesign of a mining tax so it now returns a fraction of what was banked on. I return to my earlier question: how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you’re planning to do going forwards?

Despite the continued generalisations from Sales, her slightly increased intensity and directness had some effect on Gillard, who started a tactic of running the clock out. Her replies were under slightly more pressure and bear little real scrutiny but it seemed to have become a battle of the lists.

It was a moment in the interview that Sales needed to grasp firmly with something short, sharp and assertive, e.g. ‘Prime Minister, I am challenging you on your perceived untrustworthiness in the electorate. That is simply an inescapable aspect of your Prime Ministership. What do you plan to do about that entrenched problem for you as a leader especially after the latest leadership challenge and multiple ministerial resignations’?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, I’m happy to go through those one by one if you would like. We said we would introduce a price on carbon. I always wanted to see an emissions trading scheme. And by the time people vote in September, we will be less than two years from that emissions trading scheme and the end of the carbon tax. On things like …

An interruption. Justified? Of course. How long could Gillard’s tactic be allowed to go on? It was an interview within an extraordinary context. Gillard was pretending there was really nothing to discuss here. Sales unfortunately again used imprecise language. Now, she became specific but homed in on the ‘broken promise’ around the Carbon Tax. I suggest this was a misstep. Also the use of ‘my problem’. At this point in the interview the contest was well and truly joined. Gillard assumed (with some justification so far) that she could get away with the use of anodyne spin. I believe ‘trust’ remained a key word here.

LEIGH SALES: But Prime Minister, you’re not addressing my central problem there, which was that there was a broken promise …

Gillard used a very sneaky move now. She skimmmed past the broken promise and simply invalidated Sales’ list. No specifics. Just ‘didn’t agree’. Again, the personal ‘Leigh’.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, I’m not agreeing with your list, Leigh.

The interviewer gamely attempted to re-assert her line of challenge trying to stick to a specific issue, but an old one, the ‘broken promise’. Gillard was having none of it.

Then Sales went to a more powerful and recent example that had much more to work with, the failed/withdrawn media reform legislation. She started to put something to the PM but was cut off by Gillard who then proceeded to spin again around a couple of the issues in the laundry list. We were back to raw political messaging and no answers to specific questions.

Gillard was well in charge of the interview at this point.

LEIGH SALES: No, no, there was a broken promise there and there is a long list of initiatives that the Government has introduced that have been failures or have not come to fruition. The most recent of course last week, the media reforms. Let me put it to you …

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, if you’re going to go through a list, I think you’ve gotta give me the opportunity to answer it and certainly on carbon I’ve addressed that before. I meant every word of that during the 2010 campaign. I didn’t foresee a minority parliament. We’ll get to that emissions trading scheme we spoke of. On the Malaysia arrangement, I would implement that tomorrow if Tony Abbott got out of the way. On the live cattle ban, I think it was the appropriate thing to do and it has secured the future for the live cattle industry because they were not going to get the social licence they needed unless we addressed animal welfare standards.

Sales was sucked in on a single issue within the Gillard spin sequence and opined weakly: ‘very messy’. This was a real low point for us as viewers. Nothing of any quality or insight had emerged from this accountability interview. Gillard was in full refusal/denial mode. Sales was skidding around trying to find a new hold on the PM.

LEIGH SALES: It was very messy in the way that it was done though.

Maybe a good moment for us to try to imagine how we would handle this situation? What would you ask next? How would you salvage such a major interview going badly?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, I think that industry has got a more secure long-term future now than it would have had we not acted. Now, on the rest of the list, you can keep going through it, but when we’ve worked through some very difficult things like carbon pricing, our eyes have always been on what is best for the nation, what’s in the national interest, what’s in the interest of a strong, prosperous, fair, smart future and I am very happy to be judged on that.

Sales now re-asserted with a critique of substance and an issue the viewers could understand clearly. It is worth remembering that part of this accountability process is to have some faith in the intelligence and ability to detect spin and avoidance on the part of the viewers. My view is, and Sales would maybe disagree, that we had reached a point where she is entitled to underscore in plain polite words the fact and degree of Gillard’s avoidance in the interview so far. In other words, call it.

But Sales now started actively describing the criticism from former senior ministerial colleagues about government processes.

LEIGH SALES: Some of your own colleagues when they decided to step down from cabinet, Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, have raised concerns about the process of government and in particular the media reforms last week saying that it was mishandled and that it was a debacle. Doesn’t that go to the very heart of the way you run government when senior ministers in your own team have stepped down and made that criticism?

JULIA GILLARD: I think it’s very important that cabinet plays the central role in government. As I said today, being a cabinet member comes with rights and it comes with responsibilities and I will certainly be looking to the cabinet team that now exists to exercise both those rights and those responsibilities. On media law reform, we got through two important pieces of legislation during the week, including of course broadening the ambit of what the ABC does and that’s a good thing. Leigh, it was always going to be a controversial debate. There are some loud, loud voices and some big vested interests in media policy debate and I really think, you know, at the end of the day those voices were going to come to the table loud and strong, irrespective of any of these process questions.

Gillard was at least forced by Sales to focus on government process and the media reform legislation failure, albeit in skimpy, anodyne terms. Her broad generalisations about rights and responsibilities were a kind of code. Should Sales have pursued that code? Cracked it open. Turn abstraction into something more specific and concrete?

Sales having pushed back sufficiently to gain some space in the interview, then tried to engage in a mini debate with the PM to, presumably, shift the mode of the interview from a Prime Ministerial monologue full of avoidance tactics to something more authentic and logical. And more energetic from the questioning side of the interview.

LEIGH SALES: But those factors you’ve outlined there were a given, that there was always going to be opposition to the content, but let’s actually go through the process and how you and your team handled that. How is it good government that your minister, presumably with your approval, produced legislation with a minimal consultation of cabinet and the caucus and then demanded it be passed in just a week’s time without amendments and without negotiation?

Gillard attemped a put down and a misdirection.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, I think you’ve forgotten that this ran out of two longstanding reviews conducted by the Government in the full glare …

But Sales pushed back.

LEIGH SALES: I haven’t forgotten that. I’m just asking why you put legislation up with one week’s notice and said, No negotiation, no amendments’.

This was a high point for Sales in this interview. Short, sharp specific. Perhaps the inherent weakness of the ‘why’ interrogative could have been replaced by ‘What specifically made you decide to present the legislation in that way?

Of course, there was also the fact that the disconnect between the Convergence review, the Finklestein recommendations and the ultimate legislation was quite marked. That was another possible line of debate.

Time was short and getting shorter!

What Sales was up against is a PM determined to obfuscate actively, to be disingenuous about the true contexts and facts, melding together slippery assertions in a way that made it very hard to penetrate and clarify those questionable assertions. She also misquotes Sales to her face.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, let’s go through it. We authored the Convergence Review, we started that in late 2010, very public process, everybody got to make their submissions. Then the report was made public. Everybody got to speak about that. We did the same with the review led by Ray Finkelstein. Everybody got to make their submissions. The report was public. Everybody got to make a commentary on that. The nature of the reforms ultimately brought to the Parliament had been the subject of public discussion on more than one occasion. I’d read them in the newspaper – newspapers several times myself. So it’s simply not correct to say that this content was somehow unknown or undiscussed or unconsulted upon until …

LEIGH SALES: Well the content of the reports of the reviews weren’t unknown, but the content of the legislation was unknown until Stephen Conroy produced it.

JULIA GILLARD: Leigh, I had read in the newspapers on more than one occasion the kind of reforms that the Government had in mind in this area.

LEIGH SALES: So can I ask … ?

I suggest the ‘can I ask’ form is not ideal. Just ask the question, assertively, forensically and directly. That kind of language left a useful gap for Gillard and she used it.

JULIA GILLARD: So there was a long process leading up to it. Leigh, …

Was ‘you’d have to agree’ the best way to ask this next question? She was on strong ground with her specific description with facts. Maybe more direct sting in the question itself and using more overt logic? Gillard was skating all over the park still and Leigh really needed to tie her down to some more unavoidable givens here. No apology necessary in my view.

LEIGH SALES: If we judge – sorry, Prime Minister, to interrupt. If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you’d have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.

JULIA GILLARD: We have a minority parliament, Leigh. You come to this minority parliament. We’ve got an amazing track record in these circumstances of a minority parliament of getting things through, but we haven’t been able to get everything through and I wasn’t prepared to cross-trade and do any deal to get these bills through.

Sales went the soft route here with the ‘you were quite happy’ question form. Surely something more pointed was needed such as, ‘You failed to have passed a key piece of legislation that, as you point out, had been comprehensively researched and discussed. What specifically went wrong?’

LEIGH SALES: So you were quite happy with how that process was handled last week from woe to go, the media reforms?

Gillard resorted to soft soaping. Starting with a complete piece of nonsense.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, the last fortnight has been the last fortnight, but the point I’m putting to you, Leigh, is that there was a long period of review and reflection that led up to the last fortnight. What I’ve said very clearly today is after the week that was with the internal issues of the Labor Party, with what I believe was some self-indulgence by my much-loved political party on display, certainly what we’ve got to do is make sure that every day we’re getting up and saying to ourselves, “How can we do better today for the Australian people than we did the day before?” And our focus has to be relentless on what it is we need to do to strengthen our nation for the future and what we need to do to support families today.

Sales now asked one of the strongest questions in the interview so far. It induced the ‘done and dusted’ mantra.

Gillard tried to shut down the leadership questions.

LEIGH SALES: You said today that last week’s events make it clear now that you have the confidence of your colleagues. Isn’t the reality though that many of your colleagues are in despair about your leadership and about the ALP’s prospects in the election, but that they just don’t see a viable alternative?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, it’s done, it’s dusted, anybody who had the – anybody who wanted to had the opportunity to nominate for consideration in Labor caucus last Thursday. No-one did. This comes on top of the emphatic endorsement of my colleagues in February last year. It comes on top of the fact I was ultimately uncontested for the leadership in 2010 and then following the 2010 election. Leigh, it’s over. I don’t think that any of this is worth speaking about anymore.

LEIGH SALES: But you can understand, can’t you, how Australians would be looking at your side of politics and feeling very nervous about taking a gamble on you again given that a number of senior members of your own cabinet have stepped down in recent days, criticised the process by which you govern and basically indicated they don’t have any confidence or faith in your leadership?

Another strong assertion from Sales and it did slightly force Gillard to resort to the decided upon script with some more Peter Beattie style mea culpas. Even channeling Chris Bowen’s ‘honourable’ language with huge cynicism.

However, would it have been more effective to be more direct – ‘Do you understand that many Australians would be looking …?’

JULIA GILLARD: Well, we had the week that was and I’ve described it as appalling, I’ve described the week that was as self-indulgent. Colleagues who found themselves in a position where they thought they couldn’t, you know, in all good conscience offer their ongoing service, did the honourable thing and went to the backbench. I think that is appropriate. What is then appropriate for me as Prime Minister is to renew the team with quality and talent and that’s what I’ve done today.

Sales attempted to keep up the pressure but failed to actually ask a question when one was sorely needed to progress the interview and further highlight Gillard’s spin and obfuscation. She mades an opinionated statement instead.

LEIGH SALES: But Prime Minister, I don’t think that Australians can quite so neatly as you have done draw a line under everything they’ve seen for past few years and then just ignore it and do what you want them to do which is to concentrate on what you’re promising going forwards.

The result? A mini campaign speech from the Prime Minister.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, when you vote in an election and we’ll get there in September, you’re making a decision about the next three years and who’s got the best personal capacity and the best plans for that future. Who’s got the ability to lead the nation? Who has the right policies and plans to make sure in a difficult world where our future is not assured that our nation comes up with a stronger economy, more jobs, more opportunity and that those things are fairly shared? Australians will make their judgment in September and I will certainly be there saying we are the only political party with those positive plans for the future and I am the only leader with the capacity to guide our nation through in what can be a very rough and tumble world.

At the end of this interview, Sales herself may have felt, as she closed it, that it had not gone well. She is all deference and full of politesse, even pitching for her next interview with Gillard.

LEIGH SALES: Prime Minister, thank you very much for making time to come on the program tonight. Hopefully we’ll see you again as the election draws closer.

JULIA GILLARD: Thanks, Leigh.

LEIGH SALES: 7.30 has also invited the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to join us on the program any night this week. His office tells us they’re considering the request.

What is the most reasonable, meaningful measure of a major accountability interview such as this one between one of Australia’s leading political interviewers and the Prime Minister? Surely, how much quality, relevant information and insight emerged from the interrogatory process? As a secondary outcome, an interviewer can reveal and highlight the sheer lack of authenticity in a leader; the overt avoidance techniques; the effects of media training and clever tactics to stay on the pre-determined message.

Should interviewers such as Sales be given permission to be more descriptive of those tactics during an interview. Actually describe them and use ‘Brechtian’ techniques to break open the conventions? I believe so. If politicians and others facing accountability persist in deep avoidance, obfuscation and disingenuousness, how else can those with the role to discover, challenge, call to account on our behalf, actually achieve results for our democracy?

Well, these are my thoughts and brief analyses around this particular interview. As I watched, I was amazed by the range of perceptions and reactions on the #abc730 hashtag on Twitter. One regular theme was how ‘rude’ Leigh Sales was, how overly interruptive she was. Remember back to her Walkley Award winning feisty interview with Tony Abbott last year? She started that interview by accusing Abbott of being ‘loose with the truth’. The interview finished up at ACMA with accusations of bias and many simultaneously avowed on Twitter and elsewhere that Leigh plainly didn’t like Tony Abbott.

ACMA cleared Sales of the formal complaints of bias.

I do not understand this widespread and common response to the style and perceived lack of politeness of such interviewers facing the solid challenges of an accountability interview. I found myself wanting to tweet ‘get real’ to quite a few twitterati on Monday night.

I felt that Sales was far too deferential to Gillard. She seemed slightly more daunted than I have seen her with Gillard in previous encounters. Is this constant drumbeat of accusations of bias, rudeness, lack of impartiality slowly having the desired effect to shut down some of the most effective of our interviewers in the face of highly trained and very rehearsed, determined political performers?

Surely, the scales are already tilted the other way and our interviewers need more room, more effective techniques and maybe just a tad more ability to be ‘rude’ than overly polite. I am not suggesting aggression but much more plain, unvarnished and penetrating talk. How else can these journalists do their job properly for us citizens in a troubled democracy?

If some of those genteel souls offended by Sales last Monday night want to see some real pushiness in an accountability interview, I suggest they take a look at Eddie Mair robustly (read very toughly) interviewing the buffoonish Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London and putative pretender to the Tory parliamentary leadership, on BBC Television a few days ago. Now there’s some real oh, so very British, BBC gall and rudeness to upset those of tender disposition. Or is it just sheer, partisan, willful blinkerism?

Peter Clarke is the author of The interview: a hollow dance looking for new moves? in Australian Journalism Today, edited by Matthew Ricketson, Palgrave Macmillan