By Peter Clarke
March 26, 2013
Yesterday, we published a detailed de-construction of an interview between the ABC 730’s Leigh Sales and Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It was a critique of Sales for what we opined were her inadequate interview techniques in that specific context and of Julia Gillard for her blatant refusal to answer questions and her use of media training 101 avoidance techniques to manipulate media interviews. Neither came out of that encounter with much credit, least of all the PM.
Here in the comments section and on Twitter the responses have been vigorous and varied. A very worthwhile discussion is still flowing online.
As always, partisan passions appear to animate many people’s perceptions, judgments and opinions. A very few observers were able to bring a sense of disinterested appraisal to bear that rose above merely backing sides.
This is not about being a cheer squad for one of the political parties over another. That’s way too easy really. This is about effective, ethical journalism. And (look away now if you must) THE TRUTH. I know, I know, THE TRUTH is a highly contested idea and many would argue it barely exists, certainly within journalism as widely practised, but it is still a guiding ideal to aim for in some reasonable form.
Any other suggestions? Post-modernists, come on down!
We celebrate and critique journalistic practitioners using a range of measures and factors, depending on each case we examine. We critique politicians who, out of one side of their mouths, extol the notion of a ‘free press’ in the abstract, especially within a parliamentary political debate such as around media reform, and then, in their daily political encounters with legitimate questioning, seem to do their best to hobble and intimidate journalists and avoid the tough enquiries of that free press as they fulfill their democratic, fourth estate roles and functions.
Mind you, they and their media minders keep the avalanche of media releases, leaks and duchessing of favoured scribes flowing and rejoice if slabs of their propaganda appear in print, come out of broadcaster’s mouths or get picked up as talking points or assumptions during interviews by journalists too time pressed and/or lazy to do their own original research.
A free press? Sure thing.
Or even worse, as Tony Abbott has done and continues to do, avoid forensic interviews almost entirely. What does an outlet such as the ABC do then? Media entities are institutions within the media-saturated democratic ecology too. The ABC, historically and today, holds a special and vital place in our system despite its flaws and the many and growing pressures upon it. Both sides of politics despise it more than love or even respect it.
The commercial sector is just as vital. The strong advocacy (often overtly, corporately self-serving) character of much of News Limited’s contemporary journalism, recently most stridently around media reform, is a major blot on the journalistic landscape.
We @nofibs are not naive. Of course it is a battleground out there – especially now. But there is a decent dollop of hypocrisy attributable to those who can support a motherhood ideal in the abstract but fail to carry it into practice at the pointy end when they are confronted and questioned by skilled journalists doing their job on our behalf as citizens.
And that brings me to Sabra Lane, one of the ABC’s journalists in their Canberra bureau.
This morning on ABC Radio’s AM, Lane conducted a live interview with the shadow spokesman for immigration, Scott Morrison.
In my piece on the Sales/Gillard interview, I advocated a more radical approach by interviewers facing intractable stonewalling. I do not suggest Lane went all radical in this interview, but, as you will see, she did her very best to crack through the Morrison force field that included the well worn use of weasel words, hostility and gratuitous rudeness allied to a ‘no answer’ technique.
Sabra Lane did a fine job of conducting a difficult interview. Sadly for her and us citizens she came out of it with no useful information, having to be content with that secondary outcome: that many listeners would be able to perceive how Morrison behaved and how little respect he gave the wholly legitimate enquiry process about the coalition’s proposed policy shift in relation to asylum seekers.
Mind you, for every listener who came to that view, there would be as many who would think, ‘Good on you, Scott, you showed that pushy ABC reporter where to get off!’ That’s the way it is in our political/media environment.
Here is the interview and the transcript. I do encourage you to listen to the audio as it is radio, and the whole story of this interview lies in the aural tone and dynamic as well as the verbal content.
Sabra Lane: “Government must stop the boats: Morrison” Thursday, March 28, 2013 08:10
[audio http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/am/201303/20130328am-Morrison-boats.mp3 ]
Before briefly analyzing what happened between Lane and Morrison on air this morning, I mention that Tony Eastley’s lead did concern me a little. You’ll notice that the title is “Government must stop the boats: Morrison”. And Eastley starts his lead with: ‘The Opposition says 600 asylum seeker boats have arrived in Australia since Labor was elected in 2007 and it’s high time Labor did something to stop the flow.’ Call me old fashioned, but I think that is a poor way to frame this story. It smacks of being a conduit for a pure coalition perspective. Is it too much to ask for the ABC to frame this story in a way that makes it their chosen perspective not merely piggy-backing on an opposition assertion? This is a very long running, layered, complex, highly contested story after all. I thought that was lazy and overly reactive journalism.
But that was the lead Sabra Lane heard in her headphones as she sat waiting to commence her live interview with Scott Morrison over a thousand kilometres away in Adelaide. I mention the distance because being able to visually interrupt (with her eyes or facial expressions or body movements) was not available as part of her interviewing repertoire on this occasion. You will see the relevance of that shortly.
A reasonable first question? The nub of the Coalition’s policy around asylum seekers is ‘turning back the boats’ to stem the tide as they and many electors describe the situation.
HOW exactly that would be done (considering also Indonesia’a public attitudes and past behaviors) would seem wholly germane to any policy discussion around asylum seekers.
But not with Scott Morrison. Read and learn how obfuscation works in practice.
Lane challenges, asking reasonably whether the detail of that policy has been explored with the Navy or Customs. She includes now the issue of costs as well.
SABRA LANE: So you haven’t discussed yet with anyone the likelihood of how many vessels it would take and indeed how much money would be needed to enforce this strategy?
SCOTT MORRISON: I didn’t say that Sabra. What I said is we’d be deploying the assets to get the job done. Obviously we are working through all of our policies and I’m no stranger to this space Sabra, but I’m not about to give the people smugglers or other a heads-up about those sorts of operational matters.
Well, to quote him back ‘the first thing we’d be discussing …’ Did he ‘say that’? The slipperiness increases. Lane changes from general to specific (deduction to induction).
SCOTT MORRISON: Well I think I just answered the question Sabra. I’m not about to give people-smugglers or anyone else a heads-up. What they can be assured of is they can expect an Abbott-led Coalition government to put an end to this madness and we will deploy the assets that are necessary to get the job done and the resolve that is needed to get the job done.
Even superficially, the ‘heads-up’ argument, now used twice in both answers, seems questionable. Perhaps Lane, as she multi-tasks within this interview, decides to let that aspect go for the moment and focus on costs.
Politically, you would have to give that exchange to Morrison. It is clearly circular and largely untestable within this interview. Most interviewers would recognize the tactic in a short interview and move on. Lane doesn’t argue but immediately shifts to another key, and for both the ADF and much of the general population, a real concern.
SABRA LANE: But you’d be getting Navy personnel to board those craft, to steer them, turn them around and all the dangers that involves?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well Sabra, at the moment they’re running a very expensive taxi service…
Morrison comes back with a quite nasty piece of sloganeering to avoid the thrust of that question. Nasty? He knows people have died in the latest incident at Christmas Island. He knows that Navy and Customs personnel have been involved in difficult and, doubtless for them, traumatic experiences. For their work to be summed up as ‘a very expensive taxi service’ does the shadow minister no credit.
Lnme attempts to interrupt to presumably challenge that proposition
Morrison uses another and distinctly contradictory assertion about ‘putting themselves at risk’. This is, of course, the thrust of Lane’s earlier question around the ‘how’ and practicalities of any turn-back operation at sea.
Lane moves to be more specific as her interviewee makes quite wooly general claims .
Now Morrison pushes back against the journalist attempting to reach specifics using the well tried ‘let me answer’ tactic. Sometimes that is fair and reasonable. Is it here?
This is an important juncture. Having failed so far to bring Morrison to specifics, Lane steps back to re-frame the whole purpose and character of the interview. This is not radical but a kind of middle ground appeal to the shadow minister to lower his tactical hostility and approach this policy discussion on a reasonable basis. She then immediately, with energy re-states her questions, beefing them up somewhat to give them more clarity and force.
Now we come to the main tactic Morrison is using to avoid being specific. ‘Operational matters’? He is trying to sound like a defence minister? Is it a reasonable claim? Or weasel words?
The Associate editor of The Australian and specialist writer on defence, national security, federal politics and international affairs, Cameron Stewart, tweeted his view after apparently listening to the AM interview:
— cameron stewart (@camstewarttheoz) March 27, 2013
Stewart’s colleague at The Australian, Ben Packham, had a similar view:
Sabra Lane's questions were very reasonable. She was just seeking details of cost and workability of Coalition boats policy
— Ben Packham (@bennpackham) March 27, 2013
Sabra Lane’s questions were very reasonable. She was just seeking details of cost and workability of Coalition boats policy
SCOTT MORRISON: Well that’s for the Australian people to decide.
Lane now pushes Morrison to accept the reasonableness of asking this question in the light of how major a policy shift it will be.
Morrison sticks to the ‘operational matters’ avoidance line.
Lane tries another tack and it seems a reasonable one: how do the people who will execute the ‘turn back the boats’ coalition policy view the practicalities of this policy?
Morrison switches the logic of her question from their ‘support’ to their ‘capability’. A very different notion. Avoidance and a very old trick within media training for politicians. The journalist sees the switch and effectively repeats the question.
SABRA LANE: You’re saying that they’re quite capable of carrying them out but are they actually on side?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well that’s a matter for governments to discuss with their Defence Forces, not for oppositions. But I’m very confident Sabra, let me be very clear, I am very confident that the Defence Forces and in particularly in the Navy are capable of carrying out the policies of the government of the day and I’d be surprised if you thought they weren’t.
Are these more weasel words to extricate himself? Suddenly shifting it to some future time and government is irrelevant to Lane’s question. Morrison then returns to ‘capability’. He puts a sting in his reply, pushing back against the interviewer by pretending her question implied she was questioning the ADF’s ‘capability’. Another very old media training trick. There was no such implication.
Sabra Lane let’s that sequence go and turns her attention to the idea of holders of bridging visas and proposed ‘behaviour protocols’. The thrust of her question is about how this policy has been forged within the coalition.
Did Lane touch a nerve here? Going by Morrison’s hostility maybe so. His almost absurd suggestion in his ad hominem pushback that Lane, by simply asking about how the proposal came forward and with what degree of support internally, was ‘dictating’ anything speaks for itself.
Lane gamely asserts her role. Politely.
Lane continues and describes Morrison’s tactic more openly. We are used to hearing interviewees use the phrase, ‘you are putting words into my mouth’, but more rarely the other way round. You be the judge from the transcript.
Lane re-asserts herself strongly and clarifies the question.
Morrison does illogical avoidance pure and simple.
Lane is dogged.
Observe here the politician’s ultimate refuge when pressed over the illogicality or inadequacy of an answer ‘Well, that’s the answer I’m giving you’, or similar. It is also used when an interviewer challenges a politician for not answering a question and the reply is ‘I have answered’. Effectively, ‘Suck it up!’
It is hard to imagine that Sabra Lane came away from that encounter very satisfied with the results of her efforts.
How else do you believe she could have approached or handled that interview? Were her questions reasonable and pertinent? What about her style and demeanor? Did you hear the answers you were seeking as a citizen about a major change of policy around asylum seekers? If not, what stopped that information from reaching you?
As always, YOUR views and discussion points welcome here in the comments section or @nofibs on Twitter.
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