Malcolm Turnbull has urged ABC journalists to adopt a “less aggressive and more forensic” style of political interviewing. The fact that he made this request on The Bolt Report, Australia’s home of Fox News-style controversialism, may be viewed by some as ironic, but was he justified? Should ABC journalists be more polite when they interrogate our politicians?
Back in the 1990s leading US journalist James Fallows wrote a book about “hyperadversarialism” in the political interview. Instead of scrutinising the political elite, he suggested, as is the role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy, Fallows accused his peers of a tendency to grandstand; to approach the interview as a gladiatorial contest, in which the journalist is the star of the show.
This wasn’t good for democracy, he argued, because it transformed the legitimate exercise of critical scrutiny of our elites into viewer-friendly spectacle, more heat than light. Great fun to watch (or listen to, on radio) – not so useful in the evaluation of policy or performance in government.
The phenomenon identified by Fallows was exemplified by the BBC’s ‘bulldog’ Jeremy Paxman, who famously asked a UK government minister the same question no less than fourteen times, so determined was he to provoke a meaningful response.
Given, though, the degree to which professional politicians these days are coached to evade questioning and stay ‘on message’, to roll out the sound bites on cue, this was and remains an entirely reasonable approach. ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’, is the question the late Louis Heren advised political interviewers to keep at the forefront of their minds.
That may be a tad harsh. Not every politician is a lying bastard, but nearly everyone of them comes to the public sphere with a line to push, a message to deliver that’s been written by a Lynton Crosby or a John McTernan, and it is a key role of the political journalist to penetrate the spin. If our right as citizens to be informed means a journalist being rude now and then, so be it.
This is not a left-right issue, since political obfuscation and spin are characteristic of all parties and movements. It’s actually a civil rights issue. Every citizen, whatever his or her political allegiance, has a right to, and a need for, tough political interviewing of those who govern in our name (or aspire to). Authoritarian states and despotic leaders don’t generally allow it, for the very good reason that their cover would be blown.
That said, overtly aggressive interviewing is not the only effective way of making politicians accountable in the media. I referred above to Jeremy Paxman, the bulldog-rottweiler of British political interviewing. But there was also David Frost, who interviewed pollies on a comfy sofa on a Sunday morning, gently coaxing his guests into revealing more, much more than they had intended.
Many an agenda-setting political story was launched on the Frost show, with nary a voice being raised. No question was ever asked fourteen times by Frost, although he was just as effective as Paxman at exposing a politician’s reluctance to answer a reasonable question.
So the harrying, determined style of interviewing we see in the work of Leigh Sales, Emma Alberici and others in the ABC – and also on Sky and the commercial platforms; Mr Bolt does it rather well on his own show – is a necessary, but by no means sufficient style of political interrogation. As politicians learn to manage media with evermore skill and professionalism, so journalists must adapt, in a communicative arms race targeted at all times on the revelation of useful information for the democratic process. If politics is increasingly a horse race of who’s up and who’s down in the betting odds, it’s horses for courses in the interviewing game.