Interviewing and the art of political war. 1

Doing a live political interview can be like naked mud wrestling, without the social nice-ities. You not only have to be ready to get down and intuitively dirty, but you also have to be prepared to expose your all, to a not always sympathetic audience.

You, the interviewer, must be thoroughly prepared with the questions your producer, your colleagues and the public (you hope) think important . You have to be tough and persistent because politicians are trained to ignore your questions and told to deliver researched, focus grouped and scripted answers. That’s why you can ask Tony Abbott about his eleven billion dollar budget black hole and he will smile and without even blinking, respond by telling you that his Labor opponents will destroy the national economy, if elected.

But you also have to be ready to throw your questions aside to pursue the talent if they actually say something new. Admittedly this doesn’t happen very often, and it can be a shock all round when it does. I can still remember a television interviewer earnestly asking the then Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock what he was going to do about a disloyal party member. Peacock replied that he had just sacked the fellow from his shadow cabinet. The interviewer who was concentrating on his written questions, asked again what Peacock planned to do. The third time he did this, Peacock went justifiably postal. I believe the interviewer doesn’t work in television any more.

You really do need to listen what they are saying when you interview them, if only to mentally check what they say against their latest press release. Interviewers also need to listen to interviewees intently to find the breath pauses where they can insert themselves into the conversation. This isn’t always easy as it sounds. Politicians like Barry Jones appear to be able to breathe through the top of their heads as they deliver lengthy, and complex monologues of their choosing. This can cause the unwary to fall into a swoon. But the audience can nod off too, thereby defeating both parties to the dialogue.

You have to watch the clock. Politicians know if they keep on talking, they can just drown you out as the second hand sweeps towards the hourly news. You have to watch your tone of voice. On air presenters have lost their jobs by indicating confusion, contempt or just plain disbelief when a windy politician stretched credibility paper thin. Veteran interviewer, Kerry O’Brien circumnavigates this unpleasantness by giving a cheery giggle. The more porkies they tell him, the more he giggles. It follows that some interviews he has with some politicians seem sidesplitting fun.

You need to watch out when they go feral on you. Former Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, used to mercilessly savage interviewers before the camera was rolling and then go all matey and backslapping on air. The instant switch often succeeded in making interviewers seem distracted and uncertain. Interviewer, Richard Carleton, knew of Hawke’s technique, and turned it back on him, by asking a famously offensive opening question. Carleton intentionally enraged Hawke, thereby revealing Hawke’s previously private persona.

You need to be particularly careful when the interviewee appears to be barking mad. The master of this arcane tactic, was the now deceased Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke Petersen. He was caught out early in his Premiership by Paul Lyneham who was quizzing the Premier over conflicts of interests relating to the construction of the Tarong Power station. Joh flatly denied the claim. Lyneham produced a copy of a Stock Exchange report showing not only Joh but his wife Flo had shares in a company tendering for the power station. Conflict of interest proved.

Joh was dumbstruck for a moment which seemed like a millennia. Then he counterattacked. Do you want a Premier who doesn’t believe in investment? He thundered. A dimwitted viewer who had just switched across from the footy might have thought Joh won the exchange.

In the longer term, Joh really did win. He realised that when you tell a lie on camera, it’s best to make the porky so outrageous and so decoupled not only from the truth but reality as we know it, that the interviewer is left dazed and disoriented. Why lob a hand grenade at an inquiring journalist when you can drop a daisy cutter on his entire intellectual neighbourhood? Logical interviewers who responded to this deception by aggressively pursuing their suddenly irrelevant line of questioning, were seen by his adoring public as persecuting the dear old bloke. It would drive such interviewers crazy, re-inforcing cultivated stereotypes about partisan journalists.

It certainly used to drive me to distraction. I tried thinking up new ways to outsmart Joh’s mangled syntax. Researched questions failed. Improvised questions failed. Aggression failed. Politeness failed.

I once asked the following question. “Mr Premier how do you feel when the Labor opposition gets up in parliament and quotes not one, but two, eminent British psychologists, who claim that you are brain damaged because you don’t string your words together properly?”

Without missing a beat, Joh replied the Labor opposition were socialists who had been holding talks with the African National Council [sic]. He further claimed that the ANC had been in Queensland buying tyres. By saying this, Joh not only ignored me but had somehow linked the conservative Labor Party with African terrorists who at that time had been engaged in necklacing; placing burning tyres around the necks of political informants. Why they had come all the way to Queensland to buy tyres was anyone’s guess.

I was stunned.

I had to turn off the voice recorder and think about just how much information a reporter could expect to get from interviewing.

Interviewers should seek to be:

• Prepared

• Persistent

• Flexible

• Listening to what is said

• Hearing breathing

• Watching the clock

• Controlling your own voice

• Not intimidated by aggression

• Learning from setbacks

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