Are New Zealanders, God forbid, losing their appetite for rigorous political interviewing? Confronting questions should be encouraged, especially by those who have made an art of it themselves

Q+A's interview with Greens co-leader Metiria Turei two weekends ago has stirred quite a bit of fuss online and in print, so it only seems right that I should chip in with a viewpoint.

The interview came the week after Sue Bradford had announced her resignation from parliament and the Greens had dipped below 5% in the TVNZ/Colmar Brunton poll.

This is the start of my post at tvnz.co.nz. To continue reading, click here. But feel free to add comments and debate below.

Comments (24)

by George Darroch on October 15, 2009
George Darroch

NZ media are not so bad at fox-terrier interviewing. Yapping the same question 10 times until they say what we want, rather than letting their silence speak volumes. What was considered scandalous when Campbell did it to Clark 7 years ago we now consider normal.

But the things that actually matter - informed questions about the policies that affect our lives? Hardly.

And as for allowing MPs to answer questions fully, in more than 15 second soundbites? Yeah, we're pretty bad at that too.

Even Radio New Zealand has become worse in this regard.

So whether or not Turei did well in this, I don't regard the interview as any kind of arbiter of the strength of New Zealand political journalism.

by Tim Watkin on October 15, 2009
Tim Watkin

George, do you really judge the quality of a politician's response by its length? I sure don't. As it is, I think politicians often get quite a long response time, but the fact is few use it to illuminate. I'd love to hear longer replies if they were genuinely trying to answer the question put. All too often they ignore the question and say what they want to say anyway, which is a crafted party line. Interviewers can't take that lying down.

Silence speaking volumes? When was the last time a politician was silent? If you mean evasion, I don't think that's often clear after a single quetion. It can take a few cracks at the issue to find out whether the politician can't answer or won't answer.

As for John Campbell, that interview with Clark was controversial not because he as aggressive – my argument is that interviewers 20 years ago were more aggressive than most today – but because Clark alleged an 'ambush' and there was no warning of the topic and no chance for her to prepare answers to complex questions.

by thomas on October 16, 2009
thomas

Compare and contrast the interview with Metira with the one with Paula Bennet.

Why the difference?

 

by Andrew Geddis on October 16, 2009
Andrew Geddis

As it happens, I met with Russel Norman and Metiria a couple of days before the Q&A interview. Metiria mentioned she was going to be on the show, but had refused to fly up to do an "in studio" interview face to face with Guyon Espiner. Russel then predicted that Guyon would extract his pound of flesh in retaliation. Quite prescient, no?

by Chris Trotter on October 16, 2009
Chris Trotter

There are times, Tim, when silence is the only sensible moral option.

The contrast between Espiner's (gloves on) treatment of politicians from the Right and his (gloves off) treatment of politicians from the Left has been glaringly obvious to all reasonable viewers of Q+A from the moment the show was launched.

Indeed, the entire programme is staffed and structured in such a way that 99% of right-wing opinion is presented as normative, while 99% of left-wing opinion as treated as deviant.

You produce this stuff, Tim, own it.

And if you're not willing to publicly, proudly and honestly acknowledge that you're producing a right-wing political show, then - really - the best thing to do is say nothing at all.

by Claire Browning on October 16, 2009
Claire Browning

It's not glaringly obvious to me ... so well obscured, in fact, that it might almost be a figment of imagination. What are the gloves-on examples from the Right, Chris? Has Steven Joyce, for example, done anything yet that he ought to be hauled over the coals for? With Brownlee, the timing of the interview was fortuitous; a lot's happened in his portfolios since then, and next time he's on, you'd hope it might go rather differently. Kate Wilkinson got a slapping that won't be forgotten in a hurry. Who else did you have in mind?

I applauded the Metiria interview, and not because she "had Espiner on toast". Nor did she strike me as particularly "rattled", as the panel would have had it; I thought she handled it with a fair amount of aplomb, and she and Espiner were well-matched. A good going over, on both the CER issue and the housing allowances, was more than justified; characterising it as some sort of petty retaliation is just silly, with respect Andrew.

More generally, I find Espiner one of our better TV interviewers. Sure, he interrupts, including with Kurt Campbell, which he made efforts to moderate as the interview progressed; but he's also been particularly good lately at unpicking partial or obfuscated answers.

I emphatically don't want to see more of the patsy Jacinda Ardern/Nikki Kaye style of interview (culprit Holmes, not Espiner). Metiria should take the grilling as a compliment; she's moved into a different league. Anyone who cries bullying, just because she's a li'l lady, should remember how scathing we all were of Don Brash's misplaced "chivalry".

Even Radio New Zealand has become worse in this regard

Sean Plunket lately has been particularly annoying.

by Claire Browning on October 16, 2009
Claire Browning

And by the way - if she had flown DUN-AKL return for the sake of a 20 minute studio interview, it would only have given Espiner and everybody else another stick with which to beat the Greens, GHG-emissions wise. Surely Espiner and others are smart enough to figure that out; and if not, I take back all the nice things I said ...

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2009
Tim Watkin

Andrew, you should know better, and so should Russel. An in-studio interview is usually preferred by both interviewer and interviewee, but it's hardly an issue worthy of revenge. Lots of people are interviewed 'down the line' without being punished, including Metiria on a previous occasion. And Espiner didn't create the Green's housing nonsense or Metiria's refusal to answer questions out of thin air and retaliation.

Chris, I'd take your own advice on silence my friend. Unless of course you've gone through the question lines every week, have compared Guyon's interviews with those on the left to those on the right, and can prove the allegation of bias. It's poor form to belittle people's reputations so lightly.

I've hardly got the energy to debate this as it seems you're wedded to a conspiracy theory already. I've never been one for silence though, and I'm more than happy to proudly and honestly acknowledge that I produce Q+A. Heck, it's hardly a secret, least of all here on Pundit. Check out the post I wrote last night, for example. There, I've owned it. You want to come up with any proof for your accusations, or are you just going to make do with "glaringly obvious" instead of evidence?

by Chris Trotter on October 17, 2009
Chris Trotter

I could, Tim - but, really, what would be the point? When everyone you work with is full of shit, you very soon stop noticing the smell.

Take it from one who breathes fresh air; and who, in spite of the company you keep, wishes you well: the stench of decaying journalistic standards emanating from TVNZ is overpowering.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 18, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I've never been one for silence though, and I'm more than happy to proudly and honestly acknowledge that I produce Q+A. Heck, it's hardly a secret, least of all here on Pundit. Check out the post I wrote last night, for example. There, I've owned it.

I don't believe Chris was alleging you were unhappy to honestly acknowledge and own producing Q+A. He just wanted you to acknowledge Q+A is "a right-wing political show". I'm not sure that it is, but I do wonder how different it might be with John Minto as a commentator one week :-)

by Rachael Ford on October 18, 2009
Rachael Ford

"In truth, political interviewing in this country is mild-mannered these days"

In my experience (as a rabid activist) the young journos or inexperienced ones on at papers in weekends, without adequate supervision, are the best ones to arm with info and set loose on Ministers.

TV1 suffers high political interference, so would/does ignore equivalents to Guantanamo, or if forced to run it will sugarcoat it to look a bit more club meddy, but remain happy to make a song and dance of trivia eg World cup. I think of 1 as toddler tv with few exceptions. TV3 suffers some interference, depends who is in charge any given day. Prime isn't too bad, but only gives a quick once over.

I trace the political interference - which also infests NZ (sanitised) On Air to prevent important docos getting funding - to HC, and hope for a small reprieve now. It's also bad when journos try and hook you with a story offer - especially Listener - but are really feeding back your dirt to their familiar politician, so that person can take cover or decide if you are worth trying to destroy.

Incest, and high backhanders in the forms of promises for scoops, advert deals from Govt agencies, or alternate withholding, which threatens journos viability etc are all the incentive needed to stop the majority of important stories from entering public consciousness in NZ. There are few journos with balls. That few are feisty, fearless, tend to be older bolder ones, with untouchable prestige, who've either strong service ethics (some at RNZ & radio live) or slight imbalance.

Metiria's baptism of fire  would unlikely have befallen a higher status pollie imo, for fear of retribution. Still, it is something as a pollie she has to take on the chin, or if truly acclimatised, punish Guyon, oops I mean correct... He has probably offended against every green value of respect for life. She survived, but looked more uncomfortable than was ideal, and could have converted the attack to opportunity, but seemed inhibited. Guyon was a little gratuitious - perhaps he was heartbroken over Sue's loss, and not yet ready to accept a new Green Honcho. Will any of them will  be  running off into the sunset together. I doubt it.

by Rachael Ford on October 18, 2009
Rachael Ford

Claire Browning - yes SJ may well have. He hasn't convened a commission of inquiry to the road police resource allocation set of computer programs (experimental models), ones which have our toll leading the world in many measures, and have attached real issue suppression policies causing him to waste tax dollars on such nonsensical utterances as that at 2% of the road toll overtaking is "a biggest killer". I suspect this reticence with full clean outs is because he is only now realising what he's walked into, plus it would expose MFAT and NZ Police to global embarrassment, as they set up the global road police HQs (a UN / World bank initiative) in Wellington this year, in order to bring all forces under UN control with NZ Police under Robinson attesting its all about road safety, which we will apparently mentor the 2nd world in using the defective software - despite disqualification by abject failure. The software is good for quotas almost making tickets fund Police force expansion - but to no road safety gain. Funny how the whole plan kicked off with King signing it off, right when a global peacekeeping police was rejected by the UN in 2003 (Sydney Mng Herald). Plan B, get in the back door for global Police road blocks (checkpoints mostly use for drug busts) under "safety" guise? HC was shaking hands with the big boss just before her transfer, and MFAT edited out of it's report to the UN, a complaint the computer programs breach human rights, by aiming to see certain numbers killed in regions yearly, but are proven defective so actually do nothing of the sort - in fact analyses by MoT and PhDs show the higher the dose of regional quotas the more injury a la ACC blow out. Still in use too this morally and financially bankrupting computer brain for the Poliice, by the look of the latest road safety consultation. The KPI setting (quota) program was based on tasking our cops to replicate what Victorian cops were observed doing over 1 WEEK a decade ago. It's a dumb chiller. And was made impervious to process review by command of foreign researchers. And given added justification by use of another program we call jellybean which filters and biases CAS data so that speed and alcohol and intersections always come out as biggest issues, when they're not. Unethical - that's the understatement of the year. If we want to reduce our high child injury stop watching the sideshows like smacking and get those cops away from their school speed traps - and into answer Q's of inquiries. This fraud has many tentacles.

by Tim Watkin on October 18, 2009
Tim Watkin

Rachel, I agree that young reporters are often the most fearless and 'pure', and so are often the best to set loose on minister and others in power. (Although on the other hand I think the quality of young journalists today is mixed at best and many are in it for the wrong reasons). It's also true that some of the best journos are mavericks. But there our agreement ends.

TV One ignores stories equivalent to Guantanamo? Er, such as? I can only respond that hyperbole and generalisation are two of the great enemies of good journalism. You can't really take the high moral ground and then resort to such indefensible exaggeration.

You have to be a bit more accurate with your attacks, such as your criticism of Steven Joyce. I took that randomly from your claims and you're taking Joyce well out of context. Joyce issued a pretty innocent press release last Christmas urging drivers to take care over the holiday season. He loosely lumped "risky overtaking" – as opposed to your "overtaking" – in with speed and drink-driving as "some of the biggest killers on our roads".

Are they the top three? Perhaps not, it's not clear. Is it slightly sloppy? Yeah, it's probably a press sec the week before Christmas stringing together a three-point list from some stats sitting on the desk in front of him/her. Is it evidence of deviousness or dishonesty? Of course not. Is it a "waste of taxpayers dollars" and "nonsensical"? Hardly. You can't damn journalists and then be that loose yourself with facts and context.

--------------------

Chris, me old china, if you choose to go with the generalisations, your call. I suspect I've got a more thorough grip on the programme's balance, questions and the range of issues on which ministers in this government have been challenged and held to account. So as to your accusation of bias, we'll just have to remain in disagreement.

As to the rest, I've heard enough sermons in my life to be sceptical of those preaching with a tone of superiority (even if I like the preacher).

I know you wish me well; I hope you know I wish you the same. But it's not good enough to – drawing from your own metaphors – throw the shit around while claiming to wear the purest white.

I'm a little amazed at your claim to be surrounded by fresh air. You may not be sullied by the grey smog of work-a-day journalism, but you're an advocate and an ideologue (indeed, one of the best). In journalistic terms that hardly allows you to claim a snowy superiority. In your own way, you smell as bad as the rest of us.

In contrast, I confess to my place in the grey. I work long hours and keep company with people who have a range of experiences and points of view, a bucketload of strengths and weaknesses. We're spread across the country. We have limited time and resources. We are bound by technology and the demands of the medium (but never, I would add, by political pressure). Sometimes I'm researching questions at the last minute, sometimes having been up at night with my baby.

Acknowledging all that, I try to achieve some objectivity, some truth, knowing that close is as good as it gets for any of us, you included. So while I realise I'm in the grey – I prefer that to 'shit', frankly – I'm wrestling with it. You choose to declare your ideology (meaning you don't then have to challenge it, and certainly not in public every week) and then claim to be above the grey in fresh air. I don't buy the thesis and, although of course you have your right to your informed opinion, I don't think it puts you in a great position to judge.

My job requires a specific task – testing arguments and policies from a range of angles while trying to engage a broad audience. (If I need to get a little preachy, I've always got Pundit). The point of this original post was to argue that combative, rigorous probing is a good thing at a time when, judging by a lot of the feedback I receive, a lot of people want la-de-da chats and no feathers ruffled.

Seriously, should we not have questioned Turei on the Greens' housing allowances because she's left wing? Was it not politically revealing to see her struggle with CER? (And before you make another unsubstantiated claim of bias, I'd point off the top of my head to other probing we've done that showed the gap between John Key and Bill English, that pointed out the cycleway money would pay for night schools to continue, that revealed that Melissa Lee started the Mt Albert by-election campaign with no view/policy on the Waterview connection...)

Point being, although it may have offended the left, it was a good interview.

by Rachael Ford on October 19, 2009
Rachael Ford

Uh well this is OT for the thread, but I disagree the PR by Steven's writers was fairly innocent. There is a long story behind it's structure, which imo was not sloppy or offhand - in about 10,000 pages gathered under OIA, that certainly reveals a pattern of  disinfo/fraud due to some really out there agendas eg taxpayer dollars spent on publicly demanded fatigue billboards (forbidden by memo to Clemengers to educate about fatigue, or countermeasures or even mention fatigue but recommended to be compat. with "existing campaigns") reading "what's the hurry hurry getting to Hari Hari," because a comprehensible campaign would have upset cross country comparisons. Tip og iceberg.

Also dispute that such releases are harmless - I'd recommend you read the AA submission to Safer Journeys, and their new publication Saving Ourselves for an intro to deep waters. The AA in fact calls these types of releases human rights abuses in one paper, as they, and the policy generating them, are PROVEN worse than ineffective. 20m to fritter on advert agencies to worsen things - yay! Yes re tv 1 hyperbole, it's allowed from non writers. But there is a tendency to pick out the most moderate civilised or too subtle soundbytes or not air confrontive material (unless live), whereas 3 seems to select the racier ones?!.

It was revealing to see the Greens struggle with CER, but I'd not expect them to have all bases covered, isn't that why they're called Green not rainbows. I think he did harp too long after she admitted fault, if it was to destabilise before the kill it looked like overkill to me. Made good viewing, but it almost tripped into a generalised slating. Some sympathy had to go to MT.

Interesting you say you query the motives of some new reporters. What ones are correct? Its a powerful job in a cumulative and gang way - are you meaning some are in it for influence or the ab fab experience? I think the ego needs to go AWOL in investigative mode, then reappear with a vision of the possible, when picking best angles or slant to use. Decent people are best in that job, but those who aren't can go far too.

by Judy Martin on October 19, 2009
Judy Martin

"Seriously, should we not have questioned Turei on the Greens' housing allowances because she's left wing? Was it not politically revealing to see her struggle with CER?"

 

For me, this was the low point of the interview, not the badgering Metiria about the housing allowance. It was the reduction of the whole nuanced global free/fair trade area of policy to "do you support CER, yes or no" that was so trivialising. No wonder Metiria was bemused. It's not the sort of question you can appropriately answer with a yes or no.

by Claire Browning on October 19, 2009
Claire Browning

For me, this was the low point of the interview ... It's not the sort of question you can appropriately answer with a yes or no.

No, it's not ... and what politician wouldn't cavil, when pressed to draw a bright line a fuzzy area they hadn't thought closely about.

However, the point for me was that the Greens should have thought about this, and if they haven't done it yet, they need to. If they are going to take bold stances about not supporting some free trade agreements (China), and expressing more general reservations as Metiria did on the woolly basis of "sovereignty", they presumably have some criteria for deciding what is acceptable or not. Given the importance of trade to New Zealand, if the Greens want to be considered a credible party of possible government, it's a fair question: where do they draw the line, and why? If the answer is that they can only answer case by case, then CER is a long-standing case, useful as a sort of high water mark. Either Metiria knows current party policy would be unpalatable and wasn't telling, or she didn't know and she should. Newshound Guyon wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't pursue it.

by Tim Watkin on October 19, 2009
Tim Watkin

Why shouldn't politicians be able to answer yes or no to some questions? Either a policy is enacted or it isn't, so a bald question as to whether a politician supports it or not is entirely legitimate. Either CER exists in its current form, or it doesn't. Either the Greens want to repeal it or they don't. Yes or no?

What's more, in terms of interviewing technique, an interviewer will sometimes resort to 'yes or no' as a way of focusing an guest who is waffling. It's not unlike someone who nods their head vigorously at you to encourage you to get to the point. And what was clear at that point of the interview was that Turei was struggling and in trying to avoid giving an answer was rambling. She wasn't trying to answer the question at all, she was trying to deflect it. If she had been genuinely wrestling with the pros and cons of CER, then I'd agree with your point. But she wasn't.

As for Espiner, remember, he too only has a second to choose how to respond. He knows the questions, but not the answers. He has to decide in an instant whether to push further, move on, engage, attack, back off, or what. And, of course, he's got a finite amount of time.

And Rachel, yeah actually I do expect party leaders to have all bases covered. It's a hell of a job, but I expect a lot of people who seek to represent me.

As for young journalists, a few that I've taught or met starting out seem to be in it for the 'glamour' (ha, they're in for a rude shock). They just want to be in the media, as opposed to being especially curious or determined to be thorns in the side of power or suchlike.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 19, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

It was the reduction of the whole nuanced global free/fair trade area of policy to "do you support CER, yes or no" that was so trivialising. No wonder Metiria was bemused. It's not the sort of question you can appropriately answer with a yes or no.

MPs have to answer questions like this "yes or no" all of the time. Every vote (except the election of the Speaker) in Parliament is a yes or no question. And every vote on a third reading debate in particular involves the question "should this proposal become law or not?". There is no nuance - every party that votes in Parliament is either in favour of, or against, a piece of legislation.

Metiria and the Greens may not have been in Parliament when the CER legislation was passed, but it's not really any different from any other law. The questions of whether it should have been passed, and whether it should be repealed, are ones that every political party can properly be called upon to answer.

There can be nuance: "we don't support it in its current form, but could if certain changes were made", (or "we support it in its current form, but think it could be made better") but even that nuance can require a reasonable yes/no answer to the question "but in its current form do you support it"?

by stuart munro on October 19, 2009
stuart munro

Well, it's not usual for me, but I find myself agreeing with Chris.

The rat-pack of journos these days resemble nothing so much as the protagonists from Lampoon's Bored of the Rings "Any small stupid creature that turned its back on a group of bogies was bound to get a thumping".

But the principals behind the most objectionable changes daily inflicted on NZ are handled with Kid gloves, or more often, not handled at all.

by Chris Trotter on October 20, 2009
Chris Trotter

A fair point, Tim, but one which I don't believe you apply with sufficient rigor to your own situation.

By openly declaring the political direction from which our thoughts are coming, left-wing commentators like myself allow our readers/listeners/viewers to apply whatever ideological discount they think appropriate.

With Q+A applying an ideological discount is much more difficult because, as a part of the News & Current Affairs output of TVNZ, the average viewer is under the impression that the programme they're watching is - as the law requires it to be - free of bias.

With all due respect to your colleagues (and my apologies, here, for the scatalogical excesses of my earlier commentary) I simply don't believe Q+A is free of bias.

I cannot avoid the impression, when watching Q+A, that you are all operating within tightly circumscribed ideological boundaries. The programme itself conveys a sense of smug satisfaction with the political status quo - most likely driven by a careful reading of both its own ratings, and of the demographic and political research Colmar-Brunton conducts on the TVNZ's behalf (by no means all of which is released to the viewers).

Also at work, I perceive, is the pernicious pressure for self-censorship that has always been a part of NZ state broadcasting. The knowledge that Cabinet Ministers are watching every move that producers and journalists make, and that they have ways of making their displeasure known, acts as a constant restraint on free and fearless reporting.

The most frustrating aspect, for you, Tim, is that you simply cannot say these things without at the same time relinquishing the job you quite obviously love.

As it has done to nearly every idealistic and committed journalist who has ever set foot in TVNZ, that contradiction will consume you in the end.

 

by Tim Watkin on October 21, 2009
Tim Watkin

Chris, I accept that nothing is without bias. But I see my role as a journalist in that job is to avoid bias wherever possible. I've never been told to shape the programme according to perceived ratings gains (it's Sunday morning, after all!), political research or pressure from ministers, and I've never done that on my own volition.

I can't speak for the inner thoughts of everyone involved in the programme, but sure, I also accept that everyone suffers from some self-censorship. My point in the previous comment was that that's part of the human condition. I don't claim purity or perfection, just my best efforts towards a lack of bias and tough and/or revealing questions.

If we fail, there's always the BSA for any so motivated!

by Frog on October 21, 2009
Frog

A relevant fact for close media observers: due to technical difficulties in TVNZ's Dunedin studio, Metiria couldn't see Guyon.  There was only an audio connection.

While not a crisis, it made a challenging interview all the more challenging and that fact may, for some of you, cast a slightly different light on the interruptions/repetitions/ back and forth between the two and any verdicts on Guyon's style.

We all rely heavily on visual cues in day-to-day conversation let alone an adversarial exchange shared with a live television audience.

Tim hasn't considered it worth mention, but it seems relevant to such close readings of this interview.

And for observers of media observers, I'd note in passing that this wrinkle was also known to John Drinnan who was so fulsome in his praise of Guyon's "tough" style, but didn't mention the technical challenges that, arguably, advantage the interviewer.

by Tim Watkin on October 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

Fair point Frog, that technical problem would have made it much harder for her. Certainly it's relevant. I don't think it changes anything in regards to her unwillingness to answer the questions with direct answers, however. Although that doesn't it make her any different from many other politicians, that was her decision regardless of technology.

by kathy tuakau on July 24, 2011
kathy tuakau

as an interested observer in interveiwing technics i do like guyons way of interviewing,he gives the people who are listening the credit of having some nounce to draw our own conclusions from the answers he gets just watch close up for another style of interviewing and l just switch off.

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