Why Good Journalists Are So ‘Rude’

In defence of Morning Report’s bad manners
by Gordon Campbell

Whatever happened to Polite Journalism? If you believe what’s been in the letters pages of the Press recently, state radio and its flagship current affairs show Morning Report have gone to hell in a hand-basket. Presenters Guyon Espiner and Suzie Ferguson continue to be in the firing line for variations on the same alleged crime – for rudeness, for hectoring, for interrupting, and for those old Morning Report standbys, left wing (or right wing) bias. RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson has done his best to publicly defend his staff and to explain the role of the Fourth Estate in trying times like the present. There is a journalistic need to combat spin, Thompson explained, and often only a brief four minute news segment available within which to do so. Furthermore:

Many newsmakers, particularly politicians, are now trained to stay on- message. They are assisted by public relations professionals whose sole job is to advise them how to neutralise or avoid sensitive topics.

One of the most frequent tricks is to try to ignore the question and instead keep returning to their carefully-crafted talking points they have memorised. In such circumstances we are duty-bound to insist they answer the question even if that creates on-air tension.

Good call. Repeatedly, Espiner and Ferguson have been compared invidiously to shows with different formats (Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon) or to the sainted Geoff Robinson or to past presenters (Kim Hill) who had similar brickbats hurled at them during their time behind the same microphone. Morning Report has consistently been (a) RNZ’s most respected show, (b) the country’s main newsmaker/newsbreaker, and (c) the dartboard for the ire of politicians and public alike, for the past 25 years or more. Nothing new in any of this.

As Thompson says, that doesn’t mean the show is, or has ever been, perfect. But when some of the show’s audience slag the current presenters for constantly interrupting and for letting politicians too easily off the hook, for peddling their own opinions and for constantly asking political chief reporter Brent Edwards for his, for being too rude to some and too deferential to others…it is hard to take the criticisms in toto, very seriously. Given the financial pressures sucking the life out of quality journalism, any behavioural issues with Morning Report look very much like First World Problems.

Oddly enough though, the blogosphere has offered its own version of the venting that’s been filling the letters pages of the Press. It is rare (for me anyway) to disagree with Keith Ng. But I think his widely-praised column on the media coverage of the election (‘Sunlight Resistance’) was wrong-headed. The column was about the same important issue that the Press readers have been raising. Namely, what can we reasonably expect of an interview with a politician in the second decade of the 21st century? Keith’s verdict was that the media had failed in its Fourth Estate duty to expose the politicians to the healing disinfectant of sunlight.

What’s wrong with that claim? Nothing wrong with the motivation behind it. Keith’s piece was certainly a corrective to any insular tendency for the media to back-pat each other about how well they performed during the election campaign. That’s fine, as far it goes. But look at how Keith then framed his argument :

Journalists haven’t been lazy this election, nor have they been biased. They hit Dirty Politics hard for weeks, and they’re pretty indignant at people heaping scorn on them. I feel for you, guys, but you need to look at this from the outside. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is supposed to be a description of your job, your role in the democratic process. And you have failed. It might not be your fault, but nonetheless, you have failed.

He went on :

“Asking the hard questions” is a means, not an end. People hold up Guyon Espiner’s interview with Key as a fantastic piece of political journalism. It was certainly engaging. But (to borrow a phrase) at the end of the day, it was just Espiner yelling at Key for not answering any goddamn questions. And while Key sounded like a dick, he won – no amount of yelling could make Key say anything apart from his scripted lines. Despite continual pressure over the following weeks, Key successfully avoided questions about how much he knew about Ede’s involvement with Slater and delivered his lines to discredit Hager and distance himself from Slater.“Key sounding evasive in an interview” is not meaningful success; but failing to get a single honest answer is meaningful, abject failure.

Frankly, when you raise the bar of success this high, fail marks are inevitable. That may be an emotionally satisfying verdict for people who want to kick the media around for not bringing down the government, or for not causing politicians to expose their lizard natures live onscreen…yet I’d argue that such expectations are (a) kind of unrealistic (b) are not motivational, and (c) betray a romantic naivete about what a political interview can reasonably be expected to accomplish. According to Keith : “We are so used to never getting a straight answer out of politicians, we don’t even see it as the point of interviews anymore!”

Hello, reality check. It is simply not useful to berate journalists for why ‘getting a straight answer out of politicians’ has become so difficult, if not impossible. The modern reality of interviewing is the one that Thompson touched on. We are operating in a media environment where almost everyone fronting up for an interview has been schooled in the tactics of smothering, diverting and re-framing the narratives of media inquiry. Our politicians, corporate chieftains and bureaucrats all know how to do this, and it is only a little bit harder these days to frustrate journalists in interviews than it is to block and delay government responses to OIA requests. Which is something politicians routinely and selectively do, as the Prime Minister has happily conceded.

These abuses of the OIA Act are being done entirely for political reasons.

In other words, this is not even remotely a level playing field. Any public figure being interviewed begins the media encounter with a distinct advantage : it is they who hold the information that the public needs to know, and they have been given the specific tools to frustrate the efforts of the interviewer to force/induce/seduce them into disclosing it. The ability to frustrate public inquiry is now seen to be part of the essential skillset of any budding politician, or senior bureaucrat.

The first rule of such training and the one that interview subjects have had drilled into them is this : that they don’t have to answer the question that the interviewer asks. Instead, they have been schooled in how to reframe the narrative and to control its tone – eg by using pleasantries like addressing the interviewer by name, or by warmly conceding what is inessential – while using the occasion to deliver only the message that the interviewee wishes to impart. Thus, the journalist interrupts – because it is the only way left in the time available, to get the interview back on track. The second rule? It says that a draw is as good as a win for the politician/bureaucrat involved. If things get sticky, drop a dead bat on the questions, wait things out, and move on.

Sure, this is very bad news for those of us who want to live in an accountable democracy, and for the quality of the national debate. It is especially frustrating for members of the public who know a bit about the issue in question, and who want the journalist – as their surrogate – to expose the miscreants and turn the tide of public opinion. When people as intelligent as Keith Ng still hold this to be a realistic expectation…then they really have been watching too many movies where people obligingly fall apart on the witness stand, and sobbingly ‘fess up to their wrongdoings.

I’m not making excuses for lazy or sloppy journalism. There’s plenty of that around. What I’m saying is that no matter how good the journalism is, we are unlikely these days to get Keith’s desired ‘straight answer from politicians.’ (The compensatory games of ‘Gotcha’ journalism have not risen by accident. Often, guerrilla warfare is one of the few remaining options.) Unfortunately, the more honest the tactics, the less likely it will be that journalism will succeed in satisfying the thirst for justice felt by people who have been shut out of the formation and execution of public policy. So, rather than diminish say, Espiner’s ‘Is that OK?’ interview with Key – as Keith does – I think we need to recognise that limited gains are about the best we can hope for now from the interview situation. We probably have to rely on other journalistic tools – research, evaluation, data-mining etc – to expose, and to inform.

Sure, such tools may be lacking in drama and the results will certainly not achieve the audience numbers of a network radio or TV interview. Alternative journalism will always run the risk of preaching only to the converted – but increasingly, even good mainstream interviews do only that, anyway. The political discourse has become so polarised that media interviews mainly serve to confirm the prejudices of the viewing/listening audience. And, on the evidence, the higher the education of the audience, the more deeply ingrained those prejudices will be, and the more resistant to any contrary evidence uncovered by good journalism. (The fate of the Dirty Politics revelations certainly suggests as much.) In the political realm, the research evidence suggests that higher education simply teaches us more ingenious ways of defending our prejudices.

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting journalists should be more polite, or more rude – although if forced to choose, I’d have to come down on the side of rudeness. (Good journalism is usually by its very nature, combative.) At the risk of sounding patronising, I think it would be more helpful – in a civics sense – if there was a wider realisation of (a) how tilted the playing field is in the current interview situation and (b) how correspondingly limited the political interview has become as a revelatory tool.

As with political street protests and demonstrations, I’m suggesting that political interviews have become not only a form of political theatre but a fairly clapped-out version of it. And that’s almost entirely because no matter how well researched the interviewer may be, no matter how searching the questions may be, and no matter how much the interviewer has rehearsed and refined the questions in order to shut off the potential escape routes, the politician/bureaucrat can still choose to put up a defensive wall and wait out the time allotted. Remember the rule: for a politician, a draw is as good as a win.

Is this fundamental inequality widely understood by those most keen to see politicians made accountable? I don’t think so. Consider the public complaints made against those – such as RNZ’s Mary Wilson – who still manage against the odds, to get a degree of traction on the succession of p.r. smoothies with whom she has to deal. Similarly, Espiner may have his blind spots, but his campaign interviews with Key can be rated as ‘ failures’ or ‘rudeness’ only by people willfully living in dreamland.

Yes, I am saying the audience needs to chill out, and cut some slack. We’re all in the same boat on this one. If it was better understood just how grotesquely unequal the contest of ideas – and for public information – has become, we might be more appreciative of the limited successes that some media practitioners still manage to achieve, against the odds.