Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor


I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.

Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.

Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.

The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.02.27 AMThe interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.

The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.

But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.

From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.40.25 AMThe mob was just getting warmed up. I made a fairly obvious comment about the invidiousness of Sales’ position and was called an MSM apologist.

Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.

When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.51.17 PMAbbott had minutes before tweeted about the interview, making it clear it was pre-recorded.

Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)

The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.

Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.51.35 PM

An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)

The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:

Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.

Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.

Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:

  • Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
  • He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
  • He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
  • He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.

Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.52.52 PMOf course, this fascinating point was lost amongst the wailing and rending of clothes on Twitter by Labor supporters.

Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:

There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well –  with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.

It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.

We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.

We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.

Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.

After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.

If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.

53 thoughts on “Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor

  1. Reblogged this on Iain Hall's SANDPIT and commented:
    Its long been my opinion the Twitter and many of the popular Lefty blogs are just as you suggest full of delusional fools who are totally myopic about politics. The saddest thing is that they really believe the crap they are peddling and they bend over backwards to abuse and attack personally anyone who does not agree with them that Tony Abbott is the political Anti-Christ.

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  2. Like you, I watched Twitter feed instead of the Interview, then watched the interview at a later date. I do understand the frustration of a lot of people on Twitter, constantly seeing Mr Abbott pontificate, then walk away with no question or query of any note from Journalists. Even taking into account the massive build up of frustration, no way in hell can I condone some of the bile that was directed at Leigh Sales, questioning yes, nastiness, no!

    One thing that does annoy me is all the defence of Leigh Sales, just doing her job, etc., unfortunately I don’t think she can really complain too much when people feel let down. Her previous interview with Abbott, the most recent with Gillard (where she did press for clarification), even back to Rudd, she has positioned herself as the pre-eminent interviewer in this country, got the gig in the state recently with Hilary Clinton because of that reputation. Sorry, but if you put yourself up there, reap the rewards of that reputation, you do sort of have to cop it (again I will state NOT in the nasty manner shown) when you do a ‘vanilla’ interview. If any other journo had done such a placid interview the Abbott it would not have been such an issue, hence I would say this doubled the frustration.

    Personally my favourite that Ms Sales should have called BS on, was “I say, this is a pretty hopeless government, but they’re pretty clever at politics”… I nearly spat my wine over the keyboard I laughed so hard “Clever at politics”? That seriously deserved an interjection by Sales 😉

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    1. I’d say you had a fair point if I thought the interview was vanilla. It wasn’t, it just didnt deliver the knock-out blow that Labor supporters wanted.

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      1. Not just Labor Supporters, as you know I am not one of them. In fact the way I feel at the moment, Clive is looking bloody good LOL!

        I mean Vanilla in the fact that while watching I didn’t really learn anything, didn’t have any of the moments (that I have had in the past) where I will lean forward & think “Yes, good question…” or “Yes, put her back on track to answer question…” type thing. Sort of finished & felt flat, like nothing really was discovered or new, which is a shame as Leigh Sales has been able to do that with quite a few of her past interviews, hence higher bar of expectation.

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  3. Smart take, as they say on Twitter.

    I think part of the problem is Tony Abbott is known to be a poor performer under direct questioning. I tuned in expecting a mini-meltdown, but of course was disappointed. That’s clearly my problem.

    I did notice a couple of the Abbott responses you mentioned as ‘answers’ that beg more questions, but I have little confidence anyone will pursue them, especially the poor ‘ol terrified ABC.

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    1. Yes, there were answers that begged more questions. In a situation like that, the journalist has to choose whether to chase one down the rabbit hole or cover a number of issues in what is a very short space of time.

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  4. For the record, I am no fan of conspiracy theories. My list of questions at the end of my article were genuine enquiries that went to the marked changes in effectiveness historically in these set-piece accountability interviews at the ABC. I believe Leigh Sales has a very tough job. However, as with so many other “performance based” jobs, journalists, especially ones holding such key roles, are legitimately subject to stringent critique. You and I seem to have very different perspectives on the effectiveness and informational outcomes of this specific interview. I actually believe interrupting tactically is essential to the art/craft of accountability interviewing. Damn the febrile partisan critics on that one. It is a robust exchange. It needs to be to produce some insight and revelation. I adhere to my view that something cultural or otherwise and probably subtle over time is infusing the processes at 730 and elsewhere at the ABC. I do realise that the whole media minder/training industry (largely made up of former journalists!) has had a profound effect on how these interviews play out too. As I have said elsewhere, some of the attacks on Leigh Sales personally as opposed to professionally are abhorrent and reveal much more about those tweeting than about Leigh of course. Thanks for this article. Very interesting.

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    1. Actually, I agree with you that tactical interruption is a key interviewing skill but neither Sales nor Uhlmann have mastered the knack of it. They both come across as aggressively argumentative instead.

      Sales is not yet a Jana Wendt or Kerry O’Brien. She may never make that grade. But she should not be judged on whether she managed to ruffle Abbott’s feathers.

      You’ve framed this as an “accountability” interview – if so, it did a reasonable job in teasing out information related to the opposition’s accountability on fiscal responsibility. Isnt that important, relevant and newsworthy?

      As for personal and professional attacks on Sales – neither are acceptable. No-one should be subjected to attacks on a professional basis either. Constructive criticisms are fine – as long as their intentions are honourable.

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      1. We do agree on the “art of interrupting” and it IS an art. Almost like playing music judging the right rhythmical moment. Uhlmann certainly hasn’t acquired the finesse yet. Clunky. I have seen Leigh in fine form do it well. But I continue to resist those who simply label any interruption as rude, partisan etc. That view seems to be taking hold more widely and it is a worry. Maybe a few tender souls should watch some of the more acerbic UK interviewers at work. Did you see the recent Boris Johnson interview? Interestingly, our culture is far less tolerant of that more arch approach but a certain knock-about no BS strain runs through ours. I wish it were more present in some of these interviews. I note you believe this was a “satisfactory accountability interview”. I understand how you may have came to that view. But I wonder how the average, less media focussed viewer went away from that interview? Maybe not with the less obvious morsels of news or revelation you imagine? Thanks. Worthwhile discussion.

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  5. Nice summary, suggest you raise shields. Blind, lazy partisanship is what drives all this myopic invective. Politics and policy making is responded to like the very worst of football barracking mob screaming for their team. This partisan approach insists any person, position policy, or anything of the other side is wrong or worthless simply because it is of the other side. The partisans are all keeping score because winning is all that matters and that end totally justifies any means. There can be no merit acknowledged, no accommodation or consideration of another point of view. It is of the other side and it must be killed with fire.

    I have no issue with people who have a genuine, reasoned and well developed philosophical position that places them firmly somewhere on the political spectrum. However, no single political philosophy is right 100% of the time, in 100% of the circumstances. There are times when alternate viewpoints should, indeed must, be considered. A mature mind can admit more than one idea, while an ossified mind is a doorstop.

    The ABC, and in particular its news and current affairs programming, for whatever it’s real or perceived failings, is on an absolute hiding to nothing. Partisans of all persuasions attack it with allegations of bias screaming of the injustices done to their team. It would be laughable if it wasn’t all so pathetic and predictable. The partisans all say pretty much the same things, making the same accusations with only the team names being changed.

    I really wonder why Ms Sales and her colleagues even bother. It must be so disheartening to know that no matter what you do the story won’t be the content of the interview, it will be all about the perceived biases of the partisan viewers. People whose opinions were not going to be even so much as challenged by what was said.

    Where to from here? I have no idea. While there are pockets of plurality out there they are islands in a sea of bile and I just dont see that changing. The derpetry will continue as there is no way to reason with a partisan belief as there is no alternative viewpoint they will even consider. A pox on all their houses.

    If you’ve read this far trying to put some Left/Right template over my thoughts, you are are part of the problem. If you think I’m just a naïf who needs to grow up and understand how the the world works, you can fuck off and when you’ve finished fucking off to where you’ve fucked off to; fuck off some more.

    Our society is a complex, ever evolving place that needs nimble minds open to more than one idea at a time to meet the challenges we face. Blind partisanship is just not good enough.

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  6. Hi Paula. I too loved Anthony’s post and tweeted it on the night. It is important to distinguish the hard, horrible, stupid reaction to the Sales interview from Peter’s piece, a review of the interview and its techniques by a fellow interview specialist.

    The fact is that Leigh did a tough interview. But it was not a good interview. I remember twice feeling the hairs rise on the back of my neck, a news journo signifier that news is about to be made, to be flummoxed by her failure to follow up and nail it. Someone called Preston Towers chose to RT Peter’s piece with the allegation that it was written out of jealousy, thus mirroring the tone of the anti-Sales stuff he said he was tired of. He withdrew when pressed, but I am concerned that genuine critique of technique is being conflated with the crap. This was my comment to Peter’s piece last night.

    ‘I write from the experience of being Jana Wendt’s political researcher on A Current Affair for a year, and the certainty that Leigh Sales is a journalist of impeccable integrity. There is no way Abbott had prior knowledge of questions or that any topics were off limits. The program tried its best to broadcast a good interview with a man who does not want to appear for fear of being forced out of the comfort zone the press gallery and his tactics have produced for him. In that zone he says cheap grabs for TV news, changes his line as it suits without being called on it, and walks away when unwanted questions are asked. Style over substance. He has mastered the modern media. He wags their tail, and, partly due to the existential crisis in mainstream media and in journalism itself, there has been no fightback.

    ‘Serious interviews with Abbott are so few that each needs to be great. That’s incredible pressure for any journalist, let alone one who was dragged to ACMA for alleged bias when Abbott fell over in their last encounter, has been boycotted by him ever since, and needs him to be available for more interviews before the election. I thought she was tough. The problem with the interview is that it failed to nail down issues of importance to voters. Peter’s piece seeks to analyse why it failed, and how it might have succeeded if handled differently.

    ‘Leaders have the standing to demand and get ‘as live’ interviews, ie pre-records that go to air as if they were live. I think this interview was ‘as live’. I agree that programs should advise whether a pre-record is edited or as live.

    ‘I am proud to publish Peter’s interview reviews. They allow readers to get into the heads of journalists, and see the techniques they use. Journalists are after news. TV interviews want to make news. Intense preparation goes into planning big interviews and crafting questions designed to elicit information rather than rhetoric. The pressure of the moment can lead to mistakes – interviewing is an art as well as a craft.

    ‘I reckon Peter’s work for @NoFibs has been groundbreaking, and I am very proud to publish him. It takes courage to critique the work of a leading journalist who commands almost universal respect and admiration in her profession, including from Peter and I.’

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    1. Thanks for your contribution Margo. The nub of the issue is in your contention “The problem with the interview is that it failed to nail down issues of importance to voters.” I’d argue that the interview did attempt to nail down issues of importance to voters i.e. how the Opposition will pay for their policies. But it didn’t necessarily cover the issues that are important to Labor voters who wanted nothing less than for Abbott to be completely discredited.

      It didnt happen – Sales asked some tough questions but a poised and well-coached Abbott sailed through. Sales had some good responses to his rebuttals but he prevailed. Despite what you say, not every interview can be zinger. Even the perfumed steamroller missed her mark on occasion.

      I don’t have a problem with pieces such as that from Peter Clarke shining a light on how good journalism can be done. I do have a problem with two such articles on Sales and none on other journalists (that I could find, at least). I also have a problem with Peter playing to the conspiracist crowd in an otherwise constructive piece suggesting obliquely about what might be going on behind the scenes at the ABC. We all know that if Mark Scott tried to make ABC journalists acquiesce to the Coalition he’d have strike action on his hands.

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      1. Two things, Paula. I repeat strongly that my final comments in the AFHP article were genuine questions about the clearly observable changes in journalistic effectiveness at the ABC not playing to over-heated conspiracy obsessions. You seem to lean to sharp binaries but I assume we both know how more subtly cultures within organisations such as the ABC can work over time. I ask you now to take that on board. Secondly, we did these two analyses of Leigh Sales for obvious reason – Gillard and Abbott. I doubt there will be any more pieces involving Sales for the foreseeable future unless something new emerges. There is another piece linked at the bottom of the Sales/Abbott piece that examines an interview between ABC Radio’s Sabra Lane and Scott Morrison. The central theme was stonewalling and how Sabra dealt with it. She also come out of the interview with slim pickings. In doing these analyses, the very last thing on my mind are Labor devotee expectations or concepts like “nailing” “brawling” or anything similar. They are your own overlays. I think I have already made my key criteria very explicit. Thanks.

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      2. Peter wrote a review of a Sabra Lane interview – see http://australiansforhonestpolitics.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/morrisons-brick-wall-on-how-hell-stop-the-boats/

        I am sure he will review Emma and Tony’s performance if Abbott ever fronts up to them. He reviewed the Sales Abbott interview at my request as a companion piece to his review of Sales Gillard post-leadership mess, in which, by the way, he was very critical of Gillard. In that interview too, Sales’ strategy did not work – Gillard got away with prepared boring blah blah, and no new info. or insight emerged for viewers. http://australiansforhonestpolitics.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/anatomy-of-sales-v-gillard-interview/

        We disagree on the Abbott interview. I had no wish to see an attempted mauling or a gotcha interview. I wanted him tested on his grabs and be forced to be coherent and consistent by probing policy questions which were followed up, as Paul Kelly and Peter van Olsenen did in their strong Sky Agenda effort. (I don’t have pay TV and watched it post-Sales interview on the recommendation of Damien Walker.) Sales had at least 2 chances to break serious news and she missed them. Peter’s piece examined why and how that mistake was made.

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    2. Someone questioned the integrity of a journalist, and Margo Kingston – of all people – gets her nose out of joint. Margo Kingston. Who would never ever question the integrity of a journalist on Twitter.

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  7. Well said Margo. I was not impressed with the interview (and lack of proper follow up questions), however I understood Leigh was in a tough position. I pointed out several of these on Twitter (for example Leigh’s failure to remind Abbott of the GFC which he conveniently forgot, amongst other things). But laying the entire blame strictly on Sales is at best unfair.

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  8. I agree with the thrust of the article that instead of engaging with the likes of Iain Hall we should be engaging with the uncommtted.

    But Iain, in regard to your comment, aren’t you doing the same thing by describing our beliefs as “crap” and calling us all “delusional”? What I would like from you is some serious discussion about Tony Abbotts “policies” and what you believe they would do for Australia.

    We delusionals believe that Australia deserves a first class education system, we delusionals believe that people with disabilities have the right to be treated with dignity and with first class care and support, we delusionals think that the future is more important than the past and believe that the NBN is a crucial part of a successful future.

    We delusionals believe that Australia is one of the great Multicultural Nations on earth and our success has earned us the right to have the best services and infrastructure that we can afford. And yes, before you jump in, we can afford it! Our tax rates are lower than nearly all comparable countries, our debt is miniscule. (the equivalant of having a mortgage of less than ONE YEARS INCOME!)
    If you don’t want these things then vote for Abbott and I’m sure you’ll not get them.

    Also, I don’t consider myself a “lefty” I’m certainly no Socialist. I’m a Progressive . I own my own business in a very price competitive industry. I pay higher wage rates than the industry standard and get hard work and loyalty as my reward. But Governments have a role to play as an umpire, and the extremists within the Liberal party and their friends at the IPA don’t agree, and that scares me.

    I will be voting Labor!

    P.s. with Green preferences 🙂

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    1. I agree with the thrust of the article that instead of engaging with the likes of Iain Hall we should be engaging with the uncommitted.

      Well thanks for engaging with me anyway Richard 😉

      But Iain, in regard to your comment, aren’t you doing the same thing by describing our beliefs as “crap” and calling us all “delusional”? What I would like from you is some serious discussion about Tony Abbott’s “policies” and what you believe they would do for Australia.

      Well I do discuss policy my own blog in both postings and commentary where I am far from a mindless barracker for team Abbott . As it happens though I don’t consider all of your beliefs to be “crap”, my criticism was focused upon the lefties that I have engaged elsewhere in particular rather than it being a more general criticism of all who would label themselves as “progressives”

      We delusionals believe that Australia deserves a first class education system, we delusionals believe that people with disabilities have the right to be treated with dignity and with first class care and support, we delusionals think that the future is more important than the past and believe that the NBN is a crucial part of a successful future.

      Well in principle I agree with all of that but the devil is, as they say, in the detail isn’t it? When it comes to education I am a realist who understands that not every child can qualify for Mensa and a university education for all is far from desirable( although I do think that for many it is beneficial. When it comes to the disabled I think that we have to consider two things, firstly how much of our efforts (and treasure) will be going to the care industry and secondly just how we will be able to afford the utopian model advocated by Labor. As for the NBN you have to ask is the tax payer being asked to buy what the people need or what the chancres in business desire? Frankly I think taht the former should inform our endorsement far more than the later.

      We delusionals believe that Australia is one of the great Multicultural Nations on earth and our success has earned us the right to have the best services and infrastructure that we can afford. And yes, before you jump in, we can afford it! Our tax rates are lower than nearly all comparable countries, our debt is miniscule. (the equivalant of having a mortgage of less than ONE YEARS INCOME!)

      You seem to only considering the federal government debt here and conveniently ignore the very substantial levels of debt that has been incurred by state and local governments which is far from minuscule. But further I don’t agree taht we have a “right” to either services or infrastructure its is certainly good to have both and I want to see our governments provide them but I want them to be provided at a level that we as a society can sustain ably afford.

      If you don’t want these things then vote for Abbott and I’m sure you’ll not get them.

      Be real Richard the emphasis on these things will certainly change under an Abbott government but it won’t be the anywhere near the sort on Haranesque scenario that you desperate progressives are predicting.

      Also, I don’t consider myself a “lefty” I’m certainly no Socialist. I’m a Progressive . I own my own business in a very price competitive industry. I pay higher wage rates than the industry standard and get hard work and loyalty as my reward. But Governments have a role to play as an umpire, and the extremists within the Liberal party and their friends at the IPA don’t agree, and that scares me.

      My brother is likewise a business owner in a very price competitive industry who pays above the award wages for the same reason that you do to get the loyalty and performance from his staff and he is more conservative than I am. He knows that he would not be advantaged by being able to pay lower wages to his staff either financially or in the ease with which he can run his business. My point is that you don’t have to be a “progressive” to treat your employees well because it just makes good business sense to do so. I would actually be keen to hear you explain precisely what you mean by “progressive” though because it is a rather vague term and to me always begst the question of where you are making progress too.

      I will be voting Labor!

      P.s. with Green preferences 🙂

      Well at least that will teach you the meaning of futility 😉

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  9. I’m very much with Margo Kingston and Peter Clarke on this one.

    While I like Leigh Sales a great deal, it is clear that she’s far more capable of taking politicians to task than she did in this Abbott interview.

    Peter’s right, Sales was extraordinarily ill-prepared and this is as much her team’s fault as her own. This wasn’t just any interview, this was a rare opportunity to dig deeper into the policies of the person who will most likely be the next PM.

    I don’t doubt the difficult task that Sales is faced with – intense pressure from all sides. Nevertheless, Sales, the ABC and journalists more generally have a responsibility to crash through political obfuscation (of which there’s more than an elegant excess) so as to reveal some real information about the plans of the aspiring leaders of this country. Sales has done it before, but not this time.

    Discussions about the Twitter reaction is a complete side show and totally irrelevant. There’s no escaping that it was a lack-lustre and, ultimately, useless interview.

    At the end of the day, Tony Abbott would feel very happy with the ease of that interview, and that’s got to count as a negative mark against Sales (and this test should apply to any political leader being interviewed: ALP, Greens or Coalition).

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    1. On what basis was she ill-prepared? She had information to rebut every contention that he made. Your use of the term “crash through” is telling and suggests that you wanted Sales to be more of a brawler and to drag the truth out of Abbott. Is that really the type of journalism we want, or only if it is applied to Abbott?

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      1. Really? Did we see the same interview? How do you know she had that information? I am a little bemused by your assertions that Leigh was “well prepared”. You give no real evidence of that from the actual interview. I disagree. You set up a false dichotomy here. To elicit better quality information does not mean being a brawler. (Interrupting in an accountability interview is not intrinsically rude but essential to avoid being a propaganda pipe). It means deploying weight of personality curiousity and confidence. It IS a performance certainly but the more ineffable dynamics between interviewer and interviewee are crucial factors. I say give Leigh Sales full rein to be the effective political interviewer we have seen her be. Interruptions, laughter, steeliness, charm, implacable logic … and all!

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        1. I know Sales had information to respond to Abbott’s rebuttals because I heard her use the information. She did not pursue only line of questioning at length, admittedly, but as you well know, that is a factor of the short time available for the interview and need to canvass other topics.

          I agree that to elicit better information does not mean to be a brawler, but that seems to be what people complaining about Sales’ interview technique are calling for. They wanted Sales to be more aggressive, interrupt more and do anything necessary to delegitimise Abbott.

          You mention several times that you are not peddling conspiracies – why then state in your last comment that Sales should be given full rein? Are you suggesting that she currently is not?

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          1. Paula, I simply note the changes and make comparisons between Sales’ best interviews and her more recent ones. I think one can speculate on the many possible factors at work without copping another “conspiracy label” It is pretty fluid right now at the ABC. Let’s leave that “accusation” alone from now on huh? I meant more positively that within that ABC/730 culture, Sales needs to be supported and nurtured to the hilt to find her full potential. Is that happening right now? I doubt it. I can only imagine some of the forces at work. They happen in all intense organisations. My many years at the ABC saw people rise and fall in their skills and performance with no conspiracies of the kind you allude to in sight. But we would also be foolish to pretend there is no political pressure on the ABC from various quarters including the coalition. Abbott was a key speaker at the recent IPA dinner. They advocate, as you know, breaking up the ABC. So do quite a few in the coalition. That’s politics. We are moving through a most unusual period; a kind of interregnum. I have been around long enough to remember the predations against the ABC from both main parties (Richard Alston/Gareth Evans to mention but two “activist” communication ministers). To observe, speculate and be aware is not to join the knee-jerk conspiracy crowd.

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      2. No you’re right journalists shouldn’t “drag the truth out” of politicians.

        Wait on! No, actually you’re completely and absolutely wrong: of course they bloody should drag the truth out of politicians – from all sides, at all times. That’s what journalism is for. An interview is not a platform for a politician’s pre-scripted and deliberate obfuscations (although they try that all the time), it should be a place where leaders and their ideas and plans are vigorously tested. Anyone can read the transcript of a doorstop or a party’s website – interviews like those on 7.30 are the ones where the personality and mettle of a leader can be checked and their claims and plans truly tested.

        They should always be hard and combative – if not, they’re all but useless.

        Sales was ill-prepared because (unlike most of her other interviews) she had no clear idea of what she wanted to achieve in the interview (i.e. more clarity on x policy or y claim) and seemingly no sense of Abbott’s vulnerabilities (of which there are many).

        For a serious interview, no party and no leader, should expect an easy ride. Abbott’s answers were the same ones he always gives, Sales needed to have been better prepared and ready to counter or challenge party propaganda or vague or clearly ridiculous claims. I mean NZ is doing better because “they’ve made changes that have promoted economic growth” – what the hell does that even mean? Abbott’s been talking NZ for a while, where were Sales’ considered responses or deeper questioning? What’s NZ’s debt? What’s NZ’s tax to GDP ratio? Does Abbott propose NZ tax rates?

        Sales (and/or her team), like you, seem to be have taken the view that combative interviewing technique in a political context is a sign of bias, or fluster. It’s not. It’s what should be visited upon all our leaders – whether from the Left, Right or from the bridge of the Titanic II. The ABC has to be immune to the ensuing outrage in letters or on Twitter.

        It is vital that partisan wing-nuttery never has a chilling effect on incisive journalism. But I fear Sales interview is a clear instance where that’s exactly what may be happening.

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        1. No wonder journalism is in the sorry state it is today. It panders to calls like yours for it to be a blood sport.

          Extraction of truth is important. Accountability is important. Sometimes it takes a tabloid foot in the door approach to achieve this. But not always, and I’d argue not on this occasion.

          Sales WAS prepared. She just followed a line of questioning that you personally don’t think was important – about fiscal responsibility.

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          1. I think you are misinterpreting my call for a ‘confrontational’ approach to political interviewing on TV. I don’t mean ‘foot-in-the-door’, I don’t mean ‘tabloid’ and I certainly don’t mean ‘a blood sport’.

            It’s not even Tony Jones’ badgering I want, I want Jeremy Paxton, Mike Wallace, Kerry O’Brien, Mike Willesee and, yes, Leigh Sales. I want interviews that are substantial, serious polite, sometimes even friendly, but at their essence adversarial with the journalist always aiming to peel away a politician’s propensity for vagueness, obfuscation, or worst, ‘messaging’. Journos must always be armed with information to counter or interrogate the well-worn rhetorical paths that their subjects are bound to travel down. For me, if a politician is sitting in their comfort zone during a serious interview like this one should have been, the interview has failed as a piece of journalism.

            And if that interview was actually about ‘fiscal responsibility’ (which I am actually VERY interested in) then it really failed. Look back at the dot points in your article and tell me which one of those points told us anything about Abbott’s views on fiscal responsibility that we didn’t already know? What additional information did they uncover? What aspects of Abbott’s world view did they reveal? Zip.

            In fact, this interview really would not normally warrant discussion of this depth, except that a) Abbott does these ‘hard’ interviews so very rarely and b) it may very well be an example of 7.30 becoming somewhat gun-shy.

            Anyway, I’m done. I guess its the old ‘agree to disagree’ … blah blah blah

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          2. Well expressed. As I read your words I imagined a tight energetic group of skilled, imaginative journos gaming one of these interviews – deeply preparing not only the content and underlying facts and each interview’s strategy and shape but the predicted rhetoric and pollies’ tricks of avoidance and obfuscation they wiil surely face. Maybe we have all become too used to what we now have and take it as a given. It’s not. Barely mentioned so far is the key role of media minders and media trainers. The many avoidance and messaging tricks and techniques we so often see flow from their dark arts. And so many are former journos of course. I advocate amongst other things interviewers forging new and innovative ways of getting past these by now ingrained and (dare I say ) anti-democratic techniques. “Arms race”? Possibly, but let it begin! I have even imagined asking a particularly non-forthcoming interviewee “How much do you pay your media trainer? The person who prepares you for these interviews?” It would certainly shift the dynamic. Of course, we are focussing here on one sector of media interviewing overall. But a crucial one.

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          3. Yes, Peter, I know too many of my former television colleagues that are now media minders and media advisors.

            There’s been an unfortunate shift in resources, and therefore often talent, away from the interrogators, toward the interrogated. The insatiability of modern 24/7 news and current affairs product has produced a fascinating perversity – ‘all-you-can-eat’ with little or no nourishment.

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    2. I want to take the opportunity to agree with your last comment. My analyses are wholly about the specific interview (with some wider context where relevant). They are non-partisan entirely. Some have detected a “partisan colour” in my analyses. They are wrong. I take each interview individually and yes do comment (in these cases) on some political content as it relates to the interviewee’s performance and relevance. I apply exactly the same approach to whatever party. They all engage in crafted self-serving propaganda in spades of course and we all need something more authentic and informative. That’s why effective political interviewing remains so crucial despite the seismic transformations of the mass media and its practices. Set-piece interviews will be around for a while yet. They retain that intensity of an intent audience engaging with the content and dynamic of an accountability interview at the same time. There is some cultural potency left in that.

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  10. I would caution against universalising ‘Twitter’ too much. I’ve had these thoughts many times, but what we’re seeing is a natural product of the internet. Hardcore political partisans always threw their shoes at the TV when their hated opponents didn’t get eviscerated. The only difference is now they have some audience for their venting.

    In the same way as delightfully talented and funny people can now become famous online (like these guys, for instance http://www.youtube.com/user/BadLipReading) instead of just having a neat party trick, disgruntled voters have a voice.

    But Twitter only represents a small part of the population, and the whingers a tiny fraction of that.

    This is not new, and it’s not a recent product of the internet, other than the fact that we can see it now.

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    1. Ed, you’re absolutely right. I should be more disciplined about how I describe the corner of the Twitterverse that I inhabit, which I acknowledge is totally self-selected. I must be a masochist. No, I’d be a masochist if I followed #auspol. Yelling at the tv is all good and well, but sending appalling offensive muck to journalists or people with a different view is just not acceptable.

      Speaking of only being a small part of the (voting) population – its worth noting how few voters actually watch 730. Certainly not enough to change an election result with one interview…

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      1. Absolutely right. And also dead on that people, no matter how ineffectual and gormless, should have the good manners and good sense to not hurl invective at others.

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  11. Australia was holding its breath for a vibrant stoush and we got a fireside chat. It’s not Leigh’s job to terrorise Liberal leaders on behalf of Labor supporters, however, it is her job to doggedly pin them down on policy specifics, costings, broken promises, falsities, and explore any perceived veiled agenda.

    Leigh failed on all accounts to do that with Mr Abbott. That said, she’s in esteemed company. No other Australian journalist has either. Conversely, Ms Gillard has been savaged by all sections of the political media and conscious Australians are rightly perturbed by the current imbalance in Australian political journalism.

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    1. I don’t agree it was a fireside chat – Sales was well prepared to counter Abbott’s rebuttals. The fact that she did it politely seems to be what has got up people’s noses. We should be recognising that she’s stepped away from the interrupting style of interview, as long as it is consistently applied.

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      1. Has she stepped away? How do you know that? I hope not. Well judged and pertinent interruptions are totally necessary. Ignore the obsessed “politesse brigade”. I really disagree Leigh was well prepared. I felt her research was “grab-baggy” and further tended to underline what a structurally wonky interview it was. Margo Kingston has used the term “strategic confidence” in relation to this interview. I think it is apt to describe what was lacking in the Sales/Abbott interview. I believe a top, effective interviewer needs to know every nano second during one of these encounters what exactly they are seeking to find out. Without that, the interview will founder (as this one mostly did). The fact that Leigh used propositions or statements on four consecutive occasions tells me she was not fully in enquiry mode on this one. So clearly, we, like Brechtian observers of a car crash, have seen this interview through different lenses.

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        1. Peter, save your breath. Dragonista doesn’t get it. Apart, from agreeing about personal abuse towards Sales being wrong, Dragonista just can’t see how subjective, and dare I say, precious, she is being on the interview performance. Nope, sorry buddy, but there are times an opinion can’t be budged no matter what the facts.

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      2. Thanks for your reply.

        You’re correct in saying many were miffed at her overt politeness and demure presence. What we have come to expect from 7:30 Report anchors is polite forcefulness and robust persistence. Mr Abbott was instead given free rein to spruik his tired rhetoric about Ms Gillard’s government for minutes on end.

        I’ll give you an example of something damaging that Leigh inexplicably chose not to pursue. Over the last year Mr Abbott has persistently said the Coalition would deliver a surplus in its first budget.

        As we’re now all aware, he’s scrapped that major commitment. His reason? Labor won’t let him see the books and until he sees treasury figures he can’t make that promise.

        Leigh was remiss in not putting it to Mr Abbott that he wasn’t privy to treasury figures six months ago either, yet he was promising a surplus to anyone that would listen then. It’s basic stuff and it hurt her credibility.

        Anyway, thank you for letting me have a rant on your lovely blog, I feel a little lighter for it. This is my first visit (the link was tweeted into my TL this morning), but I’ve bookmarked it and I shall return to read your astute insights often.

        Jess

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  12. There’s history to be considered. John Howard refused to be interviewed by Kerry OBrien. I’m thinking there would be discussion and thinking within the ABC 7:30 Report team about the damage to the credibility of the show of such an outcome. I saw the performance as two people making an effort to re engage in a professional relationship after a falling out. It was a pointless interview in all other respects in my view.

    Leigh Sales’ previous interview of Tony Abbott was also her nomination for an award as I recall. Might not get another like that.

    In any case Tony Abbott has no excuse to be a stranger to 7:30 as John Howard was.

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  13. History will show many of today’s conspiracy theories about the ABC to have been correct or even understated.

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  14. Interesting take. And partly plausible. I know the prospect of not having Abbott engage worries the hell out of certain execs at the ABC. Did you see his Sky News interview with Paul Kelly and Peter Van Onselen? He had a much tougher ride from both. Quite probing. More “traditional” really. Hey, they even interrupted.

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    1. Thanks for responding. I didn’t see the Sky interviews. What is intriguing to me is Abbott, who apparently was a journalist so knows the techniques, comes across as a frightened newby in interview. (Reminds me of my early forays into public presentation). That he is apparently such a bully but is so shy of being put on the spot is telling.

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  15. Comparing Leigh Sales interview with the one Peter van Onselen did with Tony Abbott on Sky on Sunday is not comparing like with like. The Van Onselen interview was a luxurious 37 minutes long, ample time to cover a range of issues and pursue detail on them. Leigh Sales had a miserable 13 minutes at her disposal.
    If there’s a criticism to be made here, it is of abc7.30, for not allocating more time to such an important interview. Devoting the whole, or almost all, the program to pre-election (or other significant)t interviews with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would make a serious contribution to developing the informed electorate a well functioning democracy needs.

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    1. Yes, of course, Agnes, and I made the point clearly in the Sales Gillard piece about exactly that. However, despite the duration difference and having TWO interviewers, the two do have some points of comparison in particular the style of questions around the same topics and the persistence and seeking clarifications. I do agree the 730 should have either made the duration much longer (although with Abbott, perhaps 730 felt they needed to broadly match the Gillard duration within the “phony war” de facto election campaign or narrow the number of topics to maximum three and drill down with verve and a forensic technique.

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  16. The ABC, the editorial policy, the charter – surely it is a public service. Over many months now, the emphasis has changed for their current affairs programmes, downgraded, to say the least. You watch the news at 7.00 p.m., the political discourse is interspersed with opinion. All I want is the facts but sadly that all seems to be done with now.

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  17. It is not Sales’ job to save Abbott either. Which she might have done by going lightly on him, saving him from making another of his trademark gaffes.

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  18. It is a shame to see the ABC lurching so far to the right. I don’t expect Leigh Sales ” to save ” the ALP, but I would expect a more even handed approach. Her interview of the parents of a ” pink bats ” victim is a prime example. She almost pleaded with them to give the responses she wanted. Again and again.

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