Lazy ‘gotcha’ journalism ruins political debate

Lazy ‘gotcha’ journalism ruins political debate

For better or for worse, one of the elements that may come to characterise the 2016 federal election is the “gotcha” moment during political interviews.

It’s not that gotcha journalism is a new phenomenon — Richard Carlton famously confounded and infuriated Bob Hawke by asking if he had “blood on his hands” after replacing Bill Hayden as Labor opposition leader in 1983.

Ten years later, Liberal opposition leader John Hewson was similarly confronted with a less obvious but apparently equally tricky question about the application of his proposed GST to a birthday cake.

Both interviews proved to be journalistic gold and have stood the test of time as significant moments in their respective election campaigns.

Other journalists have sought to replicate that success, resorting to questions about the price of petrol or a loaf of bread in the hope of “catching out” politicians with an ostensible measure of their connection with the concerns of everyday voters.

Since the advent of mobile phones, it has also become commonplace for competing political camps to text suggestions for curly questions to journalists travelling with leaders from other parties, or for journalists to ask questions about comments made elsewhere around the country that their interview subject would not have yet caught up with.

And then there is the relatively new gotcha tactic, subjecting naïve and unseasoned candidates to questions about the detail of their parties’ policies in the hope of finding one who can’t robotically recite their side’s manifesto like most serving parliamentarians can.

Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz was the epitome of this type of hapless candidate in 2013; he stumbled badly during the campaign when asked to list the six points of the Coalition’s plan to stop asylum seeker boats.

The Liberal Party delivered again this election with candidate Chris Jermyn, who either couldn’t or wouldn’t explain the Coalition’s Medicare rebate policy after gate-crashing one of Bill Shorten’s media events.

It’s arguable whether the media’s exposure of Diaz and Jermyn as less than knowledgeable, before being elected to Parliament, actually serves the public interest. Falling victim to a gotcha interview should not mean a candidate is not capable of being an effective parliamentarian.

Senator Ricky Muir became the poster child for hapless candidates after being subjected to a car-crash interview back in 2010 (incidentally by the same journalist who asked Hewson the birthday cake question, Mike Willesee). Yet today, Muir is widely considered as one of the more thoughtful and valuable members of federal Parliament.

It could be argued that it’s another matter when an established parliamentarian falls for a gotcha question. Attorney-General George Brandis was rightfully skewered by his interrogator, Sky’s David Speers, for not being able to explain what metadata was during an interview in 2014 about, well, the government’s metadata policy.

Speers struck again in recent weeks, catching out Labor frontbencher David Feeney on the opposition’s plans to scrap the schoolkids’ bonus.

In this year’s campaign we’ve also seen government backbencher Fiona Scott caught unprepared for a question about being a traitor to former PM Tony Abbott when she appeared at a media event with Malcolm Turnbull.

And Foreign Minister Julie Bishop not only failed to explain the transition-to-retirement element of the Coalition’s superannuation policy, but attempted to minimise the damage by protesting her interlocutor’s query was a gotcha question.

It’s arguable whether the Foreign Minister should have been across the detail of every Coalition policy, and a similar excuse could be levelled for Labor’s Feeney. Scott has no such cover; she should have anticipated the ambush.

However, beyond exposing that some candidates and MPs are not infallible policy-regurgitating automatons, the public interest value of gotcha journalism remains questionable.

It’s real purpose is to add colour and movement to campaigns and interviews that have become mind-numbingly boring due to the risk-minimisation tactics of media managers (such as this writer, in a previous life).

Somewhat ironically, gotcha journalism is, in large part, responsible for politicians being drilled in the art of (not) answering the question. And also for the tightly choreographed visits to classrooms, shop floors, and shopping centres that make it almost impossible for a party leader to meet a member of the public who hasn’t already been background-checked and briefed, or utter an unscripted word.

Gotcha journalism is an attempt to break through the bubble that risk-averse campaign teams construct around their leaders, and in this respect it could be a more legitimate form of journalism.

But only if the unexpected and unsettling questions pursue and elicit information that is of greater value to the public interest than the demonstration of an interview subject’s lack of photographic memory.

Originally published at Crikey.

Shit happens: What should Abbott have done?

I’m not one to jump to the defence of Tony Abbott. Regular visitors to this blog know I’m more likely to criticise him and offer gratuitous advice.

But last night I found myself defending Abbott’s non-response to an offensive line of questioning from a journalist.

Early reports of the incident suggested that Abbott was gobsmacked by the footage of him using a ribald colloquialism in a clumsy attempt to show blokeish empathy with his defence force hosts. It was said that he could do nothing more than stare silently at the journalist.

In reality, Tony Abbott responded to the journalist several times and, when the reporter tried to mimic an old Kerry O’Brien tactic by asking the same question over and over, Abbott chose to say nothing rather than dignify it with an answer. Which is in fact what he said once the hack finished his poor imitation of O’Brien.

In retrospect, what gratuitous advice would I give the Oppostion Leader? Absolutely none.

As a former media adviser with a communications background rather than a journalistic one, I believe Abbott did the best he could.

What were his options?

1. Keep answering the question? If he had done so the journalist would have taken the next line of questioning – will you apologise, is this the type of behaviour befitting an alternative PM, will you resign? Acknowledging any of these questions with an answer, even if it is merely a repetition of your own message, will send you down the slippery slide of indefensible questions.

2. Walk away? Abbott found out during the recent federal election campaign that refusing to answer questions and walking away from a media event, even if it is merely a photo op, is deemed equivalent to running away and will be portrayed as such.

3. Hit back – either orally or physically? As much as Abbott would have liked to, this clearly was not an option.

Which leaves us with Option 4: say your piece, wait out the journalist’s attempt to further Shanghai you, then say your piece again. If the journalist persists, stay silent again until he/she gives up.

In choosing to meet this line of questioning with silence, Abbott used the aural equivalent of a simple tactic used by celebrities to ruin paparazzi photos by closing their eyes and rendering the shot unpublishable. On rare occasions such as this one, the closed eyes or deliberate silence become the story due to the determination of the media outlet to have a story, and nothing more.

In reality, Abbott was on a hiding to nothing no matter what he did, and he chose the option that would minimise the damage to him. I believe this will be borne out in the hours and days ahead.

Post script: This article by Crikey reports that the “shit happens” comment was found by accident after Channel 7 FOIed the Defence Department footage to obtain vision of Abbott shooting a variety of guns. It was this that the Opposition Leader’s office was resisting being released to the public. However, Crikey also reports that Abbott was given a couple of hours notice about the line of questioning that Riley intended to use.

Surprise, surprise, The Australian censors criticism of faux Jenkins expose

Yesterday and today, The Australian carried a story attributed to “staff reporters” claiming that Speaker Harry Jenkins button-holed the PM in the Parliamentary coffee shop Aussies. A photo taken on a mobile phone was proffered as proof. I witnessed this exchange and it was nothing of the sort. The taking of the photo was an invasion of privacy and Parliament House protocol. The fact that the journalist in question was not prepared to put her name to the story could be taken as acknowledgement of these facts.

I lodged the following comment at the end of the article as is now customary, but it has not been printed. In fact, the option to comment on the article has been removed altogether. Here it is for you to read and consider:

I’m pretty appalled at this story. Mostly because I witnessed the so-called “button-holing” by Jenkins, which was nothing more than a jovial aside. I also saw the Australian’s journalist take a picture of the exchange on their mobile phone, which is contrary to Parliament House privacy rules. It was pure speculation, if not outright fabrication, to suggest that Jenkins was reduced to discussing this matter with the PM in public, in a coffee shop. I’m a supporter of the Australian, but this was a shocking attempt at gotcha journalism.