Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 13:10 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 13:10 | SYDNEY

Our journalism culture


Sam Roggeveen


26 August 2009 16:36

Two perspectives in the Australian media today about our culture of political journalism, one from former treasurer Peter Costello and another from ABC TV journalist Leigh Sales.

Sales' piece is about the way politicians refuse to answer journalists' questions. She argues that the tactic of avoiding questions and sticking to talking points has become so transparent that it damages voter perceptions of politicians. 

Costello's op-ed is largely a standard issue complaint about left-wing bias at the ABC, so the two pieces mostly talk past each other. But Costello does touch on the ABC's interviewing culture when he says that 'on-air interviewers for the ABC are generally aggressive, which is a pity. In my experience, if a subject is relaxed and lulled into dropping their guard, they are more likely to make revealing disclosures.'

That sounds right to me and might actually be more important than the ABC's political bias. To borrow a sentiment from an earlier post, what journalists think — where they fall along the Left-Right spectrum — may be less important than how they think. As FOX News proves daily, ideological rectitude does not improve the quality of journalism.

So can Costello's call for journos to be less aggressive and Sales' call for pollies to be less evasive be reconciled? On it's face, yes. If Costello is right that a less confrontational style would produce more revelations, then that would seem to suit both parties. But then why hasn't the ABC adopted that style already? Why hasn't Kerry O'Brien morphed into Jim Lehrer? The answer is probably time. Very few ABC interviews with politicians are conducted at the leisurely pace adopted by Lehrer.

Also, as I have discovered on the occasions I've been interviewed by journalists, answering questions verbally is really hard. If I can, I prepare some notes beforehand and sometimes read from them in as natural a voice as I can summon. That's what many politicians do too, and it really helps, particularly if you're nervous. What's more, journalists are not out to trip me up; they have an interest in making me sound good, which is not the case when they are interviewing politicians.

In fact, journalists love it when politicians goof, and they punish them out of all proportion to the offence — the 7.30 Report and Insiders couldn't resist mocking Barrie Haase MP for simply forgetting a colleague's name during an interview last week. Not much of an incentive to go beyond the standard talking points.

Lastly, the Australian political media also has a bizarre tendency (because it goes against their core interests of getting interesting interviews or good copy) to punish dissent within political parties. They allow a few mavericks to speak their minds (Tuckey or Joyce or lately Kelvin Thompson) but those guys are generally treated like eccentrics or mad uncles. When senior MPs step out of line, it's 'disunity'. As I've argued before, the stongest enforcers of party discipline in Australian politics are not the parties themselves but the members of the press gallery.

Photo by Flickr user magannie, used under a Creative Commons license.