Is asking to go ‘off-air’ a request to go off-the-record? Ricky Muir’s people think so, but it’s not a shared view.
It wasn’t even supposed to be about Ricky Muir. But after Clive Palmer invited Channel Seven’s Sunday Night to meet him and his new senators in the United States, where he was taking them on a study tour, it was the tag-along Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party Senator-elect who got all the attention after he failed to answer simple questions about parliamentary democracy and the platform he was elected on.
It isn’t a train wreck from the start. Veteran reporter Mike Willesee’s first question to Muir is whether, given his tiny first-preference vote count, he considers himself lucky to be elected. “I feel honoured,” Muir says. But from there, the interview rapidly goes off the rails. Muir is shown looking nervous and flushed. He can’t explain his policies when asked direct questions. He asks to go “off-air for a minute” to get a drink of water. Whatever that means, the cameras don’t stop filming. They capture Muir being coached, told to relax.
When Muir returns, Willesee offers some advice. “It might help if, when I ask a question, don’t think of making a political statement. It’s like we’re talking in the pub — you’d have an answer for me. That’s how you’ve got to talk to me.”
One final question — and Muir does better. He’s hopeful of changing things. He’s glad to be there to represent the working-class Australian. The answers are platitudes, but at least they are answers. The piece moves on, but the damage is done.
The interview is excruciating to watch, and some wonder if Muir was ambushed. Writing for TheSydney Morning Herald, press gallery hack (and Crikey alumn) Matthew Knott says Muir could have expected the cameras to be turned off as he went to have a drink of water:
“Instead, Muir was filmed receiving advice from a minder; their conversation was broadcast, complete with enormous subtitling. It was a revealing moment, but a cruel one too.”
But senior television journalists told Crikey that’s just not how it works. Programs like Sunday Night start filming the moment an interviewee walks in the door, which has been controversial in the past. In 2012, Elton John told Molly Meldrum that Madonna’s career was “over”, and that her disastrous tour “couldn’t happen to a bigger cunt”. The comments were made after the formal interview was concluded, and John’s representation soon contacted Channel Seven to say the conversation had been off the record. But there’d been no explicit agreement to go off the record, so Seven stood by its story. Something similar happened to Katy Perry a year later, when her publicist’s requests to change a line of questioning were aired.
Muir’s chief of staff, minor-party numbers man Glenn Druery, says Muir getting a drink and asking to start again should not have been aired. Druery wasn’t there for the interview (“It was none of my doing,” he said), but he adds that in his experience with the media, such things are off the record.
“When you do television interviews and ask, ‘can we do that again’, it means it’s off the record if they agree. And in my experience, that stuff is never shown.”
Some TV news insiders Crikey spoke to were sympathetic, but most said that without a specific agreement to allow interviewees to rewind the tape, it was bad luck for Muir. “It’s very common in television to tell someone they’d be free to retake parts of an interview if they’re nervous or make a mistake,” one said. “It’s how you get people to agree to interviews. If that offer was made, it shouldn’t have been breached like that.” In the absence of such an offer, our insider continued, that was just “bad luck for Muir”.
Mark Llewellyn, who as executive producer of Sunday Night had ultimate responsibility for the way the interview was edited, told Crikey there was no offer to allow Muir to go on and off the record as he pleased.
And anyway, Llewellyn continues, any such deal would be unethical in itself.
“When did that kind of cosy deal become journalism — ‘the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, I’ll look after you if it all becomes a little too hard, possum’? What, by the way, are the ethics of censoring interviews and depriving audiences of the complete story? To in effect be part of that cosy club that shields politicians and keeps everyday Australians in the dark. Mike was asking gentle but direct questions about the one thing Ricky Muir was elected on — his platform. His inability to answer those questions goes to the heart of whether he has the ability to be an effective representative. Ricky Muir is about to wield considerable power. He is an elected politician, not a protected species. Direct questions to politicians (especially those with a six-year term on the public purse) come with the turf.”
Another reporter, with experience on similar programs, told Crikey the interview wouldn’t have been out of place on the public broadcaster, which, like Channel Seven, would have seen a duty to air the elected representative who should be held to account. “It was highly respectful. If Today Tonight reporters went after him, they could have hung him up to dry. But there was no ambush here. Willesee was quite gentle with him — and the answers spoke for themselves.”