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When are we going to get rid of these dopey Q&A interviews which are the laziest and easiest form of space-filling devices for an under-resourced modern media.

The worst idea of recent times is the verbatim Q & A interview, in which some hopeless muppet (usually a celebrity) gets to lie about the brainy books they’re reading and the exotic chow they’re scarfing down. This style of interview caught on in the late ’80s, mainly in weekend newspaper inserts. Now they’re everywhere, from the Financial Review to the kids’ pages.

All of them are appalling. Let’s check out some recent Q & A highlights:

Daily Telegraph (March 10): “What has been your best St. Patrick’s Day?”

Jimeoin, comedian: “Let me see … you know, I can’t remember.”

Financial Review (March 10): “Best thing about travelling?”

Will Oxley, yacht skipper: “Seeing new places and having new experiences.”

Daily Tele (March 7): “Do you cook for yourself when you’re alone?”

Vanessa Amorosi, singer: “Yep. I love to cook for me – anything easy.”

The Australian (March 9): “What book is on your bedside table?”

Leigh Warren, choreographer: “Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I’ve been reading it for 20 years.”

Good Weekend (February 24): “What would you never give up?”

Kate Clark, flautist: “Showers.”

Daily Tele (March 13): “When should people sell their shares?”

Rene Rivkin, stockbroker: “When they are happy.”

Fin Review (February 24): “Worst thing about travelling?”

Miles Hedge, businessman: “Waiting for connections. I once got lost in Frankfurt and suddenly found I was in Germany.”

Sunday Telegraph (February 25): “What are your qualifications?”

Tom Foster, People magazine editor: “I don’t have any qualifications.”

Sunday Telegraph (March 4): How would you feel if you were really overweight?”

Salvatore Coco, actor: “I would feel terrible … I’d feel really bad.”

Sun-Herald (March 4): “Why are John Lennon’s songs so important to you?”

John Waters, actor: “They told my story.”

Great bunch, aren’t they? We’ve got a memory-impaired Paddy, someone who thinks the best thing about going to new places is going to new places, a singer who cooks, a dancer who takes two decades to get through a novel, a shower-crazed flute woman, a bloke who’d have you unloading shares every time you crack a smile, Mr International Business Dude who is shocked that Frankfurt is in Germany, an unqualified editor, some guy who doesn’t want to be fat, and an actor who believes his life story was told in song by a dead Beatle. You can see why these Q & As are so popular.

The reason they are popular, of course, is that this basic ask-and-transcribe journalism doesn’t require any interviewing ability, analysis, empathy, or research. Section editors can send any halfwit out on these assignments and be certain of filling some space with the results. It’s cheap, dumb, and easy.

(The Sunday Age has boldly taken the next step in this process and cut out the interviewer altogether. Its “10 Things That Drive” feature allows the subject to simply ramble on about whatever ten things he or she reckons “drives” them. Richard Henderson, creative director of a Melbourne image consultancy, says he is driven by “keeping in tune with new ideas to enable me to constantly evolve.” Richard is looking a lot better since he ditched the gills and prehensile tail.)

Celebs and business people love Q & As, since they are essentially a free advertisement. The clever ones take full advantage. In his Financial Review interview, yachtie Oxley managed to mention his sponsor three times. The Tele’s “My Sydney” feature seems to promote News Ltd’s Fox Studios and Foxtel an awful amount – both the February 25 and March 4 interviews had a Fox tie-in.

The Good Weekend must give its interviewees about two months’ notice before they hit them with questions, so that they can suss out the wankiest books, films, and restaurants. Last Saturday’s edition was typical: cabaret artiste John Bowles announced he was currently enjoying “a biography of Eleanor of Aquitane by Alison Weir.” Typical Sydney lounge singer, always reading about 12th century French royalty.

How can the spread of Q & A disease ever be stopped? I’d given up hope until I saw coverage this weekend of the Brits stamping out foot and mouth among their sheep. The only correct response to these outbreaks is a hell of a lot of burning and shooting.

The tiny non-Q & A portions of the press were occupied with these issues:

* Sian Powell alert! As soon as articles bearing the name of the Australian’s most PC journo began appearing in support of the new National Museum of History, all knew the museum would be a dud. Surprisingly, Miranda Devine at the Tele was the only writer to say so (“The whole museum is a lie.”) Dr Stupid’s Canberra associates report widespread condemnation of the place.

* The Sunday Telegraph’s Kathy McCabe recently broke the news that international record companies were targeting Australia as a testing ground for new artists. This ain’t new, Kathy. Ever heard of Abba?

* On Monday night Stuart Littlemore damned Australian journalists for being insensitive to Lebanese culture, but threw in a bigoted slur of his own, describing US magazines Time and Newsweek as “McDonald’s journalism”. This assault on the culture of our American friends is deserving of a Press Council complaint.

* We are doomed, according to Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald, which screamed in massive front-page type: “Australia Hits The Wall”. One measly quarters of negative growth and we’re “hitting the wall”? When did Fred Hilmer put Chicken Little in the editor’s chair? Meanwhile,

Talented, superb and normally accurate 3AW Drive time host Steve Price became confused and told listeners that a recession requires three quarters of negative growth and “we’ve already had two.”

* Cleo reports in its March edition that “Jennifer Lopez isn’t too bothered by squeeze Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs’ brushes with the law.” Except she dumped him weeks ago. It was in the papers, Cleo. Try to keep up.

* Paul McDermott attempted to entertain the reader of his Australian Magazine column with a review of the John Travolta film Battlefield Earth – which was released, oh, only about a year ago. Great to see Paul hasn’t lost that topical touch we all didn’t enjoy on Good News Week.

* What planet is Guy Rundle on? The enigmatic intellectual’s million-word think piece in the SMH about irony, Generation X, and postmodernism included these lines: “So when did it first become clear, this sense of reduced possibility, of shrunken history? For a lot of people it was 1982 and the film Blade Runner.” Whatever floats your boat, Guy. For me it was Footloose.

* On March 7, the SMH reported actor John Howard’s condemnation of the ABC under Jonathan Shier, pointing out that local drama now accounted for just three hours per week of ABC TV content. Five days later the SMH revealed – in the 57th paragraph of a Pilita Clark/Cythia Banham piece on the national broadcaster – that the ABC’s ratings were up. Interesting, no?

* The Saturday Tele warned that a psychiatric patient with a grudge against journalists was on the loose and had tried to run down an ABC staffer. Like I told the coppers, Dr Stupid doesn’t own a car, hasn’t visited Sydney for months, and is taking the tablets just as the doctor ordered. So just back off, OK?

Next week: Crikey recently received a stinging e-mail from reader Peter Brent, who blasted Dr Stupid as ‘pathetic’, a ‘dud’, and ‘someone’s kid brother.’ Since all of the accusations were true (and also because the e-mail was very well written) Mr Brent has been invited to compile Crikey’s next media analysis. He will be Crikey’s first special guest Stupid. Bring it on, Peter!

ends

And now, here is last week’s column.

Journalistic frothing over death

Death, death, death. Nothing makes journalists and editors happier than lots of death.

Two big deaths this past week have left the press in a state of near delirium. The first, Sir Donald’s, drew reams of folk legend mixed with the odd barbed attack. Predictable the coverage was, because newspapers had effectively run their Bradman obits a couple of years ago when the old boy hit 90. The Australian press played their shot before the ball arrived.

A small band of Bradman dissidents reminded us that, several decades ago, Sir Don didn’t much care for Catholics. Old Jack Fingleton and Bill O’Reilly anecdotes were deployed, mainly being about how Don, unlike his papist teammates, didn’t drink his weight in booze after every match. You can see why journalists might be inclined to take the Micks’ side.

One Bradman dissident, The Australian’s Deborah Jones, was more concerned with the fact that Bradman wasn’t a woman. Some covert phone calls to the Oz revealed that Jones (who boldly announced she did not mourn Bradman’s death) wasn’t joking. Wicked sexism and evil patriarchy were responsible for all the Bradman grief, railed Jones, who is quite likely completely insane.

Leo Schofield, in the Sunday Telegraph, reminded us of the ancient pre-Internet days with his observations on British press coverage of Bradman’s demise. “London’s Financial Times carried a superb editorial,” decreed Leo, who was in England when Bradman died. Thanks, Leo. We’d already read the obit online a few days earlier.

There was substantial overlap in all the Bradman copy, the worst example being in the Weekend Australian’s The Drum column, which recycled almost word for boring word the same specious Bradman gag run four days prior by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Fitzsimons.

The other death – a surprise bonus death, after all the week’s Bradmania – came in Melbourne at the Australian Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is a special event in the journalistic calender. Much like the Olympics, it allows dull-minded sports hacks to write at great length about something they know barely anything about.

(By the way, have you ever noticed that the Grand Prix graphics every newspaper runs every year are always almost exactly the same as the graphics they’ve run in earlier years? And all with such useful information: “A wheel is round, and allows the car to roll along the road”; “The driver’s crash helmet is designed to protect his head in case there is a crash”, “Petrol goes in here”, etc.)

Yards of copy was written in the wake of the track marshal’s death at Albert Park about Formula One being the “world’s deadliest sport”, which only shows how little attention sports writers pay to equine eventing or skiing.

The rush to blame began instantly. “To most onlookers,” wrote the Herald Sun’s Ron Reed, “the prang looked to be [Jacques] Villeneuve’s fault as he ploughed into Ralf Schumacher’s car from behind at high speed.” Ron should ask an expert before committing this tripe to print. Most of the specialist Euro press at Melbourne thought Schumacher may be at fault for hitting his brakes too early. Schumacher himself has offered partial admissions to this effect.

The SMH decided Schumacher’s remarks about Villeneuve driving beyond his ability were worth this headline: “Grand Prix Driver Accused Over Marshal’s Death.” Beat-up of the week goes to the SMH.

As for the Arrogant Know-It-All King Arse prize, it’s a toss-up (as usual) between The Age’s Greg Baum and The Australian’s Patrick Smith. Baum – out of his depth since the old VFA dissolved – was appalled that the race continued after the accident. Presumably Baum is disgusted that the Olympics are still viable after the events of Munich, 1972. “Sadly, the wider motor racing community sometimes gives the impression that … it expects casualties,” Baum wrote. Guess that explains why all those ambulances were at the track.

Smith, who genuinely loathes the Grand Prix, wrote that organisers “ran away from the blame”. There is the small matter of a coronial inquest to be dealt with first, Pat. Hold your horses.

Baum and Smith share a dislike of anything Kennett-related, so the Grand Prix is an open target. Look for them in coming days to write that the race should never be held again. They truly are that cynical.

Among the living, this was the week in media:

* She magazine’s March edition must have been written in December. Among a list of personalities deemed suitable as dependable husband types is Tom Cruise.

* The SMH television critics have decided they will no longer criticise any program made by the ABC now that Jonathan Shier is in charge. “It’s time to raise the drawbridge and huddle together,” wrote SMH Guide ex-critic Sacha Molitorisz in a review of The Arts Show, which he admits he previously never liked. “Bravo Arts Show! Congratulations on your formidable format and scintillating stories.” Seeing as Sacha is clearly in violation of the MEAA’s code of ethics, we can expect him to be thrown out of the union sometime this week.

* Corrie Perkin thinks her readers live in London with all the other followers of weekly UK journal The Spectator. “Wonders will never cease,” she wrote in The Sunday Age. “In The Spectator’s February 17 issue one of the columnists has dedicated her column to that raunchy US import from HBO television, Sex and the City. Good God! What will the chaps at the Caledonian Club say about that?” Corrie probably calls Spencer St. station “the Tube”.

* Kaz Cooke, booted from her SMH/Age columnist gig at the start of the year, has turned all prudish. In a letter to the Oz, she complained about her book The Terrible Underpants being listed as one of the new “rude” juvenile entertainments, along with the funny South Park TV show. Not fair, she fumed. In South Park, “obscenities are used by children.” How fucking awful.

* Both the SMH and The Age jumped on new Prosperity Indexes for their respective cities, but both treated them in tellingly different ways. On Saturday the SMH front paged the index (“Sydney’s booming, but not for all”) with copy spilling to page 4. The Age shamelessly tried for some anti-Howard spin (“Petrol prices erode wealth”) on page one then dumped the rest of the copy in the business section, where it most certainly did not belong. For god’s sake, Age! The material wealth of the average Melburnian is up 50% since the 1980s, and you hide it in the business section?

* Speaking of little Johnny and the media knives which are now well and truly out, keep an eye on the Daily Telegraph. Their phone polls are reaching new levels in malice. On Friday, this was the question asked: “Is the government’s 1.5 cent cut in petrol excise a case of too little, too late?” That was followed on Saturday with: “Has John Howard’s change of heart on petrol excise undermined his credibility?” Well, someone’s credibility is being undermined here. Not sure it’s Howard’s, though.

* The Age shaved a good three decades off actor Morgan Freeman’s age by crediting him in a picture caption with the role of the youthful slave in Amistad.

* Stuart Littlemore returned to our screens on Monday with the greatest load of crap anybody has ever witnessed in broadcasting history. He complained about newsreaders looking sad when reading Bradman death announcements (you were maybe expecting cartwheels, Stewie?), griped about the “irrelevance” of cricket among women and non-Anglos (Stew’s an expert in both categories) and generally made a jackass of himself.

Worst of all, he didn’t lay a glove on any target. The Sydney QC is old, predictable, and slow. When it comes to media criticism, Stuart Littlemore is Dr Stupid’s bitch.

Next week: the laziest journalism in Australia

Peter Fray

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