Political broadcast journalism is not in a particularly healthy state in Australia. The commercial television networks have retreated from serious current affairs, partly under pressure from the new media-induced fragmentation of audiences. Political interviews don’t rate well and are consigned to dead shifts like Sunday mornings, which has become the last redoubt of political interviewing.
In which case, we should probably be careful dishing out criticism because we don’t want to lose what we’ve got.
Are programs like The 7.30 Report and Insiders past their prime? While the political wrap from Chris Uhlmann (and before him Michael Brissenden) is always good quality, 7.30 Report still relies on the heavyweight bout between Kerry O’Brien/Ali Moore and a senior politician. If politicians are still willing to play the game, it can be compelling viewing. John Howard continued to honour the form and engage with O’Brien long after his party decided that O’Brien was an ALP fellow-traveller. Malcolm Turnbull, with more media experience as a lawyer and businessman than as a politician, also treats interviews as proper debates.
But few Government Ministers, with the possible exception of Lindsay Tanner and, I’d suggest, Stephen Conroy, take the format seriously. Senior Government Ministers are assiduous in using interviews as opportunities to pump out key messages. The result is tedium and a visibly exasperated O’Brien eventually declaring that they’re out of time.
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(An interesting contrast on that issue: Jon Stewart manages to have the best of both worlds on The Daily Show – he can loosen politicians and commentators up by running the program as a comedy show, complete with studio audience, but he is so well-briefed that he is a dangerous interviewer.)
Insiders is in some ways worse. It has a lighter feel than 7.30 (or is that just the Smart Casual dress code?) but has the same reliance on a Barrie Cassidy interview — although it’s less an interrogation than a chat — and then throws in not one but two types of journalistic sermonising. Paul “well Barrie” Kelly appears every week with his routine of cloaking the obvious in a veil of implacable ponderousness, and we also get three journalists/commentators (or, frequently, two normal human beings and Piers Akerman) discussing the week with Barrie.
The eponymous Insiders are of course the audience, not the assembled hacks, because the program is only of interest to politicians, journalists and political junkies. As a nod to the real world, there’s a segment of interviews with some ordinary punters, frequently from regional communities, but you get the impression they’re not the sort of people who would watch Insiders in a pink fit.
Q&A has two things going for it. The presence of an audience and the panel format prevents politicians from sticking too rigidly to their talking points, an approach that owes much to the approach of SBS’s Insight of levelling every participant, including the relevant minister and shadow minister, to the same role (the format has been around for decades of course; Couchman was the last example in the 1980s). There’s also a certain level of interactivity, although online questions take lower priority compared to Tony Jones’s and audience questions, and in any event are prone to being hijacked by the likes of GetUp rather than reflecting anything like genuine community views.
The selection of audience members is an ongoing sore point, with the ABC, under pressure from Eric Abetz, apparently raiding up-market pubs, Young Liberal brawls and PR agency drinks and dragging Liberal voters by force into the studio. The more regular complaint isn’t that the audience is too Labor or too Liberal but that it’s too stupid, but the formula has worked for the ABC.
What Q&A does best is, by removing the crutch of sticking to a script, force politicians to demonstrate at least a little of whatever native wit and wisdom they may possess. Stunningly enough, the majority of them actually demonstrate that a living, breathing, intelligent and even occasionally funny person exists beneath the carefully-controlled image, which may be a reason why the program has performed so well.
A related dynamic perhaps occurs on the best of the traditional interview programs, Meet The Press, where the presence of an interviewing panel, and perhaps the no-nonsense Paul Bongiorno, makes for an altogether different and more difficult interrogation for politicians. I’m not quite sure why, but it might have something to do with the fact that it’s easier to have a job interview with one person than with a panel. Despite the political interview focus, Meet the Press also tackles policy issues and guests more usually found in newspapers. In recent weeks alone the likes of Amin Saikal, Brian Costar, Christopher Joye and Susan Aaronson have appeared, and tend to be a lot more interesting than many of the politicians preceding them.
But for all of the programs, the real entertainment now lies in simultaneously watching Twitter throw up a stream of snark, commentary and disturbingly-frequent declarations of love about the proceedings on the screen, like an infinite lounge room occupied by smart-alec political junkies.
I invited comments on political television from — where else — the Twitterverse, on the basis that people who follow me are likely to be political junkie types (and, presumably, with no taste whatsoever in who they follow). A hopefully representative sampling:
A Sunday morning circle jerk by pundits isn’t necessary for democracy. (Matthew Lee)
Between elections it feels like watching a fireside chat between members of a closed club. (Stephen Price)
I’ve always disliked the ‘journalists interviewing journalists’ model. It’s so inside the beltway and predictable. (Ben Hider)
Q&A drives me nuts, the same as talk-back radio. I want informed ranting from journos, not uninformed ranting from punters. (Greg Weeks)
Q&A is more likely to produce populist pap — from both questioner and answerer. (Roger Ramjet — possibly not his real name)
The downside of Q&A is the polemical attempts by some in the crowd is excruciating. (Anthony David)
There’s a need for short, entertaining ‘distillations of info-glut by people we trust. (Lyndon Sharp)
But many thought the current programs needed to select their talent better or work out how to incorporate greater interactivity:
I watch 7.30 but not Insiders because Bolt sends me mental… I guess it’s a matter of picking the right journos. Red Kerry and Annabel Crabb are two faves. (Weeks again)
Non-polly panellists on Q&A sometimes poorly cast and out of depth… But the switched-on non-pollies freshen up the mix. Chemistry between panellists also a factor. Quality variable. (Aaron Magner)
Q&A is attempting to break new ground, but doesn’t really go far enough. Allowing people to place questions online, or in video form, is an innovation, and it seems that they’re still working the kinks out of it. For the most part, the questions are still selected well ahead of time. The Q&A website is bombarded with questions provoked by the forum-in-progress, however, and almost none of those ever make it to the program. (Marian Dalton)
You could however allow the audience to sms or email questions to be asked in interviews for shows like 7:30 Report. That gives you both audience interaction, and allows the journalist to ask all the questions. (Kristofor Lawson)
To universalise from a couple of dozen comments, it seems that the online section of the political junkie populations wants to see much more, and more genuine, interactivity from programs like Q&A and Insiders and even traditional interview programs, through the ability to provide questions online and even incorporating a twitter feed. That poses significant logistical (and potentially legal) issues for broadcasters — and, to be fair, the ABC has already done an enormous amount to establish a genuine new media presence, with a strong emphasis on interactivity.
There’s also a genuine and widespread frustration with politicians who stay on-message rather than provide genuine responses. Politicians have moved ahead of the mainstream media, but their audience, or at least the best-informed chunk of it, has moved ahead of the politicians.