American satirist Jon Stewart was earlier this year asked if he liked interviewing politicians. Not at all, he told CBS:

“I despise it, as most sentient creatures, I think, would. Imagine having to interview salespeople. They’re salespeople! They live in a world of denial and conjuring … It is very strange to talk to people who have lost their awareness that that’s what they’re doing.”

Media doyen Laurie Oakes quoted this sentiment approvingly on Wednesday to a full house in Sydney gathered to hear him discuss the art of political interviewing with the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson.

Ferguson is a long-running Four Corners reporter and Gold Walkley winner (as is Oakes) but achieved a new level of fame this year when she hosted 7.30 while Leigh Sales went on maternity leave. She gained respect for her tough, no-nonsense interviewing style. For example, when she interviewed Treasurer Joe Hockey after the budget lockup (incidentally her first one), her opening question to him was whether it was “liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter”. The interview question, and Hockey’s poor answer, helped cement the narrative of a promise-breaking budget and was widely hailed at the time. But Ferguson told Oakes many originally feared she was coming across as too aggressive.

Perhaps the world’s best-known political interrogator is former BBC host Jeremy Paxman, who once asked a politican the same question a dozen times when the politician kept ducking a response. Both Ferguson and Oakes cited him approvingly, but Ferguson said she doubts any Australian interviewer could get away with Paxman’s level of aggression in Australia.

But there are ways of cutting through nonetheless. When Julia Gillard was prime minister, Oakes once confronted her with a press release titled “another boat arrival, another policy failure”. He told her it was an opposition release, leading her to slam it. But it was in fact put out by her own office some years earlier, when she was in opposition. “It showed the hypocrisy of her position and the government’s position,” Oakes said. “But do you think we can be tricky? Do you mind that?”

Ferguson said she didn’t. “They are trickier than we will ever be, even on our best days. And they’re getting trickier. Politics is becoming more and more professional, and they are more and more prepared. They’re trying to take the journalism away from us.”

The key to a good interview, both said, was preparation. Journos should anticipate the politician’s talking points so they can know how to counter them or avoid them entirely. The first question matters too. It can either be crafted to make a point to a politician — that this will be a tough interview — or to put the pollie at ease in the hopes of coaxing out something new.

But it can be hard for even the most respected and high-profile interviewers to get access these days, which can fundamentally shift the balance of power in such settings. Programs like 7.30 no longer get to choose who appears from Parliament. That’s decided by the Prime Minister’s Office, to control the narrative, but also as a form of internal party patronage. But that’s not all of it, the two interviewers told the audience.

“I don’t feel like I should have to answer what the interview is about,” Ferguson said. “It should be clear given the day what the interview is likely to be about. Beyond the subject line, I don’t think we’re under any obligation to reveal any more.” Oakes said too much questioning from media managers certainly annoyed him. And it leads to politicians being briefed — giving stock answers that are as boring for the audience as they are to him.

Furthermore, politicians are now briefed by former  journalists, now on their staff. Ferguson shook her head at journalists who  teach politicians “how to prepare, how to anticipate our questions”. “There should be a special table at the Walkleys for that mob!”

All politicians repeat talking points. Ferguson has a policy of not allowing them to recite them, as it makes for bad TV, but she said there was little she could do about Environment Minister Greg Hunt. “Any of the other politicians, including those considered ‘hard players’, when I get in there and interject, they let me ask a question. We don’t end up talking over each other. What Greg Hunt does is he doesn’t cede. You try to ask a question, and he doesn’t let you,” Ferguson said.

“Of course, what you’re trying to do is reinvigorate the conversation to achieve something. But I haven’t found a way to get over someone who won’t stop talking.”

Interviewees who won’t stop talking have plagued several hosts recently. Emma Alberici on Lateline, for example, was utterly unable to get Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Wassim Doureihi to allow her to change the topic. “I don’t think there was anything else she could have done with that,” Oakes said. It’s bad television, but it’s sometimes unavoidable.

Both Oakes and Ferguson lamented the difficulty of interviewing Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott was a challenging person to interview, Ferguson said, because he very quickly turned the discussion personal. Ask a policy question, and he’d respond with “that’s your opinion”. But while he’d always been an aggressive interviewee, she said he presented a new challenge since becoming Prime Minister.

“I did interviews with him on Four Corners that were lively and vigorous,” Ferguson said. “But he’s since slowed down so much. Presumably so he doesn’t go off-script. And he stands up — which is strange for long interviews. His staff reckon it makes him more dynamic.”

Oakes said Gillard had also changed when she became prime minister. “She had quite a lively delivery. But she became far less interesting … Maybe there’s something mysterious in the prime minister’s department that kills them. It seems to happen to all of them. Even Kevin Rudd. Not that they managed to stop him talking, but they did manage to stop him saying much.”

Peter Fray

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