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Feb 17, 2015

O'Brien: we're asking the wrong questions about Ferguson's Hockey interview

Former host and interviewer for 7.30 Kerry O'Brien says criticisms like Colleen Ryan's risk creating a climate of self-censorship, sanitisation and timidity at the ABC.


The first Hockey budget included a succession of significant broken promises. The government has been judged so harshly over the budget that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are now fighting to hold their jobs after less than 18 months in office.

That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.

In contrast, Colleen Ryan’s criticism of Sarah Ferguson’s budget interview with Joe Hockey last May on 7.30 is not fact. It’s opinion. More than that, Ryan tries to put herself in the mind of an average viewer. Who on earth is an average viewer when you’re talking about politics?

In Ryan’s opinion “an average viewer would consider that the Treasurer was not treated with sufficient respect” by Ferguson. That is a near-impossible matter to arbitrate in the current sphere of political interviewing.

Richard Carleton’s “blood on your hands” question to Bob Hawke the night he deposed Bill Hayden as Labor leader in 1983 is one of the most celebrated questions in television history. Did Carleton show sufficient respect? By what standards?

Put that question to 10 people in a room and you’ll get an argument, probably on party lines.

Ryan opines that the language in Ferguson’s first question was emotive.

Referring to new taxes in the budget Ferguson asked: “Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?”

I don’t believe it was emotive, particularly delivered in Ferguson’s trademark deadpan style. We’re both entitled to our opinion.

The question was provocative, which Ryan acknowledges can be acceptable under the ABC’s editorial guidelines, but that too is a matter of opinion.

Ryan also observes that Ferguson is equally tough with all politicians as she was on budget night.

Today’s politicians are obsessive in their attempts to manage the media. There’s an army of minders behind the scenes who would have devoted substantial time and energy planning their media strategy to sell the budget in the best possible light, and minimise its political negatives.

Hockey’s job that night was to sell a politically loaded budget in the best possible light.

Ferguson’s job was to keep Hockey honest and cut through to the core issue at the outset. In this case it was clearly the government’s credibility at the most fundamental level, and the subsequent public backlash over many months (presumably including many average viewers) shows that Ferguson’s questions were absolutely spot on.

The fact is, Ryan was given an impossible task. Or is that just my opinion?

In now asking its interviewers, often in difficult, high-pressure circumstances with limited time, to be second-guessing some future single arbiter on highly subjective benchmarks as they prepare and deliver their questions, the ABC board risks creating a climate of self-censorship, sanitisation and timidity, which would seriously undermine the foundations of the institution’s independence.



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36 thoughts on “O’Brien: we’re asking the wrong questions about Ferguson’s Hockey interview

  1. paddy

    Thanks for that bit of sanity Kerry.
    Your reply to Colleen Ryan’s “opinions” is a much needed breath of fresh air.
    The irony of all this “external review” nonsense, is that out there on socmed (where journalism is now increasingly judged) Sarah Ferguson’s reputation has been enhanced, while Colleen Ryan’s has been sorely damaged.

  2. Limited News

    Spot on Kerry.

    Ryans’s opinion is taking us down the path toward the torpid, self-censoring, politically-correct, moralistic, navel-gazing, “balance”-obsessed US media typified by the New York Times. Revolting

  3. Graeski

    I’ve noticed an interesting trend over on The Drum in recent months. Every time an opinion piece expresses any negatives regarding the current government, the first three or four posts counter with a pro-government view: at least one of which consists of accusing the ABC of left-wing bias. Often, these posts appear considerably earlier than any of the others.

    Maybe it’s my paranoia showing, but I’m starting to wonder if the LNP’s stacking of the ABC board is starting to bear fruit with some subtle directives being passed down the line to the site moderators.

    We know that the Coalition hates the ABC and wants to destroy it, yet the ABC regularly rates as one of Australia’s most trusted organisation. The easiest way to destroy it, therefore, would be to destroy that trust.

    Just sayin’…

  4. Matt McKelvie

    Fantastic perspective Kerry.

  5. Wexford

    Interesting thought Graeski. My suspicion is that it’s more likely LNP stooges (paid or otherwise) whose sole task is to trawl socmed and ABC articles for the purpose of astroturfing with pro-LNP comments. The ALP may well be doing the same.

    That the pro-LNP posts are often first off the rank would be either due to their being on constant alert or, if one is paranoid, they’re being tipped off that a new article is about to hit the web site!

  6. Philby

    Oh Kerry, what a crock! Name a single interview by Ferguson with this level of prejudice with a Labor politician. It’s never happened.
    Then you lament the trials and tribulations of being a journo working in high pressure situations and ask how on earth these poor innocents could be expected to show simple common decency to a Federal Treasurer? Please!
    There’s a saying you maybe haven’t come across – treat others as you’d like to be treated. And Kerry, that’s not just when you’re fawning over Paul Keating.
    ABC and Fairfax media journos need to take a dose of professionalism and report, not opine. And put their manners back in.

  7. Brangwyn

    I love Sarah Ferguson’s deadpan approach – and she gets results! I fear the ABC is already intimidated by this Government you can see it and hear it. If the ABC loses its’ backbone we are done for, is all I can say. With people like Albrechtson on the board and the paranoia of this Government, or rather their ineptitude, it must be hard. All Governments complain about the ABC but none have been so keen to wreck it as this one.

  8. JennyWren

    I loved Sarah Ferguson’s approach too, really puts Leigh Sales interview style into the pale. Wish she would come back actually. Surely it’s time for a new face on 7.30 report?


    OMG Sara Ferguson needs to be defended by Kerry O’Brien, says it all doesn’t it.

  10. intouch

    If anyone wants to hear vicious “attacks” listen to Leigh Sales(sorry if I have that wrong) and Barry Cassidy and Rod Cameron(I might have that wrong too) on 06, 09 and 10 June 2013. The bit I heard of Sarah Fergusson’s interviewing Joe Hockey was too polite!! How could he deny “broken promises”?

  11. Brangwyn

    She doesn’t “need” it, but it is nice to be supported by colleagues. I am sure given the job of interviewing Kerry O’Brien she’d be just as good and go straight for the jugular. It is true that weak performers like Abbot would probably refuse to be interviewed by her. I’m sure Morrison, Julie Bishop and one or two others wouldn’t turn a hair, and it makes riveting TV.

  12. The Cleaning Lady

    Thank you, Kerry.

    Too often the government ministers have been guilty of parroting their talking points. A skilled interviewer needs to get past the trite to what matters. Sarah’s introductory question said what many of us voters were thinking and gave Hockey an opportunity to address it and (potentially) put our concerns to bed. As it happens, he could not.

  13. Norman Hanscombe

    Sometimes there seems to be almost as many red herrings on this and other Crikey threads as could have resulted from the entire North Sea Trawlers production in the 1960s.
    The North Sea flow was depleted by over-fishing, but a similar diminution appears unlikely to happen here while the usual suspects are so hard at work.
    What a productive source of emotively-blinkered “arguments” this could have been for Philosophy students back in the days before so many Faux Philosophy courses flooded the educational marketplace.

  14. Keith1

    “Name a single interview by Ferguson with this level of prejudice with a Labor politician.”
    Um… according to Ryan, Bowen the same night: “Ferguson was also tough in her questioning of Bowen [who] performed extremely well in the interview”

  15. Guwardi

    too true Keith #13 but I thought it was the night after. All of Sarah Fergusons interviews at her time in the seat were excellent and for Philby #6 to suggest prejudice is complete bollocks. Now then take Leigh Sales interview with Shorten at the end of last year (where are the policies, where are the policies, how can we trust you, how can we trust you) and compare that to the interview with Abbot (go ahead Tones here’s 15 minutes for you to talk shit) now that WAS prejudice

  16. Neutral

    “treat others as you’d like to be treated”

    Hockey got of lightly then…

  17. Mike Smith

    Hockey has done nothing to deserve respect. When he has earned it, I’ll take notice.

  18. Venise Alstergren

    Excellent work Kerry. I’ve a couple of questions for you. 1) Does Colleen Ryan work for Rupert Murdoch? 2) What constitutes ‘an average viewer?’ 3) How does Colleen Ryan manage to claim “Not treated with sufficient respect,” is anything but a matter of personal perception?

    Sarah Ferguson was the best ever 7:30 Reporter. She made Leigh Sales look like an amateur. Is it a case of signed contracts which keeps her from hosting the program again?

    The way Ferguson handled an overbearing, patronising and bullying Christopher Pyne was an object lesson in how to deal with pollies. Also the lady has that priceless quality of putting bums on seats. Bring her back.

  19. Paul

    I guess the review has demonstrated, for the 10000th time, the the media elite have a fantasy that they, and only they, know what we, the non elite are thinking. It is a classic demonstration of what a weird bubble world they live in, where “we” have to be nice to “them” while “they” make decisions that harm people in very real and material ways. So thanks to Fairfax (initially) for showing us how the press gallery mob live in a reality that most people think is quite revolting.
    Empirically the level of confidence in the ABC is high and the level of confidence in all other main media sits around our ankles, about where politicians are.

  20. zut alors

    Ferguson is an effective interviewer who, unlike some journos, doesn’t merely fill air time. Since she departed the host chair I only occasionally tune in to 7.30.

    Ferguson, like Kerry O’Brien, is a hard act to follow.

  21. CML

    @ zut alors – Exactly!!!

  22. Electric Lardyland

    You know, with all the cuts to the ABC funding, I can’t help feeling that conducting impartiality audits may not be the best use of limited funds. Especially when these audits are likely to be in response to the behind the scenes exertion of pressure by party hacks, and the more open criticism of the ABC, by all the unhinged, far right commentators, who seem to consider it part of their commercial media mission statement, to shriek accusations of bias against the ABC. All those totally impartial paragons of unbiased journalism, who would never even consider using emotive language: Bolt, Jones, Devine, Hadley, Albrechtsen, etc, etc, etc.
    And I don’t recall hearing of any internal News Ltd audits, where the conclusion was something along the lines of, ‘Actually, Andrew, we’ve noticed that your coverage of climate change, constantly uses the term “leftist warmist conspiracy”, in the interests of impartiality, do you think you could tone it down a bit’. Nor do they seem to have a problem with The Australian, giving front page treatment to the always poorly done fringe research on the alleged dangers of wind farms, while almost entirely ignoring the large scale, reputable studies that show no evidence of links between wind farms and ill health. Nor do I recall any angst from commercial radio management, over the somewhat variable treatment by Alan Jones, of climate change denier and climate scientist.
    And yet we now have the “tone’ of Sarah Ferguson’s interview style being questioned.

  23. Rais

    “the ABC board risks creating a climate of self-censorship, sanitisation and timidity, which would seriously undermine the foundations of the institution’s independence.” That would be the aim of the exercise wouldn’t it?

  24. Luke Hellboy

    Ferguson is one of the best interviewers on TV. She showed the treasurer had no clothes, only new taxes and a long trail of broken election promises. Maybe she could give Leigh some pointers or her husband on Q&A.

  25. Venise Alstergren

    ZUT: Exactly and precisely. See my own comment (8)

  26. Venise Alstergren

    NORMAN HANSCOMBE: Tut tut, another attempt at humour (re North Sea herrings) it isn’t your style at all, at all.

  27. Malcolm Street

    Thanks for coming to her defence Kerry – she was an excellent interviewer.

  28. Graham R

    “… a climate of self-censorship, sanitisation and timidity, which would seriously undermine the foundations of the institution’s independence.”

    This has existed at the ABC for a very long time now. I thought Kerry himself overly cautious and timid, as are Leigh Sales and Chris Ulhman. Sarah Fergusen was something of a breath of fresh air who also, in my opinion, never really went in hard enough on politicians.

    For example, is it true that politicians only appear in interviews under the proviso that each question can only be asked once – as Christopher Pyne seemed to let slip recently?

    If this is true then NO journalist in this country deserves any respect. If not true, how come interviewers don’t repeatedly chase down evasive politicians the way Emma Alberici recently did when interviewing a Muslim man recently?

    Come on, somebody tell us – what are the rules of engagement to get a pollie on a program? I suppose electrodes to testicles are definitely out?

    Anyway, thanks for defending Sarah Fergusen Kerry. She’s the best we have.

  29. Bill

    Hockey comes across as a spoilt little kid when he gets confronted directly. Poor Joe, he has to run mummy and cry – “that nasty Sarah Ferguson didn’t ask me nice questions I could answer.” Grow up Joe – you are supposed to be the adults.

  30. AR

    Ferguson was responsible for extracting more information in her short time on 7.30 than anyone since Red Kezza.
    Even the lies & obfuscations expostulated in terror at her tough questions provided quality information – by their lies shall we know them.

  31. klewso

    At the risk of setting off the Mimosa pudica of the Right –
    [(who can’t seem to see why their side of politics should be subjected to the same rigorous sort of inquisition they think the Left should? They like to cite that one interview with Abbott as though that proves her Left bias. Get the pop-corn and Giggle-meter out and line up her interviews with Abbott/the Coalition : the Left, from Milne to Gillard, Rudd et al – for a real laugh, save the stonings of Chris Evans for last?)]
    why hasn’t anyone looked into the “Giggle-pot and Vinegar Tits” m.o. of Leigh Sales (from Lateline on, over the years), when it comes to interviewing the Coalition : the Left?
    And Sabra Lane is little different, wearing her conservative elbow patches to work?
    It’s not hard to imagine either doing a Sarah Henderson or Pru Goward after they leave the ABC?

  32. zut alors

    Further to klewso’s last point, I can’t recall Maxine McKew ever showing her leftist leanings while hosting Lateline. Her interviews were even, politicians of all colours were given the same degree of grilling.

    When McKew departed to run as the ALP candidate in Bennelong I was pleasantly surprised.

  33. BSA Bob

    Sarah Ferguson’s a good interviewer who seems to me to treat all sides equally. In this respect she stands out from the current pack. Perhaps this is the problem.

  34. Elizabeth Corson

    Sarah Ferguson’s interview of Joe Hockey set a new standard for the ‘political interview’. Cool, intelligent and fearless. When politicians are micro managed by media ‘experts’ to massage the message we need journalists who can cut through to the real implications of policy decisions. Sarah Ferguson is the best. I hope she gets the opportunity to do the same to a Labor treasurer when Labor is returned to power.

  35. Deegan Fitzharris

    I like Sarah Ferguson and agree with her point that the Government has brazenly broken election promises. At the same time, her approach in interviewing Hockey on budget night was inappropriate. Ferguson’s first question ““Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” is not really a question at all. She is not asking the question because she is wanting an answer. The point of the question is for her to make a statement herself. It is inherently unfair. A more reasonable approach would have been to see if Hockey would accept that he had broken promises and work from there. That would be a proper and balanced interview. This was just theatre.

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