Bob Hawke and Annabel Crabb on the set of Kitchen Cabinet

Does watching Scott Morrison make fish curry mean he gets a free pass on offshore detention?

“Soft” political profiles, infotainment and other puff has been part of the political discussion as long as hard-hitting interviews have. But the uncomfortable balance between the two has been drawn into sharp focus with the fifth-season launch of Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet. The ABC show — the basic premise of which is Crabb comes to dinner at a politician’s house bearing dessert for a soft, confessional-style interview — rates through the roof. In 2013, episodes on Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd rated better than their election debates. But the show has always had its critics, who argue they’d rather see those with power asked tough questions rather than given free publicity on the public purse.

The show generated its biggest controversy to date last week in its first episode of the season, when Crabb broke bread with Scott Morrison, a man who while immigration minister was responsible for Australia’s highly contentious and emotionally charged offshore detention policies. Morrison, now Treasurer, was not given to media interviews while in the Immigration portfolio. But in recent months he’s tried to soften his image, with a softly-softly Women’s Weekly profile and now a Kitchen Cabinet appearance, which, in trademark style, tried to see things from his point of view.

It didn’t take long for the criticisms to come in. On New Matilda, Amy McQuire wrote a blistering attack on the show, labelling it the “junk food” of political journalism:

“Crabb has been hosting her cooking show Kitchen Cabinet for five seasons now, and no one has pulled her up on the fact it’s about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts. She fluffs her way through interviewing some of the most powerful people in Australia by coating their numerous acts of structural violence with sugar frosting, and expecting us to become so dizzy on sugar highs that we can’t process their numerous failures.

“It’s akin to spending a life gorging on sweets and then finding out later you have diabetes. This insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians who wield enormous power over the lives of the most vulnerable, is sold as a fun, light-hearted look into the lives of the people we elect. But this taxpayer-funded sycophantic date with power will end up making us all sick. It completely dumbs down debate and again re-ingrains the perception that politicians are just like us, while the people their policies hurt, aren’t.”

Crabb, currently on something of a publicity tour for the show, has answered some of the criticism in recent interviews. She says finding out more about politicians helps the public understand their policies. She also says she is trying to reach new audiences and get new people interested in politics, which can be done in a cooking show in a way that it can’t be done in a newspaper. In a discussion with Wil Anderson on his podcast, Wilosophy, she said:

“It’s pretty much a gut national reaction to say you’re not interested in politics, or you think it’s full of bullshit artists, but actually I think most people, when you get talking to them, do know more about politics than they claim to and are usually more interested than they profess to be.”

She said she knew the Morrison episode would be controversial. But she also said it wouldn’t have worked for her to grill him when she hadn’t done so to the show’s many other guests.

“I can see why people who are really passionate about that issue would find it infuriating that I could sit in a house with the person responsible for all that and not take the opportunity to stab him with the butter knife.

“My view is the second I start treating people on that show depending on … my view of their policies is the day that show becomes a waste of time. If I start just being nice to people I like and horrible to people I don’t then the show just becomes about me.”

The debate about soft-touch interviews encompasses more than just Kitchen CabinetBuzzFeed political editor Mark Di Stefano recently interviewed Philip Ruddock and wrote a piece on the encounter in which he showed Ruddock how to use Snapchat. Di Stefano was quickly accused of having let the Howard government MP — a former immigration minister every bit as controversial as Scott Morrision — off far too lightly. Di Stefano said he’d also done a long-form interview with Ruddock that was far more hard-hitting, but it had yet to be published. It’s not clear that would make things better — other journalists have said Di Stefano couldn’t possibly do both hard-hitting pieces and fluff, as the fluff undermines a journo’s ability to ask the hard questions.

But even journalists in more traditional environments frequently mix serious reporting with hard news. The Silent Majority, a political podcast that gets politicians in for fun, soft interviews, is hosted by journalists who work for News Corp and the ABC. One of its hosts, the Herald Sun’s Rob Harris, was recently nominated for a Walkley for his reporting, with Annika Smethurst, of the Bronwyn Bishop “chopper-gate” scandal.

And then there’s the whole ecosystem of shows and programs that approach politics in a more light-hearted way. Gruen Nation, which examined the effectiveness of political campaign advertising without political comment, is another ABC program that struck a chord — it was the ABC’s second-highest-rating program in 25 years (after Kath and Kim), says QUT academic Terry Flew. He’s one of three authors behind a study of how the Australian public interacts with political journalism, and says there’s no doubt the public likes these shows. Kitchen Cabinet rates very well, as do shows in a similar vein, like the ABC’s Australian Story (the highest-rating news show aired on Aunty by far).

Both shows capture what Flew says is a desire for authenticity in the broader public. “There’s a sense that politicians and political leaders are heavily scripted, and have staged ways in which they answer questions on shows like 7.30,” he says. “A program like Kitchen Cabinet goes backstage to look at politicians as people. It enters their homes and their lives.”

QUT’s Brian McNair, another of the researchers behind the study, interviewed Crabb as part of the research. He says she told him Kitchen Cabinet has strict rules about how it deals with politicians. They aren’t allowed to veto questions or areas of discussion. She has the final say on what goes to air. While she won’t ambush guests or ask them uncomfortable questions — as one wouldn’t at a dinner party — the show is also transparent about what it does.

There’s no question it plays into the public relations strategies of politicians, says McNair. “They get huge exposure out of it.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t believe it devalues the exercise.

It’s undeniable doing things like Kitchen Cabinet are good for a politician’s image. While politicians can and do all sorts of self-promotion to project a more friendly, approachable image, having the ABC air the program means people will trust what they are shown far more.

Is this a problem? Press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes says both styles of journalism have a role.

He’s also sceptical of the idea that little of value can be gained form soft interviews. “The more we know about our politicians the better,” he told Crikey this morning. “Quite often you can learn more out of you being nice to a politician than by beating up on them. Of course it depends on the politician or situation, but you don’t have to take a club to someone to get information out of them. And information’s what it’s all about. And Annabel [Crabb] gets information out of them.”

“If all we had was the [kind of interview done by Kitchen Cabinet] we wouldn’t be well served. But if we didn’t have it we wouldn’t be well served either.”

One of McGuire’s criticisms of Crabb was around the point of humanising politicians. Surely good journalism, she posited, should humanise those impacted by government policy. In American journalist Finley Peter Dunne’s words, its role was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, rather than the other way around.

Asked if there was enough of a focus in the media on understanding and humanising those impacted by the decisions of powerful politicians, Oakes said it was hard to say. But he made the point that expecting political journalists to humanise those outside their remit was somewhat unfair.

“The media’s role is not only to reflect to voters what politicians are like … but also to reflect the views of voters to politicians,” Oakes said. “But I would say that that a political reporter’s job is to report on politics and politicians. You can’t do that and trot around Australia interviewing ordinary constituents. They’re two different jobs — and both are important.”