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Amid the furore surrounding 60 Minutes‘ cringe-worthy interview with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, reporter Charles Wooley has confirmed the once-proud current affairs program no longer has any interest in asking the hard questions.

The story lacked any questions or background about Ardern’s politics and policy, and instead included sleazy questions about the date Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford conceived their baby, and scripted comments from Wooley about how attractive she is. Responding to criticism of Sunday’s story on NZ radio station Newstalk ZB, Wooley said Australian viewers just weren’t interested in policy.

“I know that some in New Zealand might be annoyed that we didn’t talk about housing or university fees. This is a completely shocking thing to some but Australian audiences aren’t very interested in the minutiae of New Zealand politics,” he said. “They would be (for) a specialist piece for the Financial Review, but on 60 Minutes they want to see this wonderful couple.”

Wooley compared the criticism he’s faced to the Orwellian thought police, and said that while his wife thought the interview was too “gushing”, he wasn’t sexist (“I’ve got lots of daughters who wouldn’t let me be [sexist]”) and the program had rated well in Australia.

He also defended asking the couple of their date of conception, saying, “I get paid to do this and my producer would’ve sacked me if I hadn’t asked that”. He said he didn’t have any regrets or anything he’d change about the interview.

Liz Hayes’ recent profile of the Australian first couple, Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull, did cover politics, but was largely a sympathetic profile of the couple. And now Wooley has frankly acknowledged that 60 Minutes is more interested in ratings than in meaningfully contributing to public debate and discourse. He should know better; he was one of the Nine Network’s best reporters during his time at Sunday in the 1990s, especially on election campaigns where the tough questions did not escape him.

But the effort on 60 Minutes is a long way from the program that brought us the infamous George Negus and Margaret Thatcher interview, when Negus was put in his place for a poorly worded question. The distinguishing feature of this interview wasn’t the Thatcher put-down, but the unrelenting toughness of Negus’ questions — especially compared with the puffery we saw from Wooley. For all his bombast, Negus at his best was among the best,;a tough, hard-nosed journalist, which explains why he, Ray Martin, Jana Wendt, Jeff McMullen and even Ian Leslie flourished on the program in its heyday.

The Ardren piece wouldn’t have made it to air in Sunday night’s form under long-term executive producer Gerald Stone — it would have been rejected as too lightweight. Stone didn’t mind the ‘flirt’ interview, a light profile piece of a person in the public eye, where an attractive female or male reporter would be sent to do an interview that could be cut up to appear flirtatious when broadcast. But that was the wrong approach for Ardern.

Wooley’s approach was contemptuous of Ardern’s standing as PM. There were plenty of serious questions beyond “housing and university fees” that could’ve been asked: Australia tossing Kiwis out in growing numbers and asking if that is damaging Trans-Tasman relations, her view of Trump and the US alliance, the perennial underarm bowling and rugby questions, as well as colour about her background and her relationship. The #MeToo movement and what she thinks of that as a female politician was also all fair game. Hayes didn’t ask the Turnbulls when their children were conceived, so why Ardern?

So Wooley is having a lend if he thinks there’s anything Orwellian in people criticising him for a segment that missed the mark. It was precisely the sort of journalism Orwell disliked, with this quote often attributed to him: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

Ardern will be in Australia on Thursday for her second visit as PM, where she’s probably hoping her reception will be just as warm as Wooley’s.

Peter Fray

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