Over the past couple of weeks we’ve looked at the good, the bad, and the Abbott of Australian political interviews, and spoken to some of the best journalists and most prominent politicians in the country. So what have we learned? Consider this our conclusion; a primer on the dos and do not dos for rookie journos and politicians looking to get the most out of an interview.
Engage with the question
“There’s a fine line between holding the line, and not getting distracted or gotcha’d, but also not looking like you’ll do anything but answer the question; that just makes you look shifty and contributes to the generally low opinion people have of politicians.”
— Former Howard minister Nick Minchin.
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“The kind of preparation you do really does depend on who the interview is with; [whether it’s] tabloids which, (laughs) well, you’ve always got to be careful, or whether it’s serious journalism.”
— Former deputy prime minister Wayne Swan.
“You just have to know the characteristics of each place [you are being interviewed], what their approach is, what their side is. You just have to take it in your stride.”
— Member for Cowan Dr Anne Aly.
Know your subject
“[The toughest interview subject I faced was] Lee Kuan Yew, first prime minister of Singapore, because you knew you were in the presence of this giant intellect who knew 10 times as much as you. Interviewing him was like walking through a minefield, one wrong step and you’d be blown sky high.”
— Veteran broadcaster Mike Carlton.
Be a little unpredictable
“Bob Hawke was also tough, because you never quite knew what kind of mood he was in. Particularly in the days when he was drinking, he was a hand grenade, and if you handled him wrong he would cut you to shreds.”
— Mike Carlton.
Just keep going
“[Treasurer] Scott Morrison in particular can be hard to interview because he has this rapid fire delivery, constant and confident, and he makes it hard to break in.”
— Insiders host Barrie Cassidy.
If need be, draw up the bridge
“I spoke to Julia Gillard when she was prime minister; it was one of those end-of-year events when they give a half-hour to every outlet to talk about her political year. It was very staid, and stagey and I found it very difficult to get anything real out of her. She really had a mask up, not that I blame her given how much shit she got from the media.”
— Senior Fairfax political journalist Jacqueline Maley.
“Research is what you’ve gotta do — the more you know about a subject, the better you’re gonna be. And if you do your research properly, you should know probably 90% of the answers you’re going to get, which means you’re prepared for the follow-up questions or to land the killer blow if need be.”
— Mike Carlton.
“Our feedback suggests viewers hate it when the interviewer gives up too soon. They want the interviewer to persist, not necessarily because they expect that persistence will lead to an answer, but at least it will underline the evasiveness. Personally I think the interviewer should persist until it’s clear that the politician will not directly answer the question no matter how often it’s asked. Then move on.”
— Barry Cassidy.
Disrupt the politician’s script
“You can be talking to someone for 20 minutes, and then you check your notes and realise they haven’t told you a fucking thing. So, when, say Michaelia Cash is in town enthusiastically spruiking the space program, you just throw her a question about jobs figures in the hope you can catch her off-guard. Or when there’s something big happening, like a leadership challenge, just ask a source ‘How do you feel, man?'”
— Adelaide Advertiser political editor Tory Shepherd.
Speak to a lot of people
“Working in print, so much of interviewing is talking to politicians off the record, and then negotiating what can be put back on the record. It’s a tricky dynamic between politicians and reporters. In some ways they’re an adversary, but they’re also your primary source. In a way, if you want a good piece on a politician, it’s better not to talk to them. Other people will give you much better stuff.”
— Jacqueline Maley.
Have a team that backs you up
“You need management figures who know the role of the media in a democracy. A few years ago, when Paul Keating was PM he called Ten to complain to the news director about the fact there was a camera crew on the footpath outside his house. ‘When is that fucking camera crew going away?’ Keating apparently asked. The response: ‘That fucking crew’s going nowhere, Paul. You don’t own the footpath’.”
— Veteran broadcaster and writer Paul Bongiorno.