Anatomy of Sales -v- Gillard interview

By Peter Clarke
March 26, 2013

A little context …

Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.
The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde

What would Wilde have had to say about losing a conga-line of ministers, parliamentary secretaries and assorted whips?

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Another day, another interview. Or two, or three.

For an anchor of a nightly national current affairs program such as Leigh Sales @ABC730, this is her bedrock job: conducting set-piece accountability interviews and performing to the highest broadcast journalistic standards she and the team around her can aspire to and produce.

Last Monday night (25 March) was typical and unusual both. Her interviewee was the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. That’s standard. Sales has interviewed Gillard many times both as PM and earlier. And, at times, very effectively both in terms of the information that she elicited and the tone and dynamic of the interview itself.

Monday night’s interview did not fall into that category. It was clearly an unusual context with Gillard, after yet another Ruddesque encounter with losing her Prime Ministership, out in media land selling her message of ‘done and dusted’ and essentially telling Australian electors, ‘Nothing to see here’.

The repeated lines tended to work better on shows such as The Project.

The Project

The Project

Of course, there was much to be seen here and imagined and speculated about and grimaced over and long sighs expended upon, heads shaking all the while. We knew that. Leigh Sales had that as an inescapable reality as she sat at her desk, writing her leads and plotting her approach to what turned out to be a short interview considering the steaming pile of political slag the PM was standing in front of vainly attempting some verbal legerdemain and misdirection to divert our collective bemused and weary gaze.

Eleven minutes was a significantly short time to allocate to this interview considering the context. A brave producer would have devoted the whole program to it. A savvy one at least double the eleven minutes allocated – with a shorter, lighter piece as a program ender. Why? Because Sales started with a real disadvantage with both she and Gillard knowing how little time was available. Of course, I have no real way of knowing if that time constraint came from Gillard’s people or was a production decision @ABC730. Whatever the reason, it clearly worked as a structural given in Gillard’s favour. Compression became an essential technique for Sales trying to marshall facts, contexts, sharp forensic questions in the face of a steely, deeply determined, ‘don’t look here, look over there’ Prime Minister garnished with ersatz sociability.

Compression, one of the suite of skills and techniques in any experienced interviewer’s toolkit ,is nearly always necessary in some form no matter how much time is allotted for the interview. But here the degree of compression necessary hampered Sales’ ability to be as sharp and forensic as she needed to be to fulfill her role in one of the most challenging of accountability interviews.

This interview with Gillard was also pre-recorded. Does that matter? Yes and no. In my opinion live is always best. It brings an edge to a major set-piece interview. The interviewer needs to perform as if on a stage with an audience watching and so does the interviewee. Adrenaline is a’sluicing through. It tilts the advantage slightly in the interviewer’s favour. Having to throw to an interview with the words ‘A short time ago I was joined from Canberra by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’ inevitably shifts that degree of excitement and focus for the audience. In the flow of the program the ‘nowness’ is fractured ever so slightly. It does have an effect.

Note also the passive nature of the words used in Sales’ throw: ‘I was joined …’. Why not ‘I spoke to Julia Gillard …’, or ‘Julia Gillard joined me …’. An active voice with a named agent of an action signals to the audience this is an active event.

Most of these political interviews are conducted in abstract generalisations littered with passives with no clear agents of action and consequently shorn of potential responsibility for those actions. Why start with the throw?

In this era of kaleidoscopically fragmented time and space, actual ‘in the present’ media events hold a special power that connects us all to a more traditional, even primitive ‘around the campfire’ time and psychology that earlier mass media (as much radio still does) had as a key characteristic.

During the recording of the interview, lurking in a mental crevice in a number of minds, Sales’, Gillard’s, the producers’ and the media minders’, is the knowledge that editing is always an option. I know from years of experience doing both kinds of interviews, live and pre-recorded, a different mindset is in play during a pre-record. The live performance aspect is diminished, the commodity aspect increases. It is ‘in the can’.

Sales also had to interview Gillard remotely: the PM was in her Parliament House office, in her territory; Sales was in a Sydney studio. We see that arrangement and the accompanying media effect (interviewee on a screen etc.) countless times, but it does affect our perception and reading of the interview and needs a different set of skills from both Sales and, in this case, Gillard.

One key factor is the removal of direct eye contact and close-quarters body language in the same space. The vibe. Used and modulated skillfully, being together in the same space can be a huge advantage to an interviewer in an accountability interview where the interviewee is sure to resist the thrust of interrogation and investigation as Gillard had every reason and incentive to do in this one.

Interviewees who prefer the tactic, offence is the best defence’ can also arc up, radiate aggression and dominance while raising the stakes and pushing the boundaries of politeness and sociability. Often that aggression is softened or masked by the medium, even television, but can be keenly felt in the interview space itself.

These are simple, factual observations about the underlying skills and contexts for this kind of set-piece broadcast interview. They are not offered as excuses or justifications for Sales or Gillard. These were the cards dealt on this occasion.

They effect the dynamics and outcomes of an interview: duration, significant compression, pre-recording, geographically remote interviewee.


I now want to now work through Monday night’s interview in detail while occasionally gently suggesting how it might have gone with some different techniques and approaches. I am using the ABC transcript available online @ABC730;

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: A short time ago I was joined from Canberra by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister, thank you for joining us


LEIGH SALES: After recent events, aren’t Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?

An unfortunate first question that perhaps the interview never quite recovered from. Recent events? Very generalised and abstract with no pointedness whatsoever. This is where Sales needed to be very specific and set the facts out in deft, sharp, concrete descriptions building on Chris Uhlmann’s set-up piece aired just before the interview. This was a contest interview where Sales needed to lay out unequivocally and strongly what she was challenging Gillard with. The sentence was awkward and convoluted. Sales shifted responsibility to a group, Australians, she could only, WITH DIFFICULTY, speak for in this generalised way. She should have taken agency for her statements herself.

‘Dysfunctional mess’ was an abstract value judgment that inevitably Gillard would not have accepted especially at the beginning of the interview. It didn’t work as an opening question and had almost no chance of working or being forensically effective.

Imagine if Sales had used one of the fundamental journalistic interrogatives – WHAT – and perhaps asked Julia Gillard after her concrete descriptions, “What specifically will you now do as Labor Leader and Prime Minister to … etc.

Gillard came well prepared with a ready-made narrative including some key words provided by the hollow men. She waltzed easily through the Sales generalisations and abstractions, briefly taking a leaf from the Peter Beattie playbook – she too was ‘appalled’ just like we were, all delivered in that slightly too glib and pre-digested style.

She also baited Sales with the word ‘achieved’. Sales swallowed the bait in her next question. Gillard had no real question to answer initially and started messaging with aplomb.

JULIA GILLARD: I can understand people being appalled when they watch the events of last week. As I said today, I was appalled too. But ultimately I believe, Leigh, people should judge the Government on what is achieved for our nation and for them in the lives of their families and the plans that we’ve got for the future. So even during last week when there was an unseemly display, even during that week, we passed into law disability care, the new system to make sure people with disabilities get a decent chance at life. We made sure that 3.5 million pensioners got more money. We made sure that there was more money in childcare for childcare workers and the week before that we saw record job creation numbers, the biggest monthly result in job creation in 13 years. So we have had a governing sense of purpose. What we’ve lacked is a sense of unity and now that is resolved.

LEIGH SALES: I’ll come to some of the achievements or the lack of achievements in a moment. But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor’s plans for future when you’ve had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?

Sales does not really get back on track in her follow-up question. The pretty useless word ‘dysfunction’ appeared again. She had a number of choices: to challenge ‘resolved’ and Gillard’s assertion of sudden, instant ‘unity’. Surely the key notion implied and offered by Gillard here was ‘trust’? That could have opened up a real line of enquiry and testing of assertions. However, Sales provided Gillard with that other key word that the PM had planted in her earlier answer. Gillard in a classic and much repeated media training tactic, seized upon ‘achievements’ from Sales and immediately bridged into a long sequence of pure political spin and propaganda even echoing Sales’ earlier use of ‘within their rights’ with the word ‘entitled’ and hinging smoothly off the word “achieved”.

JULIA GILLARD: People are entitled to look at what we’ve achieved, what we’ve said we would do and what we have done. We said we’d create jobs and keep strengthening our economy and we’ve done that. More than 900,000 jobs created, even during the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. We said we’d make a difference for school-kids, for skills, for apprenticeships for university places and we are improving schools, we’re seeing record numbers of apprenticeships and traineeships, more university places and more kids from poorer homes getting the chance to be the first in their family to ever go to university. We said we’d help families with cost-of-living pressures, paid parental leave, more money in childcare, less money paid in taxation. And we said we would set our nation up for the future for this Asian century of growth and change, and we’re doing that through things like rolling out the National Broadband Network. Now people can look at that: what we’ve seen we would do and what we have done. We’ve also done some big, hard controversial things, like putting a price on carbon, but they’ve been the right thing to do for the nation. We’ve got more to do, Leigh.

Gillard used the personal ‘Leigh’ in an attempt to disarm the interviewer, knowing Sales could not respond with ‘Julia’. This was playing with the rules of sociability. Gillard is very good at these tactics.

Sales now had a few choices. Probably parsing or challenging any of the claims from the Prime Minister would drag her further into the process of overt political messaging Gillard was determined to stick like glue to, wilfully ignoring the elephant in the room.

Sales responded to the tactic used by the PM with her laundry list and moved to counter or contrast the positive claims with a list of negative events and processes. This was promising. And she did attempt to bring Gillard back to the issue of trust. However she replaced the word ‘trust’ with ‘faith’, muddying the potency of the idea.

Would it have been more effective to conjure up ‘an average elector watching you right now, Prime Minister’, a more concrete device and ask, perhaps, ‘What will you do now to regain the trust of that confused and, appalled elector? A stream of spin from you here simply won’t do that. WHAT will you do specifically to start to regain that battered trust?’

LEIGH SALES: Well, Prime Minister, you’ve given me a laundry list there, so let me give you one back. When people look at what you’ve done, they also see a promise not to introduce a carbon tax broken, they see a promise to deliver a budget surplus this year broken, an East Timor solution for asylum seekers proposed then withdrawn, a Malaysia solution proposed and then abandoned, even as today we see a ship sink and people killed in another incident, a ban on live cattle imports imposed and then withdrawn, the disastrous appointment of Peter Slipper, the redesign of a mining tax so it now returns a fraction of what was banked on. I return to my earlier question: how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you’re planning to do going forwards?

Despite the continued generalisations from Sales, her slightly increased intensity and directness had some effect on Gillard, who started a tactic of running the clock out. Her replies were under slightly more pressure and bear little real scrutiny but it seemed to have become a battle of the lists.

It was a moment in the interview that Sales needed to grasp firmly with something short, sharp and assertive, e.g. ‘Prime Minister, I am challenging you on your perceived untrustworthiness in the electorate. That is simply an inescapable aspect of your Prime Ministership. What do you plan to do about that entrenched problem for you as a leader especially after the latest leadership challenge and multiple ministerial resignations’?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, I’m happy to go through those one by one if you would like. We said we would introduce a price on carbon. I always wanted to see an emissions trading scheme. And by the time people vote in September, we will be less than two years from that emissions trading scheme and the end of the carbon tax. On things like …

An interruption. Justified? Of course. How long could Gillard’s tactic be allowed to go on? It was an interview within an extraordinary context. Gillard was pretending there was really nothing to discuss here. Sales unfortunately again used imprecise language. Now, she became specific but homed in on the ‘broken promise’ around the Carbon Tax. I suggest this was a misstep. Also the use of ‘my problem’. At this point in the interview the contest was well and truly joined. Gillard assumed (with some justification so far) that she could get away with the use of anodyne spin. I believe ‘trust’ remained a key word here.

LEIGH SALES: But Prime Minister, you’re not addressing my central problem there, which was that there was a broken promise …

Gillard used a very sneaky move now. She skimmmed past the broken promise and simply invalidated Sales’ list. No specifics. Just ‘didn’t agree’. Again, the personal ‘Leigh’.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, I’m not agreeing with your list, Leigh.

The interviewer gamely attempted to re-assert her line of challenge trying to stick to a specific issue, but an old one, the ‘broken promise’. Gillard was having none of it.

Then Sales went to a more powerful and recent example that had much more to work with, the failed/withdrawn media reform legislation. She started to put something to the PM but was cut off by Gillard who then proceeded to spin again around a couple of the issues in the laundry list. We were back to raw political messaging and no answers to specific questions.

Gillard was well in charge of the interview at this point.

LEIGH SALES: No, no, there was a broken promise there and there is a long list of initiatives that the Government has introduced that have been failures or have not come to fruition. The most recent of course last week, the media reforms. Let me put it to you …

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, if you’re going to go through a list, I think you’ve gotta give me the opportunity to answer it and certainly on carbon I’ve addressed that before. I meant every word of that during the 2010 campaign. I didn’t foresee a minority parliament. We’ll get to that emissions trading scheme we spoke of. On the Malaysia arrangement, I would implement that tomorrow if Tony Abbott got out of the way. On the live cattle ban, I think it was the appropriate thing to do and it has secured the future for the live cattle industry because they were not going to get the social licence they needed unless we addressed animal welfare standards.

Sales was sucked in on a single issue within the Gillard spin sequence and opined weakly: ‘very messy’. This was a real low point for us as viewers. Nothing of any quality or insight had emerged from this accountability interview. Gillard was in full refusal/denial mode. Sales was skidding around trying to find a new hold on the PM.

LEIGH SALES: It was very messy in the way that it was done though.

Maybe a good moment for us to try to imagine how we would handle this situation? What would you ask next? How would you salvage such a major interview going badly?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, I think that industry has got a more secure long-term future now than it would have had we not acted. Now, on the rest of the list, you can keep going through it, but when we’ve worked through some very difficult things like carbon pricing, our eyes have always been on what is best for the nation, what’s in the national interest, what’s in the interest of a strong, prosperous, fair, smart future and I am very happy to be judged on that.

Sales now re-asserted with a critique of substance and an issue the viewers could understand clearly. It is worth remembering that part of this accountability process is to have some faith in the intelligence and ability to detect spin and avoidance on the part of the viewers. My view is, and Sales would maybe disagree, that we had reached a point where she is entitled to underscore in plain polite words the fact and degree of Gillard’s avoidance in the interview so far. In other words, call it.

But Sales now started actively describing the criticism from former senior ministerial colleagues about government processes.

LEIGH SALES: Some of your own colleagues when they decided to step down from cabinet, Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, have raised concerns about the process of government and in particular the media reforms last week saying that it was mishandled and that it was a debacle. Doesn’t that go to the very heart of the way you run government when senior ministers in your own team have stepped down and made that criticism?

JULIA GILLARD: I think it’s very important that cabinet plays the central role in government. As I said today, being a cabinet member comes with rights and it comes with responsibilities and I will certainly be looking to the cabinet team that now exists to exercise both those rights and those responsibilities. On media law reform, we got through two important pieces of legislation during the week, including of course broadening the ambit of what the ABC does and that’s a good thing. Leigh, it was always going to be a controversial debate. There are some loud, loud voices and some big vested interests in media policy debate and I really think, you know, at the end of the day those voices were going to come to the table loud and strong, irrespective of any of these process questions.

Gillard was at least forced by Sales to focus on government process and the media reform legislation failure, albeit in skimpy, anodyne terms. Her broad generalisations about rights and responsibilities were a kind of code. Should Sales have pursued that code? Cracked it open. Turn abstraction into something more specific and concrete?

Sales having pushed back sufficiently to gain some space in the interview, then tried to engage in a mini debate with the PM to, presumably, shift the mode of the interview from a Prime Ministerial monologue full of avoidance tactics to something more authentic and logical. And more energetic from the questioning side of the interview.

LEIGH SALES: But those factors you’ve outlined there were a given, that there was always going to be opposition to the content, but let’s actually go through the process and how you and your team handled that. How is it good government that your minister, presumably with your approval, produced legislation with a minimal consultation of cabinet and the caucus and then demanded it be passed in just a week’s time without amendments and without negotiation?

Gillard attemped a put down and a misdirection.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, I think you’ve forgotten that this ran out of two longstanding reviews conducted by the Government in the full glare …

But Sales pushed back.

LEIGH SALES: I haven’t forgotten that. I’m just asking why you put legislation up with one week’s notice and said, No negotiation, no amendments’.

This was a high point for Sales in this interview. Short, sharp specific. Perhaps the inherent weakness of the ‘why’ interrogative could have been replaced by ‘What specifically made you decide to present the legislation in that way?

Of course, there was also the fact that the disconnect between the Convergence review, the Finklestein recommendations and the ultimate legislation was quite marked. That was another possible line of debate.

Time was short and getting shorter!

What Sales was up against is a PM determined to obfuscate actively, to be disingenuous about the true contexts and facts, melding together slippery assertions in a way that made it very hard to penetrate and clarify those questionable assertions. She also misquotes Sales to her face.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, let’s go through it. We authored the Convergence Review, we started that in late 2010, very public process, everybody got to make their submissions. Then the report was made public. Everybody got to speak about that. We did the same with the review led by Ray Finkelstein. Everybody got to make their submissions. The report was public. Everybody got to make a commentary on that. The nature of the reforms ultimately brought to the Parliament had been the subject of public discussion on more than one occasion. I’d read them in the newspaper – newspapers several times myself. So it’s simply not correct to say that this content was somehow unknown or undiscussed or unconsulted upon until …

LEIGH SALES: Well the content of the reports of the reviews weren’t unknown, but the content of the legislation was unknown until Stephen Conroy produced it.

JULIA GILLARD: Leigh, I had read in the newspapers on more than one occasion the kind of reforms that the Government had in mind in this area.

LEIGH SALES: So can I ask … ?

I suggest the ‘can I ask’ form is not ideal. Just ask the question, assertively, forensically and directly. That kind of language left a useful gap for Gillard and she used it.

JULIA GILLARD: So there was a long process leading up to it. Leigh, …

Was ‘you’d have to agree’ the best way to ask this next question? She was on strong ground with her specific description with facts. Maybe more direct sting in the question itself and using more overt logic? Gillard was skating all over the park still and Leigh really needed to tie her down to some more unavoidable givens here. No apology necessary in my view.

LEIGH SALES: If we judge – sorry, Prime Minister, to interrupt. If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you’d have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.

JULIA GILLARD: We have a minority parliament, Leigh. You come to this minority parliament. We’ve got an amazing track record in these circumstances of a minority parliament of getting things through, but we haven’t been able to get everything through and I wasn’t prepared to cross-trade and do any deal to get these bills through.

Sales went the soft route here with the ‘you were quite happy’ question form. Surely something more pointed was needed such as, ‘You failed to have passed a key piece of legislation that, as you point out, had been comprehensively researched and discussed. What specifically went wrong?’

LEIGH SALES: So you were quite happy with how that process was handled last week from woe to go, the media reforms?

Gillard resorted to soft soaping. Starting with a complete piece of nonsense.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, the last fortnight has been the last fortnight, but the point I’m putting to you, Leigh, is that there was a long period of review and reflection that led up to the last fortnight. What I’ve said very clearly today is after the week that was with the internal issues of the Labor Party, with what I believe was some self-indulgence by my much-loved political party on display, certainly what we’ve got to do is make sure that every day we’re getting up and saying to ourselves, “How can we do better today for the Australian people than we did the day before?” And our focus has to be relentless on what it is we need to do to strengthen our nation for the future and what we need to do to support families today.

Sales now asked one of the strongest questions in the interview so far. It induced the ‘done and dusted’ mantra.

Gillard tried to shut down the leadership questions.

LEIGH SALES: You said today that last week’s events make it clear now that you have the confidence of your colleagues. Isn’t the reality though that many of your colleagues are in despair about your leadership and about the ALP’s prospects in the election, but that they just don’t see a viable alternative?

JULIA GILLARD: Well, Leigh, it’s done, it’s dusted, anybody who had the – anybody who wanted to had the opportunity to nominate for consideration in Labor caucus last Thursday. No-one did. This comes on top of the emphatic endorsement of my colleagues in February last year. It comes on top of the fact I was ultimately uncontested for the leadership in 2010 and then following the 2010 election. Leigh, it’s over. I don’t think that any of this is worth speaking about anymore.

LEIGH SALES: But you can understand, can’t you, how Australians would be looking at your side of politics and feeling very nervous about taking a gamble on you again given that a number of senior members of your own cabinet have stepped down in recent days, criticised the process by which you govern and basically indicated they don’t have any confidence or faith in your leadership?

Another strong assertion from Sales and it did slightly force Gillard to resort to the decided upon script with some more Peter Beattie style mea culpas. Even channeling Chris Bowen’s ‘honourable’ language with huge cynicism.

However, would it have been more effective to be more direct – ‘Do you understand that many Australians would be looking …?’

JULIA GILLARD: Well, we had the week that was and I’ve described it as appalling, I’ve described the week that was as self-indulgent. Colleagues who found themselves in a position where they thought they couldn’t, you know, in all good conscience offer their ongoing service, did the honourable thing and went to the backbench. I think that is appropriate. What is then appropriate for me as Prime Minister is to renew the team with quality and talent and that’s what I’ve done today.

Sales attempted to keep up the pressure but failed to actually ask a question when one was sorely needed to progress the interview and further highlight Gillard’s spin and obfuscation. She mades an opinionated statement instead.

LEIGH SALES: But Prime Minister, I don’t think that Australians can quite so neatly as you have done draw a line under everything they’ve seen for past few years and then just ignore it and do what you want them to do which is to concentrate on what you’re promising going forwards.

The result? A mini campaign speech from the Prime Minister.

JULIA GILLARD: Well, when you vote in an election and we’ll get there in September, you’re making a decision about the next three years and who’s got the best personal capacity and the best plans for that future. Who’s got the ability to lead the nation? Who has the right policies and plans to make sure in a difficult world where our future is not assured that our nation comes up with a stronger economy, more jobs, more opportunity and that those things are fairly shared? Australians will make their judgment in September and I will certainly be there saying we are the only political party with those positive plans for the future and I am the only leader with the capacity to guide our nation through in what can be a very rough and tumble world.

At the end of this interview, Sales herself may have felt, as she closed it, that it had not gone well. She is all deference and full of politesse, even pitching for her next interview with Gillard.

LEIGH SALES: Prime Minister, thank you very much for making time to come on the program tonight. Hopefully we’ll see you again as the election draws closer.

JULIA GILLARD: Thanks, Leigh.

LEIGH SALES: 7.30 has also invited the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to join us on the program any night this week. His office tells us they’re considering the request.

What is the most reasonable, meaningful measure of a major accountability interview such as this one between one of Australia’s leading political interviewers and the Prime Minister? Surely, how much quality, relevant information and insight emerged from the interrogatory process? As a secondary outcome, an interviewer can reveal and highlight the sheer lack of authenticity in a leader; the overt avoidance techniques; the effects of media training and clever tactics to stay on the pre-determined message.

Should interviewers such as Sales be given permission to be more descriptive of those tactics during an interview. Actually describe them and use ‘Brechtian’ techniques to break open the conventions? I believe so. If politicians and others facing accountability persist in deep avoidance, obfuscation and disingenuousness, how else can those with the role to discover, challenge, call to account on our behalf, actually achieve results for our democracy?

Well, these are my thoughts and brief analyses around this particular interview. As I watched, I was amazed by the range of perceptions and reactions on the #abc730 hashtag on Twitter. One regular theme was how ‘rude’ Leigh Sales was, how overly interruptive she was. Remember back to her Walkley Award winning feisty interview with Tony Abbott last year? She started that interview by accusing Abbott of being ‘loose with the truth’. The interview finished up at ACMA with accusations of bias and many simultaneously avowed on Twitter and elsewhere that Leigh plainly didn’t like Tony Abbott.

ACMA cleared Sales of the formal complaints of bias.

I do not understand this widespread and common response to the style and perceived lack of politeness of such interviewers facing the solid challenges of an accountability interview. I found myself wanting to tweet ‘get real’ to quite a few twitterati on Monday night.

I felt that Sales was far too deferential to Gillard. She seemed slightly more daunted than I have seen her with Gillard in previous encounters. Is this constant drumbeat of accusations of bias, rudeness, lack of impartiality slowly having the desired effect to shut down some of the most effective of our interviewers in the face of highly trained and very rehearsed, determined political performers?

Surely, the scales are already tilted the other way and our interviewers need more room, more effective techniques and maybe just a tad more ability to be ‘rude’ than overly polite. I am not suggesting aggression but much more plain, unvarnished and penetrating talk. How else can these journalists do their job properly for us citizens in a troubled democracy?

If some of those genteel souls offended by Sales last Monday night want to see some real pushiness in an accountability interview, I suggest they take a look at Eddie Mair robustly (read very toughly) interviewing the buffoonish Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London and putative pretender to the Tory parliamentary leadership, on BBC Television a few days ago. Now there’s some real oh, so very British, BBC gall and rudeness to upset those of tender disposition. Or is it just sheer, partisan, willful blinkerism?

Peter Clarke is the author of The interview: a hollow dance looking for new moves? in Australian Journalism Today, edited by Matthew Ricketson, Palgrave Macmillan

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  1. Leigh kept on saying Australian People would be appalled at how Labour is performing and Gillard comesback with achievements. Gillard gives the one word that I think simpifies the choice, ONLY party Australians can choose. I agree. LNP and TA are hopeless, and PMJG and ALP successes and some failures still look the goods. ONLY IS THE WORD.

  2. In respect of Peter Clarkesmentioning twitters upset that Sales was rude, and I did not think so, and agree with Peter. What I would like answered is why Jon Faine could not do the same as Sales and be agressive in not putting up with LNP guests who were obfuscating.
    ABCand Mark Scott need to be aware of discriminating in favour wth Sales and not with Jon Faine.

  3. Woodypear says

    Your forensic analysis of this interview avoids the main (I believe) reason that people would have objected to Sale’s interview. She appears uncomfortable and talks too fast and talks over people. It’s as if she’s trying to fit 30 minutes worth of questions into 11 minutes. Notice the relaxed manner of the British interviewer.

  4. If ever I have seen a case of too much analysis, this is it. The interview is too short, perhaps, but the Prime Minister had been all over the place explaining how appalled she was by the events of last week. Leigh Sales asked the right questions. It was a tough interview, and you could see she put the PM under pressure. It is a common practice to be nice to the interviewee at the end of such an encounter in the hope he or she will come back. I think it was a good interview. Peter Clarke lost me when he suggested Leigh Sales “just ask the question, assertively, forensically and directly.” How about she ask the question while standing on her head, drinking a glass of water! Leigh Sales is a Walkley Award-winning broadcast interviewer. She is neither a QC, nor a superwoman (though she does come close in the latter category).

    • Peter Clarke says

      Gonzomeetsthepress, I must say, I could not detect PM Gillard being under any real pressure at all in terms of logic, content or actually being required to address anything of substance. HOW the questions are asked, the form, tone, “attack” (not meant literally but in terms of vigour and force etc.) is vital to any interview. I am not interested in “standing on her head” but I AM interested in the effectiveness and outcomesof questions and enquiry including shaping and finessing questions to progress an (accountability) interview. Leigh Sales at her best is terrific. This was not such an occasion. I believe in constant “reflective practice” in journalism and most other worthwhile things. Hence the analysis. QC? There is a spectrum of asking questions across the law/police, counselling, journalism etc. etc. All can borrow from each other and I believe there are elements of legal interrogation that can be adapted to tough political interviewing. The role and function of the “public question” in our kind of society/democracy are constantly evolving. We are all part of that development through our responses, expectations and, yes, even analyses.

  5. I don’t care how rude she was, what I don’t like is her assumption that the PM lied, which she based her atack on, and wasn’t interested in the PM’s explanation that what we have, a Price on Carbon, is what was promised when she said ‘No Carbon Tax’. If Sales is going to use that as an attack on the PM, she should at least be prepared to debate that attack, not just ignore the PM’s response and keep using it as an attack. If it moved the interview away from where Sales wanted it to go, that is Sales fault, not the PM’s. I also like the way she sheeted all the blame for Slippers demise at the PM, apparently unaware of the judges findings against the players that actually caused the mayhem.

    The interview was a lost opportunity to elicit some real information because Sales was too per-occupied with spouting liberal talking points, and trying to make them stick to the PM. And it was very obvious in the way she dismissed or talked over Gillard attempts to argue her case against those allegations. That is the true bias exposed.

  6. Peter Clarke says

    Woodypear, I think I did focus on the allocated duration of the interview and the effect that had on Sales’ performance. Speed of speech? Altering pace (as in tennis) is one of the techniques available to an interviewer. I do agree Sales seemed overall under time pressure. “Talking over and interrupting” simply become essential and part of the “contest”. I don’t accept THAT technique is unacceptable. Just the opposite. Sales is, in effect, there for US. I advocate more robust encounters not less. I wonder how people who object on these bases actually suggest a major accountability interview SHOULD be conducted? With cucumber sandwiches and Darjeeling tea provided?

    • Perhaps cucumber sandwiches and Darjeeling tea might be a better way to get the PM off guard, because talking fast AT her certainly wasn’t working.

      • Peter Clarke says

        You see, I just don’t agree this is all about a sneakiness to get Gillard or anyone “off guard”. Mind you , I have seen many a “slow ball” in an interview get past even a well practised interviewee. But “tricking” interviwees is simply not what I am advocating.

  7. The first thing is that the media laws ” fiasco ” was, imho, designed by Ms Gillard and Mr Conroy to force the backgrounders and white anters out into the open. All of their pet journos were kept in a controlled loop of Gillard and Conroys making. Crean exploding would have been the big bonus. The result? Trustworthy people around the PM and in Cabinet.

    The reason Sales got flustered is simple. The Prime Minister pushed back. Why shouldn’t a politician challenge ridiculous, poorly researched assertions? Why should a politician have to endure rudeness and outright hostility? and why should a media, which, at best, is pretty piss poor, believe they are enabled to do so? Politicians should push back more. If honest answers are required. Honest, well researched questions should be asked. Not this farce we see about incessantly seeking the apparently, Walkley award winning, gotcha. Good on Julia Gillard for controlling this interview. One thing is certain. Politicians, by pushing back and forcing journalists to defend the premise of their questions, are not going to get an easier ride anyway. Especially when faced with the spin demanded by multi national media conglomerates.

    The days of journalism being an honourable profession are long gone. The U.K. should have taught us that.

  8. I agree entirely with the comment that Leigh Sales failed to ask appropriate questions. Sales wanted to explore whether voters could trust the PM. This required Sales to apply the approach Mair adopted in his interview with Boris. That is, put a specific allegation and require a response to the specific allegation. Instead Sales went through a list of talking points as it were trying to bully the PM into accepting the conclusion from those talking points that the PM was untrustworthy.

    I disagree completely that the PM’s response was spin. Gillard started with the first item on the list – the promise not to introduce a carbon tax – and explained the full circumstances in which that specific promise was broken. This enables the voter to understand that, in this instance, if in the future Gillard is voted in as PM of a minority government then any promises made pre-election may be the subject of negotiation.

    The PM was prevented from responding to the remaining items on the list because, it would seem, Sales was not interested in hearing the PM’s answer. She was just interested in “the gotcha”.

    As for the suggestion that the PM somehow unfairly nobbled Sales by calling her Leigh, well hello, this is Australia. All our politicians routinely call journalists by their first name. Regrettably, altogether too many of our journalists fall into the similar casual habits. The underlying assumption between the journalist and the audience is that the journalist wishes to interview the subject because the subject will have matters of interest to say for the audience. When the person interviewed is interviewed in a “capacity” (i.e. PM, Archbishop etc) it is appropriate to refer to the interviewee respectfully recognising at all times that the interview is not with Bob or Johnny or Julia but PM or Mrs X etc.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Regarding the “Leigh” comment, I was not objecting to its use, simply observing this social factor in many interviews. Gillard is especially clever in deploying various aspects of “the social” in interviews including even touching the interviewer. Please read carefully again. We agree somewhat on a few points but totally disagree on Gillard’s use of spin and propaganda. I am left wondering what potential partisan views you bring to this discussion? I observe that so many on Twitter and in comments sections simply want their own views and political preferences played out in the news media despite the ultimate absurdity of that position. In my analysis I tried to use more “objective” criteria” including the observable effectiveness of the PROCESS of enquiry. My conclusion (and please offer a supportable counter view if you can) was that nothing useful came out of that interview. Another “hollow dance”?

      • Stephen R says

        Unlike you, Peter, I explained why Gillard’s responses to questions were not “spin”. All you do is query my political perspective, which is hardly conducive to healthy debate, is it?

        Your conclusion that nothing useful came out of the interview is one I largely agree with. Which is why I am also critical of Leigh Sales questions. But to describe as “spin” Gillard’s explanation for the adoption of a carbon permit (tax) legislation completely misses the point. Gillard was required to give that explanation because she did not accept that this change from her pre-election commitments involved a breach of trust. Nor should she have. It was honouring the trust of those who voted for Labor as a mandate for a price on carbon.

  9. Peter Clarke says

    No I cannot agree, with much of that, Ian. It is hard to perceive YOUR underlying assumptions about how this all works and your values about an open democracy. This apparent obsession with “rudeness” is counter productive in my opinion. We should be expecting and valuing substance and at least a degree of authenticity all round. I do partly agree that these journos need deeper and better research and to devise much better and more effective interview techniques and be very sure in their own minds what the inherent assumptions at the heart of each and every question are. I do see, as many online refer to, a tendency to pick up on “talking points” from the other side of politics whether Coalition or Labor. This is very disappointing and does the journalistic profession no credit. Surely, a journalist who is well researched, confident, courageous and deeply curious can eventually break through the force field of political opportunism and all pervasive media training with its many avoidance and messaging tricks? A Gillard needs no defending from a Sales. Please examine carefully the transcript for the many unsupportable and non-transparent things Gillard proffered us electors/citizens during this largely ineffectual interview. I do wonder how you perceive “hostility and rudeness”? I saw largely the opposite. A free, courageous and active journalistic media is essential. Our system of democracy not only “enables” journalists but requires the very best from them. And real effectiveness and quality informational outcomes. Finally, the “media” and the journalistic profession is NOT monolithic but pluralist. Look for and celebrate the good stuff and wave off the bad stuff?

    • You state that it is essential that our system of democracy requires a ” free, courageous and active journalistic media “. While I agree with the sentiment. the reality from my point of view is far different.

      Do you seriously, for one minute, believe that journalists pursue truth instead of the headline grabbing, byline ego trip gotcha? That any one of the current Canberra Press Gallery would disobey editorial edicts? That they would put the truth before the payslip? Not in this world mate…Sorry.

      You state that Gillard made many ” unsupportable and non transparent ” statements. What about the questions?

      Slipper..the disastrous appointment? Why bring that up and not allude to the dirty work behind it. Is Sales saying or implying that Justice Rares got it wrong?

      Budget surplus?….when good fiscal practise advises not to? Is Sales an economist to?

      The Malaysian Plan..knocked on the head by Abbott and the Greens. Why state two people have died? If the Malaysian plan had been given a chance to work those souls may never have been on a boat. Why did she not qualify that? Why don’t any journalists qualify that?

      The live cattle debate….does Sales or any journalist really think that if the Govt. had allowed the practises in Indonesia to continue that would not have been an huge backlash against the industry? Have they thought to contact a northern cow cocky and just ask if they look any closer at what value from the surchage per beast they pay to Meat and Livestock Australia?

      What I’m saying is if journalists are going to throw out any damaging thread they can, without research or fair qualification, the Prime Minister has every right to ignore them and put forward her own agenda.

      Say what you will but it will always be my view that if a journalist conducts an interview with preconceived biases that is rude and it is hostile.

      • Peter Clarke says

        Ian, Thanks for coming back with a fuller set of reasons. And, to be honest, I cannot disagree with some of what you say, especially about journalistic research and the actual framing of questions. Language and linguistic precision really matters. It’s obvious. I thought that was the main thrust of my piece. BUT, I think you are far too easy on Gillard here. Both interviewer and interviewee have a responsibility in our system. You are clearly somewhat out of love with contemporary journalism and journalists. Not too hard to see why. My aim is to nurture and improve the best of what we already have despite all the manifest flaws and problems. It is pluralist. There are some very fine journalists working here. Much of quality journalism is being ravaged by the digital revolution. No “side” of politics really wants forensic scrutiny: history confirms that. Our basic traditions of a “free press” survive albeit under strong attack right now from many directions. Imagine living in China? Or Singapore? Or any other restrictive setting? I want to be clear: I hold no partisan position here whatsoever. My analysis applies to all participants and my disappointment applies to both the political class and the news media class. I noticed one tweeter saying that so many lay observers/critics simply bring their own partisan passions to their judgements and opinions and want to see/hear their own side’s propaganda played out. There is a lot of truth in that. The “either, or” binary holds strong sway in the way we approach most issues and policy. We should all constantly examine our own internal assumptions and deep values to keep OURSELVES honest. So … I continue to value the journalistic method, research, deep enquiry and challenging, without flinching, those in power for their inevitable mistakes and injustices, whatever their (perceived) position on somebody’s political spectrum. I ask you to think more kindly of those journalistic practitioners who sincerely work away at doing the best job they can under often very trying and challenging circumstances. Yes, critique poor performances but also celebrate and value the good ones even if they are (legitimately?) robustly scrutinising your favourite politician. Thanks, again.

  10. There was far too much spin from the PM, but the questions from Sales were crap. I don’t think you need to be a media/communications expert to work that out.

    • Listening to the PM now on 720 ABC Perth, much better performance and interview with some ‘real’ questions questions thrown in from the public.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Well that is your overall judgement. Any specific examples and what made them “crap”? Or just a feeling? Love to hear your “non-expert” analysis.

  11. Deferential to the interviewee? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Wait till 7.30 interviews Abbott (if it ever happens).

  12. John Urquhart says

    Criticising the PM’s “tactics” in calling Leigh Sales “Leigh”? John Howard, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott all called Kerry O’Brien “Kerry”, did they not? “Playing with the rules of sociability” — puh-leez! What would you call her in that situation, Peter? You do not say. As for your suggested opening question: “What specifically will you now do as Labor Leader and Prime Minister to … etc.” How is this a harder hitting opening? Almost a Dorothy Dixer in comparison.

    This whole piece is forced and unenlightening, and a little silly. This was an adequate interview in which the PM performed with aplomb. That might annoy some who dislike her, just as it was irksome to others whenever John Howard performed well on the 7.30 Report of old. You win some, you lose some.

    Having said that, it’s hard not to believe that Kerry O’Brien wouldn’t have proved more effective in penetrating the well-prepared gloss, as he famously did with Rudd and Abbott.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Thanks for your feedback, John. I disagree of course. It was not an adequate interview. Far from it. Can you tell me one single piece of “new” or relevant information that emerged? I note your tight focus on the PM’s “performance”. Yes it conformed to media training and avoidance 101. Maybe your own partisan views are in play here? I attempted (however imperfectly) an analysis. That included looking at both broad and quite fine points including precision of language and the role of sociality that is a big factor in all interviews. Pollies play around with those “rules”. The warping and bending of sociality plays a clear role. I am sorry if you don’t want to think about those things. I barely touched on a whole range of factors that shape and modulate all interviews whatever their “genre”.

      “Penetrating the gloss” is a good phrase and captures the idea I was trying to describe well. Mind you, Kerry O’Brien’s biggest problem is to use double and triple bunger questions that any savvy interviewee can pick and choose around. He does have that ineffable gravitas however that works well for him in many cases. Thanks again.

  13. The fact that the interviewer did poorly reflects that her tactics were wrong (for example the first offensively attacking question) and that she was outwitted by a smarter opponent (who had every right to take over the interview and use it to her advantage if the opportunity arose).

    Don’t underestimate out PM.

  14. When you ask hard questions of the P.M, you are accused of being biased by her cheer squad and not going in hard enough by the other. When you ask hard questions of the Opposition leader, you are accused of being biased by their cheer squad and not going in hard enough by the other. If you achieve both results, to my mind, you have done well. No matter what the wannabe journalism professors think the interviewer could have done better in this or that regard.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Sorry, Andre. You have really over-simplified this. Although your description of “cheer squads is pretty spot on in general terms. BTW, no wannabe “journalism professors” here. Just well informed and experienced reflective practitioners trying to bring some clarity to the intricacies of the journalistic method especially the fundamental skill of interviewing. I’m sorry it doesn’t interest you so much. Thanks.

      • Perhaps. My rather snarky remark about Journalism professor’s referred to what I felt was rather eye glazing over analysis as mentioned in another comment above. Not the sort of thing I was looking for in this blog / site perhaps. I am looking for more analysis and questioning of politico- media “facts” and “punditry” with the appropriate rebuttal of dishonest politics by both sides and the MSM. Just my own personal view of what I am looking for. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment.

      • Peter Clarke says

        Oh I got that Andre. Clearly. No problems really. We try all kinds of approaches including on Faine/Ross (in archive). Your tastes/expectations are yours. Our aspirations to try different levels of analyses are ours. Thanks for interacting.

  15. Peter Clarke says

    So you believe any robust question is “attacking”. Is it in the STYLE of asking, Heather? I don’t quite understand how a political interviewer can elicit quality insights without some measure of “pressure”. We agree on the ineffectiveness of the first question in this instance but not your apparent requirement that an interviewer be totally deferential (to any section of politics). I am all for deep respect for this Prime Ministerial institution and for the person inhabiting it any any moment (no “Julia nor “Juliar”) but robustness of questioning is just a given in our style of democracy. What is the alternative in your view? Ultra polite questioning with no interruptions or follow-ups, challenging or testing of partisan assertions and spin?. No techniques? Perhaps we have very different assumptions about the role and function of a free and strong media?

  16. Hi Peter. Thanks for responding to my comment. However, you put words in my mouth and make an assumption on my view. I didn’t say the interviewer should be polite or deferential, only that the interview was not highly skilled as you have clearly shown in your analysis.

    One can not blame the PM for being smarter in playing the game, taking advantage and attempting to get the message out about the good things the government has done. She gets precious little opportunity to do this via the print media – so on national TV, of course she’ll take that opportunity when it is presented.

    I am very much in favour of robust questioning. The style I am after is along the lines of Kerry O’Brien who was always on top of the ‘game’ and exhibited a pretty good parry and thrust of his own.

    No problems with hard and incisive questioning, provided the Opposition Leader gets the same treatment (should he have the guts to show up).

  17. Great discussion. Can I add a link to a great piece written by Tim Dunlop called “The politics-media death spiral” which explores this “hollow dance” a bit further outside of just interviewing techniques. Let me quote some of the relevant paragraphs:

    “Having abandoned their role as explainers, as reporters, they reduce political issues to a sporting competition, a beauty contest, or a game of gotcha.”

    “The media, who are insiders, know all this, and use the inevitable disconnect between stated policy and reality to play gotcha.”

    “The media redoubles its efforts to play gotcha, to highlight the “gaffe”, to spotlight the “stumble”, to acquire the leak that makes someone look bad. Make fun of someone’s ears. Question their marital choices. Give anonymous cover to sources with an axe to grind.

    And around it goes. The death spiral.”.

    “The media end up writing for and speaking to themselves (look at the endless number of shows where journalists talk to journalists – is there a more revealing name for a show than Insiders?) and to their partners in this danse bizarre, the politicians. They stop being mere reporters and instead try and set the agenda amongst their peers. They see themselves as players wielding power, while they belatedly try and keep their business models alive with injections of confected conflict for the rest of us”.

  18. Peter Clarke says

    Thanks, Heather. I think your hopes for an Abbott interview will be fulfilled. Yes Kerry was excellent at so many aspects of the craft/art of interviewing. His long experience really counted in “skirmishes”. However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, his one big “technical” flaw (especially on satellite links where maybe he felt time was at a premium) was to try to cram multiple separate questions into ONE ask. This patently doesn’t really work except with the kindest and most attentive of interviewees. I note that when Sales is at her best, her questions are well crafted, precise and concise – short – and one at a time. You’ll notice I am trying very hard to stick to techniques and outcomes here and largely avoiding political content unless it bears directly on how an interview might or should unfold. Sorry if I misread your views. I am seeing so much here and on Twitter focussed on “rudeness” “attacks” etc. I am slightly bemused by some of the perspectives I am reading. If we ever needed good quality information and insights from the enquiry process it is now. But I am not holding my breath in case I turn blue.

  19. No problems, Peter. I didn’t think Sales was particularly attacking overall, but it was that first question that coloured the interview, and in my view, would set anyone on the defensive. You yourself also mentioned it contained a heavily weighted value judgement (‘dysfunctional mess’) and a vague reference to ‘recent events’. I’m pretty sure my blood pressure would have raised had I been abruptly confronted with that question. So, instead of lulling the interviewee into a sense of mutual trust/respect at the outset, it immediately signalled ‘game on’ and the interview went from there.
    Just my viewpoint. Cheers.

  20. Peter Clarke says

    Thanks. Yes, at the immediate level it is all about words, tone, “pressure” and psychology. Mind you, Heather, I think you are being a tad over solicitous on the PM’s behalf. And even what you describes sales’ opening question, was phrased much less “offensively” by a long way than it could have been. I think Sales used that particular construction to very slightly kid glove and formalise the confrontation.

    I must say this was no “lulling” interview. It was always game on. Having said that, there were many options apart from the one she chose. I believe it should have started very specific and, in a sense well away from inviting a spin splurge. The whole Crean aspect was pregnant with possibilities surely. Their long relationship. His stringent criticisms. That is one starting point that really would allow a slower less frontal opening. I am sure you have some in mind too? In another setting, eg Enough Rope style, it is a whole different proposition. Sales had no spare fat for too many more subtle or “lulling” techniques.Thanks again.

  21. All OK. I admit that I am on the side of the PM. I think she gets a raw deal from the press and from a contingent in her own party. My sense of justice gets a bit outraged at times (although not on the above occasion).

    That said, I think she must be able to front the toughest of interviews (as should Tony Abbott).


    • Peter Clarke says

      Yes, I agree, Heather, and I DO understand how difficult it is to separate out strong personal (partisan?) feelings from disinterested analysis. We all struggle with that. Even in this Sabra Lane interview with Scott Morrison, he “attacks” Sabra and the ABC disingenuously when the going gets tough. But at the end of the interview we are really none the wiser despite Sabra’s best and yes quite pushy efforts. Interruptions even! Gillard was just as avoiding and opaque. I believe the real critique of Sales was around her effectiveness on our behalf. Great to have this discussion.

  22. Peter Clarke, you said “You’ll notice I am trying very hard to stick to techniques and outcomes here and largely avoiding political content unless it bears directly on how an interview might or should unfold. Sorry if I misread your views.”

    So, what is your opinion of an interviewer attempting to pin a tag on their guest (the liar one) and then refusing to allow the guest to respond, cutting them off, telling them it is time to move on, then reverting to the ‘liar’ tag.

    As I mentioned earlier, it distracted the interview, and, once out there, must be allowed to be addressed. From that point on, not allowing the guest to respond or defend themselves appropriately, and then continuing to use this as an attack, can do nothing but put the guest offside. From then on, you have become a judge and jury, not an investigator. This is where Sales lets herself, and us, down.

    Also, Kerry was probably the best recent interviewer we have had, and I don’t recall him being rude in the manner of the current flock. He did talk over people, when they were deliberately not answering, but always with equanimity, and I never saw him putting his own opinion out as fact like the current crop do.

    Being pigheaded is not the same as being incisive. Sales, Uhlman etal need to appreciate that. Their smug attempted gotchas and often inaccurate interpretations of events in order to supplement their attacks on their guest are demeaning their positions, and corrupting our national debate. Back to basics for them I think.

  23. Peter Clarke says

    Thanks, Tom. I think I made it clear in the piece that that was a “misstep” on Sales’ part re the Carbon Tax line. I don’t entirely agree with your analysis and am much less “solicitous” of the politicians than you appear to be. I support good journalism as crucial to a healthy democracy. I want to see much more pressure from interviewers not less. Maybe you forget the sizeable apparatus deployed by all political outfits much of it aimed at spinning, messaging, deflecting, obscuring etc. Check this attempt by ABC’s Sabra Lane to extract even a modicum of information from Scott Morrison: I understand your points but, largely, I am on the side of good penetrating journalism even though I strongly critique (to the best of my ability) techniques/performances that don’t reach high standards of effectiveness or ethics. One aspect I keep a much more open mind on is this area of “offending” professional interviewees etc. I believe you over emphasise that. I am unclear what you actually support in terms of a healthy democracy. Do your own “partisan views” come into play here?

  24. I feel the aggressive ‘gotcha’ style of interview belongs more to commercial or tabloid based media outlet.

  25. Interesting. Thanks for taking the time to assess this. I wish in general the media would analyse policy to this degree. I agree with the ‘rushed’ element, but as you say early on, we don’t know who put the constrains the time. The repeated use of the word ‘dysfunctional’ I did find a little forced. My general take on the interview is somewhat different though. I felt as though Leigh had to show “fairness” and be as aggressive as she was with Mr Abbott – re. mining tax Olympic dam interview. Perhaps she was under pressure or did not want to have to face ACMA again, so tried to replicate the ‘gotcha’ moment to silence her critics of that interview. That coupled with an almost underlying sympathy knowing the PM has been at times unfairly criticized for things beyond her control and or the general perceived bias in the Murdoch press etc, dictated her tactics, and she actually (willingly or not) gave the PM a free platform to robustly put forth her positions.
    I walked away from it, not necessarily having learnt anything new, but reaffirming in my mind this PM can still handle herself well and remain calm and focused under pressure (regardless of if it’s just rehashing spin or not, not all pollies can even do that) If this PM can handle herself calmly and with a degree of aplomb in an interview such as this straight after the fortnight that was, then I trust her a little more now to negotiate on my behalf.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Thanks Elmore. I have really enjoyed reading such a range of responses and analyses here. We are all dealing with fairly complex and slippery material from Gillard and Sales. Both have tough jobs but the PM’s has been and is the toughest around right now whether you support her in a partisan sense or not.

  26. Thank you peter for, what I find to be, a very good and interesting critique of interviewing technique and counter. What I find disappointing is that it is all a competitive game, being played on all sides. Given the responsibility of all involved, i.e. the government of the nation, it is very disappointing that tactics and technique get in the way of honesty.
    Both were guilty of using misrepresentation and spin, so very little was learned.

  27. villevilleville says


    There are a lot of interesting points in your article about interview techniques and how to ‘crack’ an interviewee as canny as Gillard is. But I think you’ve missed a much more important point. The context in which the interview was conducted is tainted, which makes most of the assertions Sales has levelled at Gillard wrong. You can’t have a productive interview under those conditions. In fact, there is so much that needs to be untangled that it’s unlikely we can get a productive Gillard interview at all.

    From the beginning: Sales opened with this:

    LEIGH SALES: After recent events, aren’t Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?

    You criticise it as ‘unfortunate’. It is in fact worse than that, it’s an accusation masquerading as a question. You need to justify both ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘consigned to opposition’ before you can even ask it. The Government is functioning, there’s no question of that. Gillard proceeds to demonstrate exactly that. She could have gone further and shown some good reasons why the Abbott Opposition ought to remain exactly where it is, and she’d still be pertinent to the question.

    LEIGH SALES: I’ll come to some of the achievements or the lack of achievements in a moment. But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor’s plans for future when you’ve had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?

    Again, an assertion in place of a question to begin with, one that Sales rather than Gillard needs to justify. And an accusation to end with. It’s a Coalition line, and Gillard has every right to answer it with a Labor one. In fact, the only way Gillard can possibly address it is to talk policy. Which she did.

    LEIGH SALES: Well, Prime Minister, you’ve given me a laundry list there, so let me give you one back. When people look at what you’ve done, they also see a promise not to introduce a carbon tax broken, they see a promise to deliver a budget surplus this year broken, an East Timor solution for asylum seekers proposed then withdrawn, a Malaysia solution proposed and then abandoned, even as today we see a ship sink and people killed in another incident, a ban on live cattle imports imposed and then withdrawn, the disastrous appointment of Peter Slipper, the redesign of a mining tax so it now returns a fraction of what was banked on. I return to my earlier question: how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you’re planning to do going forwards?

    The question at the end of that diatribe can only be answered to refuting the accusations that preceded it. If Gillard doesn’t agree with the premise contained within each claim, she has to refute them. Any attempt to provide a short blanket answer would be an implicit acceptance of Sales’ list. And here’s where the context is important. If the issues had been dealt with honestly by the press at the time, not one of them would belong on a list of ‘failures’. This isn’t obfuscation as you suggest. It’s Gillard attempting to set the record straight on a litany of misreportage.

    The first half of the interview was a complete waste of time really, an attempt to put words in Gillard’s mouth. And she’s simply not going to allow that.

    Then Sales got on stronger ground with the media legislation. But she couldn’t help herself, sliding back into accusation territory here:

    LEIGH SALES: If we judge – sorry, Prime Minister, to interrupt. If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you’d have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.

    If you accept that minority government is a great big botch by definition, I guess you’d agree with that. Sales should have confined herself to asking about the process and the speed with with the legislation was tabled and the deadline being so soon. There’s some stuff we need to know there, but we never got to hear it because she was too busy trying to ‘trap’ Gillard into some kind of admission.


    The topic Sales chose to go with was woolly. You’re never going to get Gillard to go all Mea Culpa, especially when the much larger story of what-the-hell-are-the-Rudd-faction-bloody-playing-at is completely ignored. They drove the leadership issue, so there’s not a hell of a lot Gillard can tell you about it, and bugger all responsibility she can take for it.

    • Peter Clarke says

      Thanks, interesting addition to this discussion. Really good to see such a strong response. As I’ve said earlier, both participants in this interview contributed to its thin outcomes in my view, each for different reasons. I cannot go with you on the implied “ask the right questions” of a professional politician (from any party) and the right information will come tumbling out especially over contested versions or perceptions. I wish. But reading all the contributions here opens up many insights. Thanks again.

      • villevilleville says

        Hi Peter, and thanks for your response. I don’t think it is simply a matter of “ask the right questions to get the right response” either. More a question of knowing what you want – as an interviewer – when you embark on an interview. The interview with Morrison is a clear example of an interviewer knowing exactly what she wants and being frustrated by her subject. They were straightforward questions. Sales merely made accusations and asked the PM to agree with them. I don’t know what she expected the PM to say, because she didn’t ask her anything specific.

        It would be as if Morrison was asked, “Your asylum seeker policy is a failure because it doesn’t address the attitude of the Navy or Indonesia. How are you going to regain the trust of the Australian people?” Morrison would then of course disagree with the premise, to which the response would be, “But you haven’t answered how you’re going to regain people’s trust?” That would be a waste of time.

        Knowing what information you want to elicit from your subject is a basic interviewing skill. Sales failed that part of it utterly. “You’re a failure, how do you respond to that?” isn’t going to elicit anything.

    • Peter Clarke says

      On this we agree: “KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW” before, during every moment of an interview and after if you are (ethically) editing. Easy to say. Really hard to sustain often. It is a constant refrain from me. And, as you say, one of the bedrock skills of any effective interviewer. It drives the best, most relevant and forensic questions. I also emphasise (oversimplify?) the three key interviewer attributes: Curiousity (the most important in my view as it deeply affects the interviewee’s psychology); Confidence; Courage. Well, we do seem to have some mini debates around some details/notions re this Gillard – Sales interview but we’re clearly broadly on the same page. Thanks, again.

  28. Criticising the interviewee for not offering “new information” is ridiculous. It’s up to the interviewer to ask the right questions. Sales in this instance substituted opinions and unsubstantiated assumptions for real questions.

    Her laundry list of accusations could not possibly have been let unanswered by the PM, who had no choice but to answer each one.

  29. Peter Clarke says

    Only partly agree.

    • Stephen R says

      Peter, you have repeatedly refused to explain how and why Gillard’s response to the Sales interview was “spin” as you allege. The clear analysis of posters on this point with which you inscrutably only “partly” agree and without explanation leaves your claims of “spin” as empty of content.

      • Peter Clarke says

        Yes indeed Heather. As I said,Sabra Lane tried very hard. But that just isn’t enough is it? As I believe Sabra herself would acknowledge, the outcomes from that interview with Morrison in terms of actual information were very poor. I cannot be as enthusiastic as you about just a good try. Similarly, despite many posts here, I do not have a naive view about the all pervasive use of spin and highly crafted propaganda within politics. I guess when you hear an Abbott or a Gillard make their claims and mould the rhetoric, if you broadly agree, it’s generally OK in terms of accepting the communication, but if you disagree, you feel affronted and the “spin” is more easily labelled as that. I repeat, I am not wading into the much more fraught debate about the verifiability or slipperiness of the actual content of the “spin” of politicians here. They all do it. There is a real paucity of authenticity across the spectrum. My critique is clearly aimed at interviewers and politicians. Much of the criticism here while very and always welcome is very clearly animated by partisan perceptions. For these analytical purposes here I remain non-partisan,

      • Peter Clarke says

        Stephen, There has been no “repeatedly”. I am happy to discuss these aspects in detail but you make it harder with your “claims” to be honest. It is simply not true, as you claim that the “clear analysis of posters” here is unanimous. Please read the whole comments section. I just read back through your earlier statements and claims and if you think Gillard gave a full and factual explanation of the whole Carbon Tax issue in those few words we simply disagree. She just used off-the-shelf spin language. She hasn’t succeeded in transcending the oppositions accusations of “lying” from the beginning of the minority government however unfair it may seem. I think of Howard’s “Never never a GST” for example. And many other examples of political “lying”. I am really trying to see where you are coming from here. A strong partisan position I suspect. Gillard is a highly practised and inveterate spinner. Of course. Take “done and dusted” for example. I assume you don’t read that as “fact”? Not spin? I am not targeting Gillard especially. I call it as I see it. I made clear how poorly Sales handled the interview in my opinion. That failure only partly relieves Gillard of her responsibility to communicate clearly and honestly. Authentically. Spin is typically a mixture of “facts”, shifted contexts, claims, hyperbolic rhetoric, sloganeering, highly selective omissions, and the rest of those dark arts now all too pervasive through most of our political discourse. Sadly, one of the most teeth-gritting examples is “The Education Revolution”. Even a cursory examination brings that rhetoric undone. You wish to absolve Gillard of those practises and their effects? Your prerogative. This piece was aimed at tracking the DYNAMIC of the interview and the TECHNIQUES used by both participants. That is very obvious. I take no sides on the political content in this specific piece. That would completely undermine my intent. I believe very little of what I am told in the media by professional politicians these days. Indeed, I perceive it as “empty of content” much of the time. That’s the ever evolving media/political world we live in.

  30. Wow! Villevilleville, Your contributions to this debate are totally spot on.
    I also saw the Sabre Lane interview and she did her part brilliantly – as you said, simple straight forward questions, without implying ‘failure’ or ‘dysfunction’ – just straight requests for answers on behalf of the public. That’s what we want to see.