By Peter Clarke,
April 25, 2013
Late last year, Leigh Sales interviewed Tony Abbott live on the 730 Report. Sales was sharp and persistent, Abbott poorly prepared and struggling. Sales beat claims of bias and won a coveted Walkley Award for TV interviewing.
Naturally viewers were relishing the prospect of a return bout, and Sales and the program promoted the interview on social media. It now seems that if Abbott agrees to be interviewed on an ABC current affairs program it is a ‘get’. Because of the history and the ongoing tensions between the office of the opposition leader and the ABC, there is an additional expectation from the audience.
Unlike Sales’ interviews with Prime Minister Gillard, there is no history between Sales and Abbott around key policy areas or even how they engage in these set-piece, contested, political interviews. Rather, each interview appears to be built from the ground up, as if it was the first one. Their rarity causes a fundamental problem in the continuity of enquiry.
I first reviewed Sales’ performance in a piece about her interview with Gillard after she stared down Rudd to retain her leadership, in which I was quite critical of both participants. I have long been an admirer of Sales, and cite her as one of the best we have.
Or I used to.
Something happened in that Gillard interview which diminished the natural and hard-won interviewing skills Sales had clearly demonstrated. She gleaned very little useful insight or information for citizens. Last night’s interview with Abbott was calmer and smoother than the Gillard one or Sales’ last interview with Abbott, but, again, very little content of real value emerged.
In fact, the most troubling aspect of the interview last night was that Sales did not appear to be listening acutely enough to Abbott’s answers. Alongside all the integrated skills and techniques in a top interviewer’s toolkit, LISTENING remains the key attribute. Without it, the ‘hollow dance’ becomes even more superficial.
This Abbott interview was roughly the same duration as the Gillard one – just over thirteen minutes. It was (as was the Gillard interview) pre-recorded. And Abbott was not in the studio with Sales. Here is a brief analysis of the interview transcript.
In her set-up, Sales frames the interview as an enquiry into the Coalition’s economic plan, stating that “your vote will boil down” to your judgement on how well the Labor government handled the Global Financial Crisis and associated spending. Her opening remarks to Abbott followed that line until she ask the gift (for Abbott) question: Are you asking the public to elect you on blind faith?
In my article on Sales’ Gillard interview, I suggested that the interview never recovered from asking a broad diffuse and opinionated first question. Sales’ opening gambit with Gillard:
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?
Notice the similarity in form and approach? Gillard walked through the giant gap. So did Abbott.
Sales could have chosen, as her set-up promised, a specific, targeted first question around economic policy to stop Abbott being able to rely on the generalised, abstract discourse politicians favour to avoid the question and stay on message. But Sales went for the flourish again, and it let her down, again. Read the rest of this entry »