Sarah Ferguson’s interview with Joe Hockey: Bias is in the eye of the beholder

“One of the chief Functions of a television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches. A critic who does not keep well clear of the World of the Media will soon lose his sting. He might also begin harbouring delusions about his capacity to modify official policy.”
Sorry for the long intro, but that was Clive James in the preface to his book, Visions Before Midnight: Television criticism from The Observer 1972-76 – his advice guiding my time as a TV critic for The Australian newspaper in the early 1980s.
Born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, Clive James was, and still is, one of the best critics in the history of television. His weekly columns for The Observer from 1972-1982 were must reading, and he started writing tv critiques for the London Daily Telegraph in 2011 until last year. Despite his bout with leukemia, he still writes the occasional feature for the Telegraph: http://www.clivejames.com/essays/cjtv He is, of course, a renowned literary critic, a brilliant poet, a noted novelist and memoirist, former television presenter, and an Australian icon.
Clive James came to mind when I read about the kerfuffle over former Australian Financial Review (AFR) editor Colleen Ryan’s review of the ABC’s coverage of the Federal Budget last year. The ABC asked Ms Ryan, a highly respected journalist, to look at the coverage as part of their quarterly review of a small cross-selection of content and “give us a warts and all view of it,” according to Alan Sunderland, Acting Head of People at the ABC. Mr Sunderland said: “Colleen produced an excellent and comprehensive report. Her overall judgement was that our coverage complied with all of our policies and guidelines and the overall quality was ‘excellent.’ At significant length [45 pages], the report discusses all aspects of the coverage and provides a series of observations on ways it might have been improved, expanded or extended.” http://ab.co/1AmPLYl
Okay, so why all the fuss? Well, Ms Ryan made the egregious mistake of suggesting the tone of questioning in Sarah Ferguson’s 7.30 interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey “could have been interpreted by some viewers to be a potential breach of the ABC’s impartiality guidelines.” http://ab.co/1JsDmcJ Ms Ryan focused on the first question of the interview: “Now, you’ve just delivered that Budget. It’s a Budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” Here’s a link to the interview if you haven’t seen it: http://ab.co/1CQck6a The former AFR editor said “that first question set the tone for the entire interview. The Treasurer appeared surprised and in my view was from that point on quite ‘rattled’ during the interview … the language in Ferguson’s first question was emotive. I also believe that the average viewer would consider that the Treasurer was not treated with sufficient respect by the interviewer.”
Whew! Let’s go back to Clive James. He didn’t say you had to pretend you were an average viewer. He clearly wasn’t, and the wit and wisdom in his columns proved that. He watched television like the average viewer in his own home, without the glitz and glamour of publicity previews. But he took notes and knew his subject. As long-time ABC interviewer Kerry O’Brien put it: “Ryan tries to put herself in the mind of an average viewer. Who on earth is an average viewer when you’re talking about politics?” http://bit.ly/1zPwCL8
I agree with Kerry that the ABC gave Colleen Ryan an impossible task: a “warts and all” review of the coverage under the corporation’s editorial commitments to accuracy, impartiality and fairness. Colleen had to consider whether the language was “emotive, hyperbolic, inflammatory or derogatory. And was the interviewee treated with civility and respect.” Joe Hockey’s a big boy. He can handle it, and like many politicians, he said so at the end of the interview to Sarah: “Thank you very much. Great to be here.” Former Liberal Foreign Minister Andrew Downer used to say to many journalists who had just wiped him out in an interview — “Pleasure” — when you knew it was far from it for him. When I was producing the Channel Nine Sunday program, Laurie Oakes nearly made Labor MP Daryl Melham fall off his chair at the end of a particularly hard interview, watch then Opposition Leader John Howard fall silent during a 3-minute commercial break after a disastrous part one of the conversation, and have then Liberal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge “for breakfast” on Sunday – a political cartoonist portraying Oakes coming out of a CT scanner with Wooldridge inside of him, with the doctor saying: “You really did have him for breakfast, didn’t you Laurie?” Respect was shown to each of the interviewees, and the language was not emotive or inflammatory. Just tough interviews exhibiting good journalism.
Ryan said in her evaluation: “This interview provided gripping television. But was it fair and impartial? Did it grant due respect to the interviewee? Would the average viewer consider its tone (on the part of Ferguson) as so aggressive that it exhibited bias?” She then had to consider those questions within the context of the ABC’s Impartiality Guidance Notes (issued 22 July 2013, revised 21 May 2014). Sorry, Colleen, at this point, I would have discarded the notes and just watched the interview.
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It was gripping television, fair and impartial, granted due respect to the interviewee and was not so aggressive that it exhibited bias. Sarah Ferguson had 11 minutes and 58 seconds to get the most out of the interview, and Joe Hockey had the same amount of time to avoid answering the questions. Colleen Ryan pointed out two other exchanges where Ferguson might have been a bit cheeky. In the first Sarah asked: “… are you saying that individual promises made by an Opposition Leader no longer matter?” Hockey replied: “Well, we can spend the whole conversation talking about the process of promises …” She quickly added: “That’s a yes or no question.”
In the second exchange, the Treasurer talked about tax adjustments and Ferguson asked: “Adjustments? Is that what we’re going to call them now?” Hockey replied: “Well, of any substance, so any tax changes if you like or whatever you’d like to call it. Ferguson: “New taxes?” Hockey: “But whatever you’d like to call it, there’s two. You know, there’s actually fewer than any of the previous Budgets from the previous government. So that’s a good sign.” Ferguson: “They’re still taxes. I don’t need to teach you, Treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name. Am I correct?” Hockey: “Of course they are. Yes.”
There was mixed reaction to the review especially when The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) came up with this headline: “Sarah Ferguson interview with Joe Hockey ‘breached ABC bias guidelines’: review” http://bit.ly/1BWxu7t ABC’s Media Watch had a comprehensive wrap of the pros and cons of the coverage. I thought Kerry O’Brien (photo above) and Alan Sunderland’s articles were two of the best on the positive side, and one of the shortest and sweetest was Laurie Oakes’ tweet: “Bottom line in my view — criticism of Ferguson interview in review just silly.”
On the negative side, it was hard to go past Herald Sun columnist and Network Ten presenter Andrew Bolt’s criticism. In his Herald Sun column he cited four examples out of 76 from Ryan’s review: the opening question of the Hockey interview; Lateline host Emma Alberici, asking a Coalition MP: “Do you think voters are really stupid and can’t recognise a lie when they see one?”; Tasmania’s 7.30 edition for giving the microphone to “a parade of Leftist critics;” and ABC’s The Drum for “stacking its panel with two pro-Labor panellists against one lone conservative.” http://bit.ly/1vtXnJE And he continued the attack on The Bolt Report on Ten in which he described Ferguson’s interview as “contemptuous,” and said there were “only four examples of ABC bias in a week.” He then asked Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine: “Ryan wasn’t really looking very hard, was she?” Devine replied: “No, and look, so what if she did because all these so-called inquiries and bias audits and so on are just laughable from the ABC. They are a fig leaf to appease conservatives or rural viewers who are incensed by the continual dripping Green Left, inner-city bias that comes out of every pore of the ABC, with a few honourable exceptions.” http://bit.ly/1A1MJoM
In my experience, getting an Australian politician to answer questions without resorting to cliches and “staying on message” and actually making news in a 12-minute interview is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of research and the ability to follow up answers. Sarah Ferguson did that in her interview, and all the good reporters and political editors I’ve worked with, like Laurie Oakes, Kerry O’Brien, Jana Wendt, Ellen Fanning, Paul Lyneham, Graham Davis, David Speers, Janine Perrett, Helen Dalley, Hugh Riminton and Paul Bongiorno, to name a few, have also done their homework.
Quentin Dempster, the former ABC presenter and interviewer, ended his column in the SMH: “While debate rages, please have some sympathy for the interviewer. How would you go if you had just eight to 10 minutes with a politician as slippery as we breed them in Australia? With very great respect.” http://bit.ly/1Eqijkr
But the last word should go to Clive James, who reviewed the resignation speech of Richard Nixon, in his Observer column on August 11, 1974: “Nixon has come a long way as a talking head, and never did a smoother gig than his last as President. ‘I have always preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony involved.’ He meant that he had always preferred to cling on to power, whatever the agony involved for other people – but at least the lie was told in ringing tones . . . Semantically, the whole speech was rubbish. As a performance though, it merited what respect the viewer could summon.”

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