Interviewers putting politicians on the spot


What is it about TV interviews that stops interviewers putting politicians on the spot?  Is it fear that they will never agree to an interview again?  I like Sarah Ferguson, and think she is probably the best interviewer around at the moment.  Her nailing of Joe Hockey after the budget was a classic.  I just wish they would make the politicians look as embarrassing as they are.  Here are some techniques I would like to see used.

The avoided question.  Almost every interview has at least one question that never gets answered.  Usually after two or three tries, the interviewer just gives up and moves on.  Why not say:

“Well it is obvious you don’t intend to answer the question so obviously you have something to hide.  Let’s move onto another topic and see if you can do better with this.”

Comparison.   When honesty comes up in an interview,  the focus is on honesty about a particular issue.  It may be a carbon tax, Gonski, university fees or any broken promise.  Why not step back for a moment and ask a question of principle:

“Let me ask a moral question.  Suppose I buy a car and am told it only had one owner, the brakes would last another 25,000 miles, the engine was recently overhauled etc.  Imagine I find out it had ten owners, the brakes were shot, and the engine is on it’s last legs.  Would I be morally within my right to ask for my money back?  Yes or no.”

The answer may be qualified but will certainly be yes.

“Let me ask you another moral question.  Suppose I elect a government who promise no new taxes, no cutbacks to education and no budget reductions at the ABC.  Imagine they break all those promises.  For the sake of the question we won’t argue about whether it has happened or not.  If it did happen, would we be morally within our right to ask for them to resign?  Yes or no.”

The key thing the interviewer does from this point is to compare the two examples.  It is OK to return a car for misrepresentation, but not ask a government to resign for misrepresentation.

Do you have the balls???  Another technique is to ask them if they see themselves as a committed, strong politician.  Inevitably they will answer yes.  Their ego is insurmountable. The next question is the one that puts them on the spot”

“So Mr Pyne, you say university fees will not generally go up, are you prepared to step down if they do generally rise?”

“Well….there are market forces ….. cannot predict the future …waffle waffle waffle..”

“So you are not confident enough of your own credibility to put your job on the line over this.  Why should the public, and in particular students, believe you?”

What if it doesn’t work.  I used this with a local politician a few years back.  She held a street meeting to discuss cutting the speed limit on our road from 60 to 50.  The road is a relatively straight suburban arterial road.  Traffic is fairly consistent but not bumper to bumper.  To my knowledge there have only been two serious accidents in 20 years.  One involved someone driving through a stop sign when the limit was 60, and the other a P plate driver crashed while travelling in excess of 80 kph after the 50 limit was imposed.  There have been no fatalities.

The conversation went like this:

“So where are the statistics on the number of accidents, injuries etc. that justify the speed reduction?”

“We don’t have specific figures but residents have talked to me about the speed limit being reduced and it is obvious a 10 kph reduction will make it safer.”

“Travelling at 40 or 30 makes it even safer so why stop at 50?  The problem is not the driver doing 60.  The problem is the occasional driver doing 80 or 90.  Do you think dropping the limit from 60 yo 50 will mean the speeding drivers will now do 70 or 80?”

“We have to do something.  The residents demand it.”

” How will you know if it works?  Are you collecting data to compare before and after?  If it doesn’t achieve your objectives, will you raise the limit to 60 again?”

The conversation deteriorated at that point, but what did happen was that a few people who had just drifted up to the meeting took my side and started asking awkward questions.  She found herself under attack from a few constituents who had been neutral up to that point.

The politician in question is long gone.  ICAC found out a few things about her that terminated her career.  We didn’t win the speed limit issue.  It is now 50 although most people still travel at the same speed they did before it changed.

The point of all this is to ask how politicians will measure the success of their latest initiative, and will they go back to the current situation if it doesn’t work.

These are just four lines of questioning that would put politicians on the spot.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could have more moments where the bovine excreta was stripped away and a political point of view could be seen for what it is.