HARRY S. TRUMAN, 33rd President of the United States, and former Missouri haberdasher, had a pithy turn of phrase. When people complained to him about the vicissitudes of politics, his response became, justifiably, famous: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Hearing that the Prime Minister has decided to discontinue her weekly interview with Newstalk-ZB’s breakfast host, Mike Hosking, more than a few New Zealanders may have recalled Harry Truman’s riposte.
Fronting-up to the news media is just one of the many irksome duties of a modern political leader. If the delights of political accountability are beginning to pall on the Prime Minister, then the Exit to a quieter life is clearly marked.
At least, that used to be the conventional political wisdom.
Clearly, things have changed.
Not the least of these changes has been the transformation of political journalists.
Time was when political journalists thought of themselves as diligent miners for the gold nuggets of truth. They went into their encounters with politicians well prepared, with as many of the relevant facts and figures at their fingertips as possible. Not only did a firm grasp of the issue under examination enable them to put the right questions, it also allowed them to assess the robustness, or otherwise, of the answers.
The whole point of the exercise was to elicit information. A politician who answered questions easily and accurately told the voters one thing. A politician who prevaricated and obfuscated told them another. It was respectful process: the journalist respected the politician; the politician respected the journalist; and both of them respected the intelligence of the electorate.
Ah, but that was back in the Twentieth Century. The priorities of the contemporary political interview are quite different. Encounters between politicians and political broadcasters, especially, are governed by a very different set of rules.
Instead of an examiner, the contemporary political journalist has taken on the role of prosecutor. And not just any old prosecutor – no siree! Rather than humble seekers after truth, radio and television news and current affairs hosts have cast themselves as the ‘people’s prosecutors’.
They are fearless, probing, ferociously well-briefed and determined (like any good lawyer) to ask no questions they cannot themselves answer. The political interview is no longer an exercise in eliciting information, but a trial by combat, in which all the sins and shortcomings of the politician under attack are laid bare.
From the perspective of the politicians on the receiving end of these inquisitions, it is easy to see why accepting the role of the accused might be less-than-appealing. Prosecutors are, by definition, convinced that the person in the dock is guilty, and their questions are framed in accordance with that presumption. For their hapless politician/victims, the people’s prosecutor’s questions must all sound like variations on the unanswerable demand to know whether they are still beating their spouse.
Essentially, the contemporary political interview has devolved into a ridiculous battle of wills. The winner is the participant who emerges from the confrontation without significant injury. For the politician, prevarication, circumlocution, obfuscation and equivocation – far from offering proof of their inadequacy – take on a semi-heroic quality. Like an expert swordsman, who effortlessly parries his opponent’s every thrust, the modern politician wears his ability to evade his persecutor’s questions as a badge of honour – as, sadly, do his followers. (And if, occasionally, one of the politician’s own thrusts draws blood, well, there’s a cause for celebration!)
Jacinda Ardern has drawn blood more than once in these gladiatorial encounters. Who can forget her accusatory finger, jabbing in the general direction of the AM Show’s Mark Richardson, at the very beginning of her reign? Or, for that matter, her devastating “bless” put-down of Mike Hosking himself?
Over the summer, however, the Prime Minister and her media advisers have clearly asked themselves whether these gladiatorial contests serve any better purpose than bear-baiting or cock-fighting? When your interlocutor makes it clear, both beforehand and afterwards, that he neither rates you nor respects you: rushing into every interview like a Retiarius; trident in one hand, whirling net in the other; determined to first entangle you and then pin you to the studio wall; what is there to gain, really, by participating?
In a kitchen as hot as Mr Hosking’s, the PM’s decision to get out seems only wise.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 March 2021.