Fran O'Sullivan: Blindsided by Smiling Assassin

Mainstream TV does us all a disservice with its lack of quality current affairs interviewing

TV3's John Campbell got so involved in his anti-GCSB bill crusade that he allowed Prime Minister John Key to get the better of him.
TV3's John Campbell got so involved in his anti-GCSB bill crusade that he allowed Prime Minister John Key to get the better of him.

I admire Maori Television. Every night, the channel runs an intelligent news programme from a Maori perspective. On Mondays there is the award-winning current affairs show Native Affairs hosted by Mihingarangi Forbes.

Politicians frequently take part. They are, for the most part, treated with courtesy. But the interviewing is well-informed and rigorous. Plenty of information is elicited. There is no obvious bias. It is often issues-driven rather than focused purely on personalities. And where there are hard edges, ruffled feathers are often soothed with humour.

But as with Sky's Australian news channel and other news networks such as CNN, Al Jazeera and CNBC which I tune into on a daily basis, it does not substitute for a top-notch mainstream daily current affairs show here.

This week, I found myself pining for the times when mainstream television in New Zealand - particularly state-owned broadcaster TV One and privately owned TV3 - provided that every day.

The Holmes Show and Eyewitness News, where sharp journalists like former TVNZ political editor Richard Harman (now producing The Nation) made serious reports on major issues such as the unravelling of the Lange Government, were riveting viewing.

These days we have Seven Sharp where journalists are often reduced to bimbo status and are too wrapped up making fillers to give sustained focus on the big issues of the day, such as the Fonterra food scare or, for that matter, the GCSB legislation.

Campbell Live certainly can't be accused of that.

But John Campbell has become so involved in the thrust of his crusades that when he was finally presented with the opportunity this week to interview the Prime Minister on the GCSB bill, he was blindsided by John Key's fluency and not sufficiently prepared to sustain 20 minutes of primetime television without coming very close indeed to throwing his toys out of the cot.

I don't for one moment believe that Key is the product of his press minders or media training, as left-wing commentators claim.

I've watched him make many apparent off-the-cuff speeches at countless business conferences and dinners where he exhibits a fine ability to combine humour (at times demonstrating a larrikin nature) with firm messages about the Government's policy framework, keen insights into New Zealanders' responses to domestic issues and the ability to flatter his audiences by sharing top-level communications on international matters.

People who believe he is slumped in some brain-fade fog have not studied the politician.

But overpreparation does not suit him. He is better at making what appears to be an impromptu speech rather than reading a statesman-like speech where he can take oxygen from his audience.

When he does prepare too much he comes up with dreadfully overwrought phrases (the Norton Anti-Virus analogy for the GCSB this week; Fonterra being New Zealand's poster-child for safe food last week).

What Key does do is study leadership.

He has spent many hours watching tapes of the way other leaders have dealt with opponents in major political debates.

Would that Campbell had done the same.

But the TV3 host's disorganisation was immediately apparent from the shuffled papers displayed in front of him rather than a laptop, clipboard (or preferably no notes at all).

But while Key may have come to the interview with no notes, he would certainly have worked out a gameplan in his head on how he would control Campbell and get across the story he wished to tell.

One little verbal joust said it all.

Key: "You've done so many stories which are absolute nonsense, and you know they are and I've actually answered those in the past ..."

Campbell: "Prime Minister, feel free to sue us, go to the BSA, make a formal complaint."

Key: "I don't bother complaining because when you weave your web and do all those little things ..."

You only had to look at Campbell's face to see he realised he had effectively been told to go and sit on the naughty stool.

Key did at least demonstrate command of the security legislation (although his office put out further explanation yesterday when Herald political editor Audrey Young pointed out an inconsistency).

This is a pity, as there is a lot more information that Key could have put on the table in a more professional environment.

The wider public may enjoy seeing our PM hamming it up for Seven Sharp, or "owning John Campbell" - but both he and the television channels could enlighten us much more on issues of the day if they abandoned the formula entertainment and got back to the journalism.

The mainstream deserves better.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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