On Edwards, Ralston & Drinnan on Shane Taurima and why they're wrong

It's very hard to draw black and white lines around political interviewing in this country and in these times... but it's easy to get it wrong when you weren't in the room, and that's the trap Msrs Edwards, Ralston and Drinnan have fallen into

I've been sick the past week, so I hope you'll forgive the tardy response. But Brian Edwards, the man who not so long ago declared he would stop blogging, wrote a blog last week about Shane Taurima and his decision to put himself forward for the Labour candidacy in the Rawhiti-Ikaroa by-election. It got under my skin, not least for the observations quoted by other 'media commentators'.

Shane got the decision to stand and his public announcement of that somewhat tangled up, but ultimately he was quite clear that his decision to stand meant he could not continue as an interviewer on Q+A (a role he'd hardly been used in this year anyway). You can't stand for a party and expect to be taken seriously as a political interviewer – at least not so soon after, as we'll see later.

But Edwards in his column reminds us that he was "initially critical on this site of his somewhat eccentric and overly aggressive interviewing style. But I put it down to the fact that, as a new boy to Pakeha current affairs television, and following in the footsteps of Paul Holmes, he was merely trying to make his mark. And if he got stuck into more National Party people than Labour, that’s because National was in government and held the reins of power. It’s the norm."

The final part of the paragraph, I couldn't agree more with. Of course you hold those in power to a higher standard of account than those in Opposition, not least by having those in government on more often. It is they who have the power to make and announce decisions, they who have the power to change the country and they who need to be challenged and questioned.

But the first part is plain wrong. (I know because I produced Q+A for four years). For a start, Shane wasn't following in Paul Holmes' footsteps, but working alongside him. They were co-hosts in 2012, although Paul was absent a bit given his declining health.

Second, it's patronising to say he was "overly aggressive" because he was new to Pakeha current affairs television. Do Maori live in another realm with another style of broadcasting and different journalistic standards? Shane worked in the gallery for 12 years and has been a TVNZ host in the years since. On Te Karere at least he worked in the main TVNZ newsroom alongside all the other daily reporters making calls, following leads, conducting interviews like any other journo.

But Edwards also quoted Herald media columnist John Drinnan 'joining the dots' and The Nation's media commentator Bill Ralston going further, saying that Shane's interviews with Hekia Parata and Paula Bennett last year were retrospective proof of Shane's left-wing politics.

I understand how it's easy to jump to those conclusions from a distance, but the fact is they're tosh. Drinnan has the excuse of never having worked in TV but should be able to figure out that Shane was "dogged" with ministers becase that was the job given him by the Q+A crew; Ralston should know better. No interview belongs to the interviewer alone, but is a team effort.

As TV3's Mark Jennings said in defence of Rachel Smalley this week, her questioning of Hekia Parata on The Nation last month was a producer-led interview... and there's nothing unusual about that.

(Indeed, now that Smalley has been "quite aggressive" with Parata, to use Ralston's words about Shane, is that now proof of her being "a Labour leftie"? And will he say as much on The Nation?)

Shane took an aggressive tone in many – but not all – of his interviews because that was the tone sought by his producers, especially me. I was consistent throughout my four years on Q+A that the first interview was a grilling and a test for any guest. It was the one programme on TVNZ that had licence to hold politicians firmly to account and I wasn't about to waste that opportunity (or ignore that duty). And that was why, I'm pleased to say, some ministers would put aside up to a full day to prepare for a Q+A interview; they expected to be tested.

Guyon Espiner did it for the first three years and was often criticised as overly aggressive as well. A sign he was adapting to Pakeha current affairs? Or, given that his guests were mostly National ministers, a leftie? No, it was a sign he was the best political interviewer around.

What about those specific interviews - Hekia Parata and Paula Bennett - Ralston refers to?

With the Parata interview, I'll be brief – she came on as the rising star and by the end of the interview viewers had a glimpse that she would struggle in her ministerial career, something which shows the veracity of the approach. Parata was a slave to jargon in that interview and couldn't give a straight answer. Shane was understandably frustrated and sought to show how evasive Parata was being by repeating questions and pushing her. One point I've always stressed with the interviewers I've worked with is that if you take the time to craft and ask a clear question, then you should respect it and your audience enough to expect a clear answer. If you don't get a clear answer, ask again.

It's easy to have a crack at Parata now that she's so damaged politically, but much more useful for him to have done it last year when she was the next big thing. Perhaps rather than just judging the tone, commentators might want to consider both the strategy the team chose beforehand (not knowing exactly how it would turn out) and what was learnt from the interview.

And Bennett? Shane interviewed her twice last year and the second was a very different tone. Was that a sign that his politics had changed? Of course not. It was  sign we had the minister on for a different purpose and so chose a different approach. Different interviews demand different styles, naturally.

But the first interview Shane did with Bennett was the most aggressive he did last year. And it had a lot to do with Paul Holmes. At our Friday meeting we were discussing how to approach her and Paul launched into a precis of how slippery Bennett can be in an interview. She has a trick where she smiles and agrees with even your most disabling question. Ask Bennett if she eats babies and she'll reply "yes, yes, you have a point. But..." She only agrees for a moment and then moves onto her own spiel, so it's hard to say 'hang on, you just agreed that you eat babies'. But she hardly ever confronts or challenges. We were talking about how to tackle her more effectively and get some clear answers when Paul urged simplicity in the extreme.

'You only need a few questions,' he said. 'Keep it really simple. Don't get caught up in lots of numbers and traps. Just keep banging away at her'. Or words to that effect.

With Bennett it was always a temptation to skip across the many issues that arose from her portfolios. But this time we had invited her on to talk about jobs, so we took a more singular approach. We latched onto the number of young people aged between 15-24 not in education, employment or training (known as NEETS) – 83,000 at the time, up 20 percent since National had been in office. This from a government which had gone into the election – like every major party since Mike Moore in 1993 – promising kids would not be left to do nothing; a government saying it had moved us beyond the worst of the global recession. So how was it OK that so many youth were still doing nowt?

We decided if we were going to get outraged about anything on behalf of our viewers, that many young people doing nothing with their lives – the population of Palmerston North, as Shane said – was worthy of outrage.

Shane was still learning as an interviewer - it takes years to handle that environment and be able to really listen. It wasn't a perfect interview - he didn't use the points I made above, about National's election promise and the fact they were claiming credit for a recovering economy. He interrupted a couple of times too often. And as a producer I didn't give him enough layers to work from - we took Paul a little too literally and were a couple of questions short of what was needed to drill down. But he did make some very clear points and Bennett tried to evade by quoting youth unemployment stats rather than the NEET stats we were asking about. She tried to claim National were getting on top of the problem when the stats clearly had the numbers up 20 percent.

We didn't do the job perfectly and yes it was aggressive, but to assume that's a sign of leftie bias is an incorrect assumption of those three men's part. Paul, as we all know, could never be accused of leftie bias!

Which brings us to Edwards main point, about interviewers and their opinions. It's an issue I used to be very black and white on, but the industry is increasingly grey. It's changed a lot since Edwards' days.

Holmes was a big part of that change; people had a rough idea of his right-leaning politics but most (certainly not all) trusted him anyway. But the line has blurred as politicians pop up on a wider range of programmes and interviewers have different and varied roles. Paul Henry stood as a National Party candidate and the interview the PM every Monday morning on Breakfast for years. Mike Hosking is clearly right-leaning yet interviews politicians every morning. Pam Corkery did it from the left, as do Willie & JT.

Ralston himself is known to be right-leaning and Edwards left-leaning. Denis Welch stood for the Alliance but kept writing political stories for The Listener. Gordon Campbell is clearly of the left and was one of the best journalists of his generation. And on it goes.

Ideally, the interviewer leaves their opinions at the door. But we all know that's impossible in the purest sense, so we hope at times for balance and at other times - because balance isn't always the right approach either - for well-informed critiques.

So of course Shane can't now interview on Q+A. But you can never say never. For one, Shane may change his views over the years and move further left or right. Should his public position now define him forever?

Holmes over-stepped the line now and then, but would we have been better to lose all his other interviewing talents for the sake of objectivity? Now that I've worked so closely with him, I think not. There are no perfect interviewers, no-one without bias and a limited range of people with the skills to do that job. Ideally, objectivity is the goal. But in a small country and with such a fractured media market, we do the best we can in the grey.