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November 23, 2007 / Amy Bradney-George

Friday – Election Eve

“We have a strong (track record) and plenty of performance,” Howard said as I drank my coffee and listened to the radio. I almost choked at the line “plenty of performance”, wondering what kind of “performance” he is talking about. Certainly he has been in power a long time, but that doesn’t mean his performance has been up to standard. Is it perhaps because they aren’t supposed to “perform” as such? I thought the job was more about getting things done, or have we moved far beyond that façade now and into the realm of reality – what seems to be more PR and public appearances than action. This election seems to be yet another battle for masculinity – who has the bigger promises? And who’s performance is more reliable?

Speaking of the government, I’ve started to observe some differences between politicians and other people in interview situations. In an attempt to better understand their “performance” qualities, I’ve outlined a basic “hard news” interview technique and how it could change with a politician on board.

The “hard news” interview
“Hard news” is a term used for the short, sharp news stories you might read in the paper, or see or hear on a broadcast news bulletin. This is also the interview technique I first learnt as a journalism student, and one that crops up in most forms of interviewing in some way. The interview should be concise, and questions can be an effective way to achieve that. Ask questions which are to the point. Don’t share your opinion on the issue (as a journalist you should not have an opinion, you should try to be balanced, ie harangue both sides of the issue). And – this is an important one – ask “open-ended” questions, ones which will discourage yes/no answers. That way you can get as much information as possible.
Question examples might be:

* How do you feel about the current state of satire in Australia?
* Why do you promote satirical content on your enemies? (although you probably wouldn’t use the word “enemies”)

You might also include a few closed questions (the yes/no ones) for clarification of an issue, for example “is there satire in Australia?”.

Hard news interviews and politicians
In a recent interview Kerry O’Brien did with opposition leader Kevin Rudd, I noticed his questions leaned more towards closed questions. And an interesting thing happened. Where a regular interviewee might answer with “yes” or, if you’re lucky, “no. But this and that because of this”, Rudd’s answers were as long as a Mr Regular Interviewee’s answers to an open-ended question might be.

This observation led me to create a rule for interviewing politicians:

If you want an answer that goes for 5 minutes or more, ask the politician a closed question. If you have a spare hour, ask an open-ended question.

And another thing. If you ask a question you know they won’t answer, expect to be there for a long time, as the politician answers with policies and background to an issue which may possibly be related to the original question, but is not guaranteed to relate at all. They particularly seem to like doing that when it’s The Public asking the question. You can call them on this behaviour, but if you do, expect to be there for a long time as the politician answers with policies and background…

And that completes my advice on the “hard news” interview. Some time: I may look at other forms of questioning.

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