Chairing a television debate between two party leaders during an election campaign is probably the most difficult thing an interviewer can do. The stakes will never be higher and each leader’s aim will be to monopolise the available time by out-talking his or her opponent. Volume can come into the mix as much as, and sometimes more than, debating skill.
The moderator’s job is:
- To ensure that the two sides get more or less equal time not only in the overall debate but within each question area;
- To play devil’s advocate to both sides and with equal force;
To keep order.
To achieve this, he or she:
- Must have a natural authority;
- Must not be overawed by the debaters or their status;
- Must enjoy their respect;
- Must be willing to read the riot act to them if things get out of hand;
- Must, like a Rugby World Cup referee, not unreasonably restrict the free flow of play
- by being unnecessarily pedantic;
- Must, regardless of gender, have a good strong voice.
If the moderator is unable to be heard when the debaters are talking over one another or if he is too lacking in confidence to interrupt and demand that they behave like civilised people, then he shouldn’t be doing the job. In the first Leaders’ Debate, I thought Guyon Espiner did reasonably well. He is highly intelligent and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues. But the ridiculously limited time available for debate of each issue, in what was an insanely over-crowded commercial hour-and-a-half, made his job extremely difficult. Highly confident in his role as interviewer in the relative tranquillity of the Q & A studio, he seemed nervous and ill at ease for much of the debate. His natural authority in the Sunday morning forum seemed to have deserted him. His attempts to get Key and Goff to stop talking over one another were at times tentative and unconvincing. And his voice, which is just fine in a quiet studio, lacked the strength and depth necessary to demand attention.
I hope this doesn’t sound unnecessarily harsh. Espiner met two of the three requirements of the moderator’s job: My impression is that he gave Key and Goff more or less equal time in the overall debate, if not always within the individual topic segment; and he played devil’s advocate to both sides. But the task he was given bordered on mission impossible. In its determination to entertain rather than inform viewers, TVNZ had tried to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. As the robot in Lost in Space used to say, ‘It does not compute.’ (Not to mention, ‘Danger, danger, Will Robinson!) ‘Could you have done it better, Brian?’
Maybe, but not when I was Guyon’s age. If you want to find a description of the worst piece of chairing in the history of New Zealand television, turn to pages 152 to 150 of The Public Eye which I wrote in.
It describes a 15 minute shouting match on the current affairs programme Gallery between Rob Muldoon and Labour’s Dr Martyn Finlay just before the 1969 general election. Finlay can barely be heard over Muldoon and the chair can’t be heard at all. There was public outrage at the total unfairness (to Finlay) of this exchange, accompanied by calls for the sacking of the completely ineffectual and generally hopeless moderator.
His name was Brian Edwards. [This is how Professor Barry Gustafson described the Muldoon/Finlay confrontation in his biography of Rob Muldoon His Way: ‘On 21 November, a week before polling day…. there was a televised debate on the current affairs programme Gallery. Muldoon and Labour’s Dr Martyn Finlay ended a confrontation, which had been dominated by Muldoon, shouting at each other. The cameras remained on Muldoon who kept talking, while Finlay was screaming, sometimes inaudibly, off-camera and the Chairman, Dr Brian Edwards, was trying vainly to gain control of the situation. While it was not an edifying spectacle, it was gripping television and highlighted Muldoon’s fearsome and arrogant strength in debate.’]