Sometime after my unceremonious sacking by Sharon Crosby as host of Top of the Morning, I was interviewed on Morning Report by Sean Plunket. I was surprised by the vehemence of Plunket’s questioning. His theme was that there had been a clear conflict of interest between my role as media advisor to the Prime Minister and my role as host of the Saturday morning programme. Had Top of the Morning been a political or current affairs show, he would have been quite right. But it wasn’t. It was a magazine show, devoid of any political content. Of the 750-odd interviews I did on the programme, only three were with politicians and in every case dealt with the guest’s life and times, not with their political views. Interestingly enough, I interviewed Jenny Shipley on the programme, but never Helen Clark. The high moral ground which Plunket was occupying then seems to sit uneasily with his current assertion that he should be allowed to engage in political commentary outside his job as Radio New Zealand’s top current affairs interviewer on Morning Report. He should not. The issue here is one of perception. Whether he writes approvingly or disapprovingly of a party’s or politician’s policies or performance, his own political independence as an interviewer will be challenged and compromised. I suspect that Radio New Zealand will be flooded with complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. He would, in my view, be a liability to the company rather than an asset and unemployable in his current role.
Most interviewers are intelligent and informed people and it would be nonsense to think that they do not have personal political opinions and preferences. But as professionals, they understand that they must leave those opinions and preferences behind when they are doing their job. In the late 60s and early 70s I was regularly interviewing politicians on the television programme Gallery. Privately I was a Labour supporter. But I never allowed that to influence my interviews. Indeed, there is a danger that I may have overcompensated to avoid that impression. Certainly, the then Leader of the Opposition, Norman Kirk, saw me as anything but an ally. Despite Kirk’s opposition, I stood for Labour in Miramar in the 1972 general election. That, of necessity, spelled the end of my career as a current affairs interviewer. Though I could have conducted interviews in a perfectly fair and disinterested manner, as I had before, no-one would have believed it. The cat was out of the bag. There would have been a perception of bias. If Plunket starts writing about politics, he will invite that perception every time he expresses a view. There was to be a sequel to my interview with Plunket on Morning Report. Some years later Judy and I were running a training session with a major New Zealand organization. During a break for coffee, one of the principals observed that they had been pleasantly surprised by our fees. They’d paid much more for a previous session with someone else. After a lot of cajoling they told us what they’d paid and who had done the training. Both pieces of information were surprising. The fee was indeed considerable and the trainer was Sean Plunket.
But the most surprising piece of information was yet to come. They had, they said, made several appearances on Morning Report and been interviewed by Plunket both before and after the training. Had Plunket softened his interviews as a result of his business relationship with the organization? On the contrary, they were surprised to find him just as hostile as ever. That, at least, did not surprise me. Plunket is a professional and he retained his professionalism even while interviewing his own clients. But it still won’t do. The most telling part of this episode is that after the training his (and later our) clients expected him to go more easily on them and were surprised when he didn’t. Had his radio audience been aware of this situation, that expectation would have extended to them too. My understanding is that Plunket no longer does media training and it’s entirely possible that this was a one-off. He is also not the only radio or television interviewer to do a bit of training on the side. What is concerning is that neither he nor some of his supporters in this case, seem to grasp that the reality of their neutrality as political interviewers is not enough. There must be a public perception of that neutrality as well.