I was standing in for Kim Hill on National Radio. On that morning’s guest list was the Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark. Her ‘preferred prime minister’ ratings at the time were dire. Towards the end of the interview I said to her, “You don’t look very happy.” Not long afterwards I had a call from Helen’s office asking if I could come over for a chat. The possibility of Callingham & Edwards giving Helen some media advice was discussed. To my eternal shame my reply was that I was unsure whether she ‘could be fixed’. My closest friend at the time was Michael Hirschfeld, then President of the Labour Party. We talked. Michael later brokered a one-off training session with Helen. We looked at tapes of several of her previous TV interviews. In most of them she was overly formal, spoke too loudly and barked. We explained that the television interview is an intimate, close-up affair and suggested that she speak more quietly and in a more personal tone. We had a second go.
We’ve trained a helluva lot of people. But Helen was/is the fastest learner by a country mile. She would have won the 1996 election were it not for Winston Peters. I’m telling this story because I was reminded of those events as I watched last night’s debate between English and Ardern. English was his usual amiable self. He spoke quietly and calmly and showed virtually no sign of being fazed. Jacinda was more abrasive, more combative, generally louder and occasionally shrill. A kinder interpretation would be to say that she was more passionate. From a quick read of this morning’s papers the majority view appears to be that English won the debate. Ms Ardern doesn’t want my advice but here it is anyway: Even when you are debating in front of a large and sometimes voluble studio audience, the audience that really matters consists of small groups of people sitting at home in their living rooms distractedly watching the box. Television is an intimate medium. Treat it like a town hall meeting at your peril.