The last time I really got stuck into John Campbell was when he interviewed ‘moon man’ Ken Ring after the February earthquake. That was on 28 February 2011. You’ll gather I find very little to criticise in John’s approach to his work – and a great deal to praise. I’ve described what he does as ‘advocacy journalism’ and many thousands of New Zealanders, most particularly those teachers, parents and children adversely affected by the Novopay debacle, and the dispossessed and seemingly abandoned victims of the Christchurch earthquake, have benefited from that advocacy. It would not, I think, be an exaggeration to claim that both groups and a great many other people regard John Campbell as something of a hero. I share that view.
I don’t want to revisit the Ring interview. My criticism of John for browbeating his subject was harsh and I later regretted its harshness. I followed the first post up with a second, A Gracious Apology from John Campbell. It included this sentence: ‘For my part, I believe that my critique of his performance on this occasion was justified, but the manner in which it was expressed may not have been. Like John himself, I was angry.’
My impression last night was that John was angry again, this time with the Prime Minister, John Key. Key had refused numerous invitations by Campbell Live to discuss the GCSB legislation. That is his right. Television programmes have no power of subpoena and nor should they have such a power.
But Key had gone further than mere refusal when responding to questions put to him by Campbell Live reporter Rebecca Wright during the National Party Conference. He had dealt with her perfectly reasonable and politely expressed questions in a snide, dismissive and clever-dicky manner that did him little credit. Finally asked by Wright if he would appear on the programme next Monday, he replied in a dismissive tone, ‘Probably not.’
At 4pm yesterday Campbell Live was informed that the PM would appear on the show that night. I’m reasonably sure that Campbell’s suggestion during the subsequent interview that the change of heart was prompted by widespread disapproval of his treatment of Wright was entirely correct.
I don’t intend to delve into the rights and wrongs of what Campbell asserted during the interview and Key countered or denied. You can take your pick from a range of blogs on the topic.
Instead I want to summarise how I perceived the demeanour of the two protagonists.
Key: critical of the programme, but patient, considered, quiet, reasonable, polite, helpful, good-humoured.
Campbell: patient and agreeable to begin with, but increasingly impatient, interruptive, petulant, hostile, overbearing, accusatory, rude. Having accused Key of playing the man not the ball, he launches into a very personal attack on the Prime Minister’s previous handling of the GCSB debate and sarcastically dismisses one of Key’s replies with: ‘Prime Minister, you are a brilliant politician.’
For an entirely different view of the interview, you should look at Russell Brown’s Fluency, ease of manner – and Norton Antivirus on Public Address.
Brown there describes the interview as ‘a study in media training’ – nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more – and goes on to offer an interpretation of the exchange that left me wondering whether we had watched the same two people in the same interview.
The Herald’s Audrey Young offered what seemed to me a more rational interpr etation of the interview:
‘After last night’s commanding performance on Campbell Live, John Key will be left wondering why he did not go on the show a lot earlier to defend the changes to his GCSB bill.’
My overall impression was that Campbell’s frustration arose from his inability to score off Key’s answers, despite the fact that his producers had thrown out that night’s ‘GCSB road trip’ and sensibly allowed the exchange to run for a lengthy 17 minutes. Tossing out the final item would have been even better. This is complex stuff and it’s to be hoped that Key will keep to his promise to return to the programme to carry on the debate.
As for John, I rather suspect that the next time I meet him at New World supermarket on College Hill, I’ll be praising him to the skies. His confrontation with Key has not changed my opinion of him one iota. Sometimes even the finest journalist can get too close to a story. That, in my view, is what happened here.