Barry Soper: "Asking questions is called democracy and accountability" – Newstalk ZB
4PM – 7PM
Press conferences with politicians generally have always been torrid affairs.
Prime Ministers generally don’t like them very much, they get questions out of left field and at times struggle to answer them.
Going way back to Rob Muldoon when I persisted asking him questions about an old Cabinet colleague mate of his Keith Allen and what became known as the Ministry of Silly Walks, he was none too happy.
We all knew Allan actually fell over in his apartment garden and snagged his shirt on a rose bush but claimed to have been beaten up on the short walk home from the Beehive and Bellamys. It turned out Allen, a thoroughly nice man, was hypoglycaemic, he was a diabetic and shouldn’t have been drinking at Bellamys.
Knowing this, the question line was important, the possibility of a Cabinet Minister being assaulted, was a pretty serious claim. Muldoon would have none of it, threatening to raise my accreditation to work in the gallery with the then Speaker if I asked another question.
Of course, another question was immediately proffered, he refused to answer, and the Speaker was called on to reprimand me. He was an old, former gentleman farmer, Sir Richard Harrison and politely asked me to apologise to the Prime Minister, which of course didn’t happen, essentially because the snap election was called in 1984 shortly afterwards by Muldoon and an apology wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Press conferences are about asking questions, testing the politician.
The last widely popular Labour Prime Minister David Lange was so uncomfortable with them that at one stage he cancelled them altogether. As Press Gallery Chair at the time, it was my job to try and get them reinstated. In a meeting in his office on the 9th floor of the Beehive, Lange said he was sick of them.
“If I pick my nose, they’d show it on the six o’clock news,” he opined. I suggested that was pretty easy to resolve, don’t. He reinstated his press conferences.
Television is a Prime Minister’s Holy Grail, their appearance on it means everything to them, hence our current leader’s constant throw to the audience, on many occasions before she even looks up from her carefully scripted notes: Jessica, Tova.
Jacinda Ardern’s press conferences are on a whole new level, she’s had more practice at them than any other leader in recent history.
But for her, it’s all about control, to cut off a line of questioning before something difficult takes hold. If it runs the risk of taking hold, she’ll over talk the questioner through the power of the podium microphone and move on.
With the flick of a hand, she’ll switch to another questioner. She’s trained the media to raise their hands which allows her to rattle off the order in which the questions are to be asked.
If you’re working to a deadline, which in radio is constant, it’s of no consequence to Ardern, television takes precedence.
Admittedly the question she flicked away on her latest outing was probably one she wasn’t too keen on taking – was she going to do more than a token visit to Auckland this Thursday?
The current crop has all been media trained like no other occupants in the Beehive. The same modus operandi has been adopted by Ardern’s fellow preachers from the pulpit – Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins.
It’s called media control but asking questions is called democracy and accountability.