To a party last night, to celebrate a friend’s continuing defeat of cancer, at which no fewer than four people – two political, two not – spontaneously mentioned Australian Prime Mininster Kevin Rudd’s interview on yesterday’s Andrew Marr programme. As I had mentioned it myself on yesterday’s blog, commenting on his excellent tone and his realistic analysis as to what might come out of the G20, I was interested to know why others thought it was an effective piece of communication.
To take one of the non-politicians, he (a doctor) thought that it was noteworthy for three reasons – first, the sound of a leading politician speaking unequivocally and convincingly in support of what Gordon Brown was trying to achieve; second, the gentle but firm pushing back on Marr’s opening question, which allowed Rudd to take control of the interview pretty much from then on in; and the explanation that just because the London Summit would not achieve everything did not mean it should be dismissed for achieving nothing.
If there was one thing that I think wraps those points together, it is a lack of defensiveness. Too many of our politicians – not just ministers, and not just Labour – feel they have to meet the negativity of the media half way.
‘So Secretary of State, you’d have to accept this taxpayer-funded jamboree is a total waste of time and money, with a hideous carbon footprint thrown in, and how are we to know the spouses are not watching porn films in their hotel rooms at our expense?’
‘No, John/Jeremy/Nick/Adam/Evan/Sarah/delete where applicable, I don’t accept it is a total waste of time and money…’
‘So partial then, a partial waste of time and money?’
‘Well, no, let me finish …’
Before he died, Robin Cook used to cite an academic survey showing that the positive to negative ratio in the press had gone from 3 positive/1 negative in 1974 to 1 positive/18 negative a few years ago; and it was not only the Daily Mail that was covered. That is a cultural shift which has led to a cultural shift across the broadcast media too.
Because Australia has had a fair few hardnut politicians and media practitioners down the years, we Brits make assumptions that their politics and media are as tough as ours. In some ways perhaps they are. But I was struck when I was there last year doing interviews to promote The Blair Years how much less aggressive the media was. Whenever the PR woman from the publishers said ‘this one is a bit like Jeremy Paxman,’ they turned out to be more Emily Maitlis.
There is of course a place for both, but I think Kevin Rudd’s success on Sunday came from being rooted in a culture in which, though politicians will always be wary of media and vice versa, he is still able to see an interview as a place to make a series of big strategic points, not as a dull contest in which to secure a no-score draw is viewed as something close to triumph by the politicians, failure by the broadcasters, and plain dull by the public.