The Hot Seat; now a harder sell

Hot SeatLast night New Zealand television current affairs programme host John Campbell told viewers that increasing numbers of organisational spokesmen were declining to be interviewed on his programme (from 7’10” in this clip).

This was the second time I’d heard that complaint recently; the first was several weeks ago on t’wireless. I can’t remember where, perhaps from one of the panellists on Jim Mora’s ‘Afternoons’ programme on Radio New Zealand National.

Two swallows do not a summer make and all that. But if there is indeed a trend towards shyness on the part of company and government spokesmen it’s not difficult to see why.

It’s no secret that conflict boosts news ratings. A journalist told me recently that a perfectly viable but conflict-less story TextWrite was pitching wouldn’t make it onto the day’s agenda unless she could find a member of the Opposition who would be prepared to use it to ambush the Government. And that’s what happened.

And before someone cries “’twas ever thus!” I demur. ‘twasn’t.

Gone are the days of the proudly and stubbornly dispassionate news interview, struggling simply to throw light into dark corners and valiantly holding the line of ambivalence and journalistic neutrality. Gone, too, are the days of being able to count on fair play and a compelling case as the best tools to survive that encounter.

More eager to generate a stoush than give interviewees time and space to clarify difficult positions or articulate unavoidably complicated points.

As news programmes chase ratings and content seems to slip inexorably into the infotainment category, conflict increasingly trumps clarity as the producer’s currency of choice. And because populism now rules the roost these programmes have slowly and surely started to degenerate into something resembling ‘The People versus…’, with journalists and hosts taking on the role of Grand Inquisitor in the name of an expectant and increasingly demanding populace.

Many programme formats now stand accused of generating more heat than light; more eager to generate a stoush than give their frequently hapless interviewees the time and space to clarify their difficult positions or articulate sometimes unavoidably complicated points.

So, to John Campbell’s complaint, are producers simply reaping what they’ve sown? Is this increasing reluctance among spokesmen to ‘front’ on these programmes because they know they’re frequently there only for entertainment value? As the gladiator thrown to the lions for the delight and delectation of the baying mob?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating ‘patsy’ interviews and I’m rather controversially on record as criticising both the submissive style of some Kiwi journalists and the expectation among many in authority here that they should be accorded an overly-generous helping of respect by the media.

I’m as delighted as the next person to see a well-informed interviewer skewer a prevaricating flack or polly. Half-truths, deceit and misdirection must always be challenged and revealed – that is, without question, the honourable function of the Fourth Estate.

But, you know what? The vast majority of the poor buggers who don’t want to front these days are just honest Joes trying to convey a genuine message on behalf of generally decent corporate citizens. They’re not wanting to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Or cover up some dastardly deed. Or pollute innocent minds with heinous propaganda.

They’re in the frame because, for years, PR guys like me have told them that good corporate citizens front up and say their piece – relying on that compelling case and trusting in the court of public opinion.

Now, though, I’ll think twice, thrice or even four times before putting someone in front of that camera. There’ll have to be a genuine consumer interest or some other really compelling social or business case for doing the interview, and the spokesman will need to be particularly accomplished or engaging.

Throw into this mix the fact that social media and t’InterWeb are giving organisations new opportunities to engage directly with key audiences in ‘proper’ two-way communication and the Hot Seat really does look like an increasingly unattractive proposition.

Take last night’s Campbell Live as a case in point. John was peeved that Solid Energy hadn’t fielded a spokesman to front on the issue of the Spring Creek Mine layoffs. But where was the upside for Solid Energy? Was CEO Dr Don Elder really going to be given a half-decent chance to explain the market complexities and economic realities behind the horrible decision he had to make to drop that bombshell on an already traumatised West Coast mining community?

What do you think?

Even if so, to what end? For whose benefit? Sure, it’s owned by all New Zealanders but Solid Energy is not a consumer business. It has no customers in Grey Lynn, Karori or Riccarton. It can communicate way more effectively with its customers and other stakeholders through other channels which offer greater scope for the company to set out its arguments fully and rationally.

And it’s already in direct communication with affected staff and community representatives.

Was there really anything Dr Elder could have told John that he hasn’t said dozens of times already in many other interviews? Was there anything he could have told the community of the West Coast that would have made it feel less aggrieved?

No. There was precious-little upside for Solid Energy.

That said, having told Campbell Live that he would front he, or someone else, really should have done so. No question. Perhaps they will now that John has called them on it. I hope so.

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