In a commissioned review Fairfax’s Colleen Ryan found that Ferguson’s opening question to Joe Hockey on the 2014 budget was “emotive” and would lead to the average viewer thinking the treasurer “was not treated with sufficient respect by the interviewer”.
Ferguson’s opening gambit to Hockey was: “It’s a budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?”
Ferguson, who pressed an uncomfortable-looking Hockey on the fairness of the budget and its reversal of pre-election promises, homed in on the deficit levy and Medicare co-payment, which Hockey referred to as “tax adjustments”.
“They’re still taxes,” Ferguson said. “I don’t need to teach you, treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name. Am I correct?”
Apparently she treated Chris Bowen in a similar manner.
I thought she treated everyone like a headmistress sorting out naughty miscreants. Because she was generally well-informed and incisive I rather enjoyed her style.
The ABC has defended her:
“As a political interviewer, Ms Ferguson is tough but demonstrates a consistently civil and objective approach,” said Kate Torney, director of ABC News.
“She is insistent that those she interviews do not evade important questions and often focuses on contradictions either within policy positions or in the responses of interviewees.
“The fact that this may make interviewees ‘uncomfortable’ does not necessarily mean that the interviewer is either aggressive or is failing to demonstrate due impartiality.”
Torney said the ABC “does not believe Ms Ferguson’s questions were hostile or unbalanced; rather they were astute and prescient”.
Generally speaking though, I think aggressive interviewing is unproductive, especially when coming from an ill-informed base, which unfortunately is what we get all too often.
The whole affair has become problematic for the ABC because it has been reported in a biased way. Note that The Guardian report linked above speaks of what the average viewer might think. It hasn’t reported a finding of bias as such. But elsewhere we have:
The Daily Telegraph: ABC bias in Joe Hockey Budget interview with Sarah Ferguson
The Australian (not paywalled): ABC host Sarah Ferguson breached bias rules with Hockey interview
Alan Sunderland as Head of Editorial Policy tells the real story:
Colleen produced an excellent and comprehensive report. Her overall judgement was that our coverage complied with all of our policies and guidelines and the overall quality was “excellent”. At significant length, the report discusses all aspects of the coverage and provides a series of observations on ways it might have been improved, expanded or extended.
When it came to the detail, the report analysed 76 different pieces of content over several days, and in all of that it singled out only three items for particular mention. One of them was the Sarah Ferguson interview.
While stressing that the issue was subjective and her view related only to a “potential perception”, Colleen Ryan suggested that some questions were asked in a way that might raise perceptions of bias because of tone and phrasing. While acknowledging that all the questions were accurate and appropriate, and that Sarah Ferguson had a reputation as an interviewer who asked equally tough questions of all sides, she nonetheless wondered whether enough respect was shown to this interviewee.
He says it was a worthwhile question to ask, and the whole point of seeking outside views is to raise honest questions.
Thankfully the ABC will continue to monitor its performance with such external reviews and publish the results in a transparent way. It’s critics in the MSM should do likewise.