Interviewers: Laurie Oakes
02 October 2005
Laurie Oakes on testing times with the PM: "He tried to wriggle out of that and it got very tense ... We went to a commercial. Normally in a commercial break you chat. There was stony silence for the whole three minutes. It got to the point where poor old Jim Waley [the then
presenter], in embarrassment, asked him whether he was enjoying the fine weather."
They've made a living out of grilling our public figures, celebrities and criminals. Now it's their turn to give some answers. Interviews with four of TV's most formidable interviewers - Jana Wendt, Andrew Denton, Kerry O'Brien and Laurie Oakes - about the art of asking questions.
Reporting for the Nine Network's
Sunday, National Nine News
programs, Laurie Oakes often leads the media’s news agenda with his political interviews. Newcastle-born Oakes, 62, was Canberra bureau chief for Melbourne’s
by age 25. His TV career began with Channel Ten in 1979, and he shifted to the Nine Network in 1984. Don Watson has written that Oakes “sits there as still as a frog on a lily pad, while his subjects buzz in the spotlight. He rarely strikes; it’s enough to know that he can and, if wants, he will.”
What is a good interview, and how is it achieved?
A good interview is one where a news story emerges. News is my gig. But that’s not the only form of good interview; it can be one that sheds light on the character of a politician, or exposes a fib, or if elicits something new and important. There was an interview I did with Paul Keating when he was prime minister [in May 1992]. He hadn’t been on the program for about six months because he was dirty with me. He was always dirty with me for something [laughs]. But he came on the program one Sunday morning, and he dropped three front page stories. [The privatisation of two-thirds of Qantas, the introduction of pay-TV, and a new Commonwealth vocational education system; none of which Keating has consulted cabinet or caucus on before speaking to Oakes.] That was a fair old news-breaking morning.
Why do people tell you things? You once said, “I’m not beautiful, that’s a disadvantage, but I’m big, that’s an advantage.”
Part of it is the exposure with the Nine Network. I think the interview [on the
program] is a bit of an agenda setter. I think John Howard for instance thinks more comes out of an interview with me than with some people in terms of exposure with stories. A lot of politicians know me, I’ve been around for a long time. They know I’m not going to go off on some tangent; I’ll be on the issues of the day. I’m deadly serious about the craft and I do research – I have the help of a researcher – but also I’ve been around a while, there’s a fair bit in the scone, a lot of background in the head that I think helps the interview along.
I think size can be a factor you can use. I don’t try to bully people but I think you’ve got to have some sort of presence as an interviewer. What presence I’ve got is based on size. But I now do fewer face-to-face interview, and what the interviewee sees is a little face on a screen. I get the same results. Maybe size isn’t the factor I thought it would be. It’s true that some people are a bit frightened of me but I think that’s more to do with my reputation as a reporter than my size.
Do political interviews always need to be combative?
I think you need a certain amount of combativeness because it’s not always in the politician’s interest to come clean and it’s supposed to be my job to get to the truth. Keating was always fun. He would perform. John Howard’s the same. It’s always jousting but he gives. One of the most combative and tensest interviews I did was with Howard [in November 1995] when he was opposition leader. I wanted to explore what kind of prime minister he would make. His line was he stood for the family and honesty and candour in government. So I produced quotes from him from 1984, when he said political leaders should always show a "bias towards orthodox family arrangements” in the context of not giving benefits to de factos. He tried to wriggle out of that and it got very tense. Then I produced his comments from the 1983 election when he was treasurer, when he misled the public about the size of the deficit. We went to a commercial. Normally in a commercial break you chat. There was stony silence for the whole three minutes. It got to the point where poor old Jim Waley [the then
presenter], in embarrassment, asked him whether he was enjoying the fine weather. [Laughs] It was a very, very tense moment.
Do people’s assumptions about your politics ever influence whether they will agree to be interviewed?
My personal politics are pretty much in the middle, I would think. I’ve voted both ways at various times. I don’t know if perceptions about my politics influence whether people will be interviewed. Keating used to boycott the program every now and again; not because he thought I was a Liberal but because he thought I wouldn’t toe the line. Paul believed in rewards and punishment.
[On John Howard:] I think we get on all right. He accepts on some things we have a different view [Oakes said in a 2000 interview he was “passionate” about racial tolerance and he found it “hard to be objective” on the issue, such as when he is interviewing Howard.] He doesn’t seem to bear grudges or wage vendettas. He’s a pretty even-tempered sort of a bloke.
Do you have a golden moment as an interviewer?
I don’t think there are any golden moments, but I did an interview with Kim Beazley [in 2001], last time he was opposition leader, where they had no policy on tax. I exposed that, a shortcoming. I’ve known Kim for a very long time. I think he’s a very good politician, I think he’s very sincere. But they all try and hide things, and they all try and get away with stuff. In some ways, because Kim is Kim, I think he finds it a bit harder to spin and to lie than a lot of them.
Have you experienced real chemistry during an interview?
I interviewed [the then prime minister of India] Rajiv Gandhi [in 1986]. I felt he was a wonderful bloke. I came away feeling he wasn’t a politician at all; he was a teacher. It was particularly poignant because there had been an assassination attempt on him, I think, days before. [A second attempt in 1991 succeeded]. So we talked about that. It was just the way he talked. He seemed to be such a down to earth, gentle, sincere and spiritual person – quite unlike the sort of politicians I was used to interviewing. There didn’t seem to be any spin to it. We made a connection, and, for some reason, the fact he had almost been killed added to that connection. Talking to a bloke about someone trying to kill him was something I hadn’t done before either. Later on, when he was killed, [the interview] took on a whole new significance.
Is there an interview you wish you could do again?
I’m never totally happy with an interview. But I can’t think of one that was such a disaster I wished it hadn’t gone to air. I interviewed George Bush in Washington [in 2003] before he came to Australia. It was supposed to be five minutes, and I stretched it to seven. I’d like to have asked something a little bit more about the Iraq war than I did. After the interview finished, we stayed there and chatted for another seven minutes. There’s stuff there that I wished I’d got on camera.
Any regrets about breaking the Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot affair, in 2002?
No regrets with the story. The reaction was pretty uncomfortable. I was a bit surprised by the attitude some of my journalist colleagues took but they’re entitled to do that. Some people saw it differently, and quite legitimately too. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make. I don’t criticise people for taking a different view. I’m not sure in all cases it was a sincere view. I think there was a fair bit of, “We can run this story via criticising Laurie Oakes, and that way we’re taking the high ground, and still have the titillation.”
Can you tell if an interviewee is lying?
The smart answer is when their lips are moving. But that’s not true; politicians do tell the truth a lot of the time. Not always. I think a lot of the time I can tell because I try and background myself. There have been occasions I think I have caught politicians out telling fibs. [Examples?] You do an interview every week; they tend to blur after a while.
How do you break through spin?
I think a lot of the most successful politicians are the ones who spin least; who have got the guts to be themselves on camera. When they are spinning, or refusing to answer questions, I think it’s legitimate to point that out. I don’t believe in asking the same question a million times, but you can point out that they’re refusing to answer a question.
There was an interview with Daryl Melham [in April 2000] when he was shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, and the Labor Party had been attacking [the Wik] amendments to the [Native Title] Act, which they claimed were racist. All I wanted Daryl to do was say which [amendments] were racist and say that the Labor Party, if it won government, would repeal them. He’d been told not to make any commitments, so he was trying to spin his way out of that. I pushed and pushed to the point where Daryl basically curled up in a foetal position, and it was embarrassing. It wasn’t really his fault; his leader [Kim Beazley] put him in that position.
You’ve admitted in the past you “lay traps” for politicians, for example in an interview with Kim Beazley when he was a government minister.
Well, that’s right. I quoted [to Beazley] something I said was a [policy] quote from the then Opposition leader [implying John Howard]. I read it out and Beazley was come in, spinner; he bagged [the statement] when in fact it was his mate [the then UK opposition leader] Tony Blair who had said it. Beazley looked a bit silly. It was a gotcha moment. I think [laying traps] is a legitimate tactic. What that showed was hypocrisy on Beazley’s part. He thought it was Howard, so he said it was a terrible thing. If he’d have known it was Blair, he’d have said it was a great thing. It exposed hypocrisy. I think that’s the job of an interviewer.
Have you ever been surprised by an interview?
When Keating launched his challenge against Hawke the first time [in June 1991; it failed]. I think it was probably the only television interview he did [at the time]. Some unexpected stuff came out of that: I can’t remember the details, but he laid it all out, what he wanted to do as prime minister.
What’s the hardest interview you’ve ever had to do?
The hardest one I had to do was interview the French Foreign Minister once in Paris [in 1994]. We sat down on the lawn. We’d agreed to doing the interview in English, but he said “no, we can’t do it in English." He spoke to me in English, but he thought it would be improper for a French foreign minister to be interviewed in English. [Laughs]. I said, “Look I’m sorry, I don’t speak French, and anyway, I’m not interested in doing an interview through an interpreter.” So it was a stand off for a while, but eventually we did it in English.
Have you ever felt intimidated by an interviewee?
Keating can be intimidating. Keating can be very aggressive. If he thought you were trying to nail him, he’d come back very hard. He could land a punch on an interviewer. [But] Keating always had the guts to be himself. The problem these days is politicians are media trained out of existence. Keating was tough, or he could be soft. He was never dull. Yes, there’s a nostalgia [among interviewers], not for Keating, but for politicians like that. Gough [Whitlam] can be intimidating, just because he’s so regal, and so sure of himself.
Do you have a technique for handling dull interviewees?
Then I think you’ve got to be a bit aggressive. You’ve got to liven it up by engaging in a bit of pugilism [boxing], I think. I don’t know know any other way. But even that doesn’t work some time [laughs]. Not everyone will let you get under their skin. Some people will bore on no matter what you do.
What is the best skill an interviewer can bring to the job?
The best skill you can bring to the interview is to listen. You need to analyse quickly what you’re hearing. In any interview, you need to go in with a plan. But I’d probably put listening ahead of a good brain.