Barry Soper: For Jacinda Ardern, press conferences seem to be about media control
Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper interviews Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a post-Cabinet press conference. Video / NZ Herald
Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper was embroiled in a testy exchange with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at today’s post-Cabinet press conference. Soper pressed Ardern to answer more of his questions, saying he was on schedule, with the prime minister eventually telling him: “I’m going to ask for a little decorum.” Soper left the conference in order to do his radio deadlines. Here, he gives his opinion on Prime Ministers’ press conferences.
Press conferences with politicians have generally always been steamy affairs.
Premiers don’t usually like them very much, they get questions from left field and sometimes have a hard time answering them.
Going back to Rob Muldoon, when I persisted in asking him about a former Cabinet colleague, companion of his Keith Allen and what became known as the Ministry of Silly Walks, he was not too happy.
We all knew Allen actually fell in the garden of his apartment and snagged his shirt on a rose bush, but claimed he was beaten just steps away from the Beehive and Bellamy. It turned out that Allen, a really nice guy, was hypoglycemic, he was diabetic and shouldn’t have been drinking at Bellamy’s.
Knowing this, the line of questioning was important, the possibility of a cabinet minister being assaulted was a pretty serious claim. Muldoon would have wanted none of this, threatening to upgrade my credentials to work on the podium with the then President if I asked another question.
Of course, another question was immediately asked, he refused to answer and the President was called to reprimand me. He was an old gentleman farmer, Sir Richard Harrison, and he politely asked me to apologize to the Prime Minister, which of course didn’t happen, basically because the snap election was called in 1984 soon after by Muldoon and that an apology would be needed. t happened anyway.
Press conferences are about asking questions, testing the politician.
The last very popular Labor Prime Minister, David Lange, was so uncomfortable with them that at one point he canceled them altogether. As chairman of the Press Gallery at the time, it was my job to try to get them reinstated. During a meeting in his office on the 9th floor of the Beehive, Lange said he was fed up with them.
“If I pick my nose, they’ll show it on the 6 p.m. news,” he said. I suggested it was pretty easy to fix, don’t. He reinstated his press conferences.
Television is a prime minister’s holy grail, their appearance means everything to them, hence our current leader’s constant jet to the public, many times before she even looked up from her notes carefully scripted: Jessica, Tova.
Jacinda Ardern’s press conferences are on a whole new level, she’s practiced in them more than any other leader in recent history.
But for her, it’s all about control, cutting a line of questioning before something difficult sets in. If it’s likely to be in the way, she’ll talk more to the interrogator through the power of the podium microphone and move on.
With a simple wave of the hand, she will move on to another questioner. She has trained the media to raise their hands, which allows her to state the order in which questions should be asked.
If you work within a timeframe that, if you have to go on the radio, is constant, it doesn’t matter to Ardern, television takes precedence.
Admittedly, the question she asked on her last outing was probably one she didn’t really fancy answering – was she going to make more than a token visit to Auckland this Thursday?
The current crop has been media trained like no other hive occupant. The same modus operandi was adopted by Ardern’s other preachers from the pulpit – Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins.
It’s called media control, but asking questions is called democracy and accountability.