Launching this week is Never a True Word, the debut political thriller from Michael McGuire. The book follows Jack, a journalist who thinks he’s met every shade of nutter, narcissist and bully, until he enters the bizarre world of politics as a spin doctor. Perhaps Jack might have benefitted from reading John Hill’s how-to, On Being a Minister – here John discusses his experiences with Adelaide’s ‘best informed, most intelligent and, at times, most offensive interviewers’, Matt and Dave.
My first Matt and Dave interview, as a minister, happened on my second day in the job. They asked me why I hadn’t fixed some problem or other in the environment area. I think my response was along the lines of ‘Give us a break; I haven’t been in the job 24 hours yet!’ I don’t think either they or their listeners ever care what the minister’s reason is – there’s a problem and it’s your job to fix it, no excuses! Fair enough.
In almost 11 years as a minister rarely a week went by that I wasn’t cross-examined, poked, accused, joked with or challenged on their morning program. Many weeks I was the minister du jour two or three times – depending on the issue. The environment and health portfolios always had something of interest happening. That means that I did in the order of 500 or so live interviews with two of the best informed, most intelligent and, at times, most offensive interviewers in the business.
Matt’s and Dave’s specialty is what I call the ‘twist and turn’. They like to take something you say and then use it against you (the twist) or jump from one issue to another (the turn). The fact there are two of them against one of you makes these interviews a challenging experience. I can’t say I ever looked forward to these interviews, but I usually felt OK once they were over. To be honest, I generally enjoyed the contest – a seasoned gladiator in the arena with two growling middle-aged lions.
Some would argue that there is often little point going on these kinds of shows – relatively few people listen and the audience is generally older with established political points of view. Why go on and potentially make the issue worse? There is obviously merit in this argument; from a strict media management point of view it makes sense. And maybe my point of view is old-fashioned, but I think that if you can’t stand up to tough media interviews you really shouldn’t be in the job. It’s like wanting to be a top cricketer without facing fast bowling. Ministers should front for a variety of reasons: it’s part of their job, it toughens them (or destroys them) and helps build their reputation for openness (the public hates politicians who hide behind media management).