Ricky Muir fumbles through interview
Clive Palmer defends the performance of Ricky Muir after the Motoring Enthusiasts Party senator repeatedly hesitates and is unable to answer several questions in an interview on Channel 7's Sunday Night.PT0M0S 620 349
Since he was elected to the Senate in September, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party's Ricky Muir has been the invisible man of Australian politics.
Besides appearances in old YouTube videos – which showed him flinging kangaroo poo or doing burnouts with his eight-year-old daughter – he's been nowhere to be seen.
Clive Palmer greets Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator-elect Ricky Muir, who is voting with the PUP on legislation. Photo: Andrew Meares
Journalists who ask to talk to him are referred to the party's founder and spokesman Keith Littler, who then answers on Muir's behalf. Even Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not been able to secure a meeting with him because Muir was too busy working on a saw mill in Victoria.
That all changed on Sunday night when Muir sat down with Channel Seven's Mike Willesee for his first formal broadcast interview.
Depending how you look at it, this was tabloid television at its best – or its worst. All agree: it was a car crash.
It was Muir's misfortune to come up against Willesee, one of the canniest TV journalists around. Over his more than four decades in the game, Willesee has tripped up politicians far more polished than Muir.
It was Willesee who skewered opposition leader John Hewson in 1993 by asking how much a GST would increase the cost of a birthday cake. Hewson's stammering reply is often named as a reason the Coalition lost the so-called "unlosable" election.
Willesee used the same technique on Sunday by asking Muir to define the concept of "balance of power".
Muir – his eyes darting back and forth, his words caught in his throat – struggled to answer.
He eventually managed: "It's the potential ... if ... say in this case, Labor and Greens ... it's the power to vote down legislation in the right circumstances."
"Gotcha" journalism no doubt, but fair enough.
What followed was more questionable.
As Muir became increasingly flustered, he asked to take a break and have a drink of water.
He could reasonably have expected the cameras would be turned off at this point. They weren't. Instead, Muir was filmed receiving advice from a minder; their conversation was broadcast, complete with enormous subtitling.
It was a revealing moment, but a cruel one too. The immortal words of the writer Janet Malcolm come to mind: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."
In other words: the journalist is not your friend.
Malcolm had a point but she went too far. Journalists can be uncompromising without being dodgy – just look at Sarah Ferguson's clinical dissection of Palmer United Party Senator Dio Wang two weeks ago. There was no need for gotcha questions or outtakes; she undid him with logic and facts.
While Willesee's interview was revealing, it was also a missed opportunity. If Muir was asked about for his thoughts on the big issues of the moment – the carbon tax, the proposed Medicare co-payments or university reform – the answers never made it to air. Nor did we learn how he plans to manage his alliance with the mercurial Clive Palmer.
Willesee defended the interview on Monday, telling 2UE: "It would have been far worse for Ricky if we'd run all of the things that he said.
"I really felt that I went easy on him ... We had to show that he was a novice who was not ready to go to the Senate."
Glenn Druery, the so-called "preference whisperer" who will become Muir's senior adviser from July, is outraged. Expect a radically different media strategy when he comes on board, with softer, more controlled interviews.
"He's new, he's inexperienced, he was put under the spotlight and he froze," Druery says.
"He was up against a tabloid king and I would suggest the majority of ordinary Australians would go to water too. This was the playground thug beating up on the new kid. It was not fair."
The programmer's tactics, arguably, were not fair. But then neither is politics. Or journalism. Or life.
Ricky Muir is an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary position. He can be forgiven a poor interview. It may even win him sympathetic fans, as Pauline Hanson's famous "please explain" interview did. But he needs to develop an effective way of communicating with the Australian people. Otherwise the next six years will be excruciating for him – and the voters watching at home.