Tara Brown’s interview with the biological parents of baby Gammy has drawn widespread praise from 60 Minutes viewers.
Her probing one-hour discussion with David and Wendy Farnell – the West Australian couple accused of abandoning Gammy to his surrogate mother in Thailand after discovering he has Down syndrome – sparked 11,000 tweets while the program aired.
In contrast, a typical 60 Minutes episode generates roughly 2000 tweets.
Most commenters praised Brown’s rigorous interview, describing it as ‘‘brilliant’’, ‘‘powerful journalism’’ and deserving of a Walkley Award.
More than 1 million viewers watched in the five major capital cities; that figure rising to almost 1.42 million when regional areas are included.
The unusually late episode of 60 Minutes – listed to start at 9.10pm – even beat the program that preceded it: the grand finale of The Voice Kids.
The ‘‘winner announcement’’ segment of the reality singing show had just 938,000 viewers in the metropolitan areas, with the rest of the episode drawing 896,000 viewers.
As Fairfax Media reported last week, programs such as 60 Minutes and Sunday Night rely heavily on high-profile exclusive interviews to lure ‘‘swinging viewers’’.
Brown's interview, promoted heavily on Channel Nine this week, performed well given its late timeslot and stiff competition from the debut of ABC’s Anzac Girls (1.06 million viewers in the metropolitan areas) and Seven’s The X Factor (1.15 million).
It also cemented Brown’s position as one of this country’s best television interviewers.
Her questioning was pitch-perfect: tough but fair, rigorous but not hostile, asking everything that viewers wanted an answer to.
Had she hammered the Farnells the way she would a seasoned politician, she would have succeeded only in making the couple clam up or storm off.
Indeed, a friend who trains aspiring TV reporters tells me they frequently go too hard in the belief that confrontation makes ‘‘good television’’. Sometimes it does, he tells them. But that moment of ‘‘good television’’ is usually brief and not very illuminating. Far better to coax your subject to talk. Let the viewers make up their own minds. A good reporter should ask the questions the average punter wants answered – but shouldn’t go as far to channel all their emotions.
Last night, Brown pulled off this balancing act perfectly.
‘‘Your former predilection for girls: did that, in any way, influence your decision in choosing your daughter over your son?’’ she asked David.
As Brown had explained to viewers, David is a repeat child sex offender who was jailed for abusing four girls over 10 years.
‘‘No, no,’’ he sputtered. ‘‘There is nothing like – that, that has never even entered my head ... I’m actually ashamed that you would say something like that.’’
Brown could have reacted with indignation. Instead, she replied with a raised eyebrow and a cool, ‘‘You’re ashamed that I would say something like that?’’
Her interview illustrates the value of a program such as 60 Minutes. When conducted skilfully, these interviews unearth new information – as Brown did last night, getting David to admit he’d have aborted Gammy if he’d had the chance (‘‘I don’t think any parent wants a son with a disability’’); and that the couple hadn’t phoned to check on Gammy since they returned (‘‘[We] don’t have surrogate mother’s telephone number,’’ Wendy claimed).
‘‘As a convicted child sex offender, what right do you have to have access to young children?’’ Brown asked David, prompting him to speak – unconvincingly, according to some social media users – of his shame and sorrow.
‘‘It’s okay,’’ his wife whispered to him. ‘‘It’s past.’’
It was powerful, compelling television. Of course, it is these unashamedly emotive moments that give rise to accusations of ‘‘tabloid’’ journalism.
But there’s a difference between emotion and sensationalism. There is nothing wrong with fair, focused journalism packing an emotional punch. It helps people care. It draws attention to broader issues; in this case, the ethical and legal issues surrounding international surrogacy.
Judging by the thousands of congratulatory posts Brown elicited on social media last night, it seems viewers agree.
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