Politics

‘It’s a real luxury not to have to interrupt’: Guyon Espiner on interviewing the ex-PMs

Watch the first in RNZ’s big new series of interviews, The 9th Floor, and read our slightly shorter interview with their interviewer – on the contrast with Morning Report, Jim Bolger’s surprise attack on neoliberalism, and why John Key isn’t involved.

RNZ this morning launched an ambitious new series of filmed interviews with former New Zealand prime ministers – the ones who are still alive, that is. And not the one who just quit, either. In fact, as Guyon Espiner, who conducted the five interviews, tells the Spinoff, they were in the middle of a day with Jim Bolger when news of John Key’s resignation broke.

The first video in the series, in which Sir Geoffrey Palmer tells Espiner he found being prime minister “a nuisance”, is below – still to come are his encounters with Bolger, Mike Moore, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark.

We asked Espiner how the series came about, the shift in tone from his daily Morning Report interrogations, and which dead prime minister he’d most like to revive and interview.

 

The Spinoff: Where did the idea for the series spring from?

Guyon Espiner: Tim Watkin [RNZ podcast and series boss]. He had the idea and the working title Living Prime Ministers. It think he’d been inspired by an American series that had been done and the Americans are quite good at doing things like that and looking at legacies. We don’t seem to be as good, especially nowadays. I look at someone like Jenny Shipley and there’s barely a book about her. There’s not even an academic study about her. Back in the day, politicians used to put out all their own books – Mike Moore and Richard Prebble, they used to churn out books. Doesn’t happen so much nowadays.

So we thought it would be a really good idea to look back at these people, more in their own words, and just looking at them with the dust having settled. But also looking at it, not only from the historic sense, but that sense of what does the prime minister do? Because there isn’t a rule book. There aren’t even guidelines. And the way that that power is exercised is so different with each leader. We thought we would try to look at the way they exercised power and how the job is done, through the eyes of the people who have done it.

And were they willing participants? Did it take much persuasion?

It’s interesting. Each had their own challenges. I have to say Jenny Shipley and Jim Bolger – and this probably doesn’t reflect well on me – were both nervous about it. They listen to Morning Report and they thought: I don’t want to be dragged over the coals and every little bit relitigated. Helen Clark had some reservations as well. And people who watch them will see it’s in a very different style to Morning Report. They’re not aggressive, they’re not combative interviews. They are more discussions or conversations.

But they took a little bit of arm twisting. Geoffrey Palmer didn’t.

You couldn’t shut him up?

No. That’s right.

Did you have to consciously adjust your approach much? It is clearly different to the short-form, issue focused interviews on Morning Report.

Vastly different. Initially when Tim suggested it I thought, well, I’ve done so much politics in my journalism career, do I really want to take this on? But then, this is very different to anything I’ve done before, because some of these interviews were three and a half hours long. They were done in a structured way and that took a hell of a lot of preparation, and that was a massive challenge.

The question lines – and I did write out question lines, which you do of course divert from – they were about 15 pages long, of written text. So they were documents in themselves. There was some contesting of ideas and challenging of ideas but it’s a real luxury not to have to interrupt. Because you don’t like to have to interrupt but if it’ a five minute slot on the radio and you’re wanting to get some answers you kind of have to. So it was really nice for me, actually, to have these discussions about history that I’m really interested in, and just let it roll a bit more.

Morning Report is very much short form. Would you like to be doing longer interviews on the programme? I’m thinking for example of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, where they do a feature interview every morning, which runs for 20 minutes or so. Would you like to have that possibility on Morning Report?

Yeah, I would, to be honest. Sometimes you see it around about 8.20 – that’s not a bad slot to do it. Sometimes we’ll let those interviews run a little longer. But, and I might not be thanked by the producers for this, I think it’s something we need to look at a bit more. I think over three hours you’ve got the opportunity to do that, and maybe you don’t have to do it every day. It’s nice to get a change in pace when you’re listening to the radio, so I think there’s room to do that.

People will notice that the most recent former prime minister is missing. To a degree it’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to leap immediately into such a format. But are you hopeful that John Key might still come onboard at some point?

Yes. This can be added to – I’m hoping these can have a pretty long shelf life. We’ve tried to do them in a way that is quite classic and for-the-record, if you like. You know what? We were interviewing Jim Bolger at his home in Waikanae, and we went out for a break – that’s what we tried to do, it just let them settle, we would do a couple of hours and then we’d say, “We’re going to get out of your hair and leave your home” , because there was a crew of four of us, and we all went into this little cafe in Waikanae, and as we started to have our lunch, my phone started to go crazy, John Key had resigned.

So we go back to Jim Bolger’s place, and he’s just found out, and he’s been on the phone to all his old mates. Bill Birch has been ringing up, super excited. And John Campbell’s ringing him up, to do an interview with Jim Bolger. It’s quite surreal, really. We’re talking about leadership and the prime ministership and at his house, literally, when the news has just come through about John Key.

And then we thought: what are we going to do? Because we’ve titled it “Living Prime Ministers” and we thought, are we going to have to keep adding people to the list? And so we did approach John Key, several times, and he decided not to do it. We would have wanted him, we definitely would have done it, but in some ways, in an election year, with those issues still too current for the dust to have settled on them at all, it’s probably not such a bad thing that he’s not in this series.

We really found that with the benefit of hindsight and time you get more honesty. I  wonder whether you would get a deeply frank interview. I’m not saying that John Key wouldn’t have bought into it, but he’s still got his legacy and National’s election prospects in the back of his mind. Whereas Jim Bolger, for example, goes on a tirade against neoliberalism in his interview.

To me that was pretty striking. I don’t think that someone who had just left office is going to do that. I hope he will do it in time, but it might take a year or two.

Jim Bolger denounced neoliberalism?

A complete repudiation. He says neoliberalism has completely failed. And this is a time when you do actually hit back a little bit, and say: Well, what did you think that you were doing with the privatisations and the carry-on from Rogernomics and the welfare cuts? Nowadays Sue Bradford accuses the Greens of being neoliberal, so everyone is a neoliberal, the way the word is thrown around. But you could genuinely probably say, couldn’t you, that Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson as finance ministers were as close as we’ve had to neoliberalism in New Zealand. So for him to say that that had completely failed was pretty extraordinary.

Were there other surprises in the interviews?

I was surprised that three of the prime ministers came out in favour of compulsory voting – that’s a story that we’ve identified and others are looking at as well. I won’t give away all the secrets but there’s a couple of good ones along the way.

Do you think it reflect a lack of ambition on the part of RNZ that you are only interviewing the former prime ministers that are alive and not the ones that are dead?

Probably. We could have got the clairvoyant studio fired up, couldn’t we, and tried to commune. I just hope that people are going to know the difference.

If you could exhume and revive one to interview, who would you choose?

I’m going to go not for something quirky or trendy. I’m going to go for David Lange. I think I interviewed him once or twice – once in print and then, just not long before he died, when I had just started with TV One. David Lange features very largely in this series, even though he’s not there. The recollections, especially from Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer are very moving. The next interview we play is Mike Moore, and they could not be more different. Geoffrey Palmer is all head. He’s got a brain the size of Sandringham, he’s phenomenal, as you know. And then Mike Moore, he’s very bright as well, but he’s all heart. Mike Moore in this interview – there’s tears, there’s regret, there are quite profound statements. His discussions of Lange are really interesting. As are Palmer’s, because Palmer was so close to him as deputy, and they had a really professional working relationship. There’s quite a lot of sadness there. Lange features a lot.

So you pivot now towards September and the election. Are you excited about it, does this work inform the way you go about it or do you just cast all that to one side and charge into the political meat?

Probably. What it most informs me about is the way that the prime ministership is done and how those decisions are made. – the wildly different ways you can conduct yourself as prime minister. We don’t really think about it. I guess Trump makes us think about that a little more. But in some ways they have very little power. But then, depending on how you conduct it, you have a lot of power. Clark agreed that while the prime minister in technical terms doesn’t have a lot of power, once the prime minister has said, “this is going to happen”, then the whole bureaucracy, all the ministers and all the MPs are scurrying around to make sure it bloody well does happen. And she knew that. So that’s just the personality trait you take to it. So I suppose in some ways it just ups the stakes for me, about the importance of that. We’re still in a country, and Palmer talks a lot about this, where, as long as you’ve got a majority in parliament you can do pretty much whatever you like. It’s pretty important who you end with up there on the ninth floor.

The above has been edited and abridged, but only a little bit. Tim Watkin writes about making the series here.


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