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Behind the Scenes of my Julia interview

This story started months ago, back when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. I’d always intended to interview the leaders of both major parties for Mamamia before the election but I was approached by Fairfax to write separate profiles of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott to run in The Sunday Age and the Sun Herald. I was nervous. I thought about saying no. “But I’m not Laurie Oakes” I told them. We know, they said. But we think you bring a fresh perspective. “I’m big on opinion but short on policy detail” I warned them. That’s OK, they said. Most voters are like that. And we have a raft of experienced political journalists to cover the detailed analysis.

So how could I say no? Discomfort zone here I come.

Before our written requests could be made to the offices of Abbott and Rudd, Rudd was gone and Gillard was PM.

So we got out the liquid paper and sent our requests to Abbott and Gillard’s offices, a couple of weeks out from the election being called.

And then we waited. And asked again. And waited. And emailed. And called. And waited. And pestered. I sent texts. I spoke to anyone I could in the busy press offices of both leaders. They promised to get back to me. They didn’t.

I sent more emails pointing out the big circulation of both newspapers and the wide and high-profile reach of Mamamia. It came back that both were more interested in the Mamamia exposure than the newspaper. But still no confirmation.

The original plan had been to run the interviews as cover stories in the newspapers on consecutive Sundays. But time was running out.

I tried to ramp up the pressure by telling Tony’s people Julia had agreed and Julia’s people that Tony had agreed.

Neither had agreed.

We waited some more.

And then came word from Julia’s office: no.

What?

No.

I begged. My editors sent letters. Still no word from Tony’s office. There was only one more Sunday before the election. We were days away from having to ditch the whole idea.

And then last Wednesday afternoon, I get a call from one of Julia’s press reps.

“Can you fly anywhere?”

Yes.

“And are you available in the next couple of days?”

Well….it’s actually my son’s birthday on Friday. That day isn’t ideal.

“Ok, let me see what I can do.”

Lana walks into my office spluttering. “Did you just tell the Prime Minister you can’t interview her on Friday because of your son’s birthday?”

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Um, I guess I did. Sort of.

Naturally, the only time available was Friday morning. I’d have to make my way to Melbourne on Thursday in order to jump on the PM’s private plane for a 7:30am flight to Sydney. I could interview her on the plane.

Right.

After angsting a bit about my son’s birthday, I remembered he was only turning 2 and could be easily hoodwinked. Our family tradition of birthday festivities before breakfast could be delayed by 24hours and he’d be none the wiser.

So I flew to Melbourne.

I kept hassling Tony’s office right up until I got on the plane to Melbourne last Thursday afternoon when final word came back from Tony’s office: no. He wouldn’t agree to an interview before the election. Bummer.

As my plane went into a holding pattern over Melbourne and I tried to get my Julia questions together, the newspaper editors of The Sunday Age and The Sun Herald were making their own seperate decisions about how to run my interview given that we wouldn’t be getting Tony.

I headed to my hotel, organised a wake-up call for 5am (I’d read that both Julia and Tony get up every morning at that time so I thought it would get me in the mood) and immersed myself in every news bulletin, current affairs show and piece of political commentary I could find while munching my way through the pizza I ordered from room service and washing it down with chocolate from the minibar.

Small problem: I had no pen. Great journalist. I scrounged around my hotel room and came up with a pencil which I quickly made blunt by writing down my questions. No sharpener.

So I decided to go tech. No choice. I’d brought my iPad with me even though I’m not really sure how to use it yet. I typed my questions on that and hoped for the bloody best.

I finally hit the pillow at midnight and woke up every hour, fretting I’d sleep through my alarm.

The PM’s car

Up at 5am, TV on, quick shower and feeling nervous. No time for breakfast.

It wasn’t so much the idea of meeting the leaders that made me fret. I’d met Julia before at a private dinner for female journalists when she was deputy opposition leader and I’d liked her a lot. She was warm, funny, engaging and self-deprecating.

What was making me nervous was the practicalities of it.

I knew my time was very limited. “You’ll get about half an hour during the flight,” her press secretary had told me. That’s not long. We had originally requested an hour for a 2000 word profile.

I also knew that the time could be cut short for any reason and there would be nothing I could do.

I worried about my technology not working.

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I worried about not having a pen.

I worried about the fact it’s been 10 years since I wrote a profile.

I worried that I am not a political journalist and would I be able to ‘do’ serious? Would I make a fool of myself?

I worried that I would only have a few hours to write the actual story. Instead of a few days or even weeks that you sometimes get to write a profile.

I worried.

The PM’s plane

So I arrive at the airstrip near Melbourne airport where the PM’s plane is waiting. I’m late because my driver got lost. Luckily, the PM has not yet arrived so I’m met by her press secretary Russell who ushers me onto the private plane. I’m not asked for ID – just my name by the RAAF flight attendant who writes it down on a clipboard. I consider nicking her pen.

The plane is one of two Prime Ministerial jets – the other is given to Tony Abbott to use for the campaign. They are identical. Both leaders also have the use of another much larger plane for the media which follows them around the country.

The media organisations pay for all the costs associated with using the plane and media buses as well as all accommodation.

Each leader has staff who travel with the media to answer their logistical questions and provide them with access to policy information etc.

As I dragged my bag through the cabin, bashing poor Senator John Faulkner on the shoulder on my way past, I was shown to my seat in the back section of the plane and seated next to Julia’s assistant, a lovely 27 year old woman called Alex.

Do you want to know what the PM’s plane is like?

It’s divided into three sections – the front cabin is where the PM sits. There are 4 large leather airline seats facing each other with a large table in the middle.

The next section is for senior policy advisors, senior staff and senior Labor figures like John Faulkner. Space-wise, it’s a lot like a first class cabin of an aircraft.

The back section is for more junior staff and very occasionally, a journalist. It’s still very roomy. Much roomier than, say, business class.

Breakfast was served soon after we took off. Pancakes or poached eggs? I had the eggs, Alex had the pancakes and I nearly chewed her ear off with questions about the campaign.

She hadn’t been home in a month, hadn’t seen her boyfriend in a month. But she wasn’t complaining. Like everyone around Julia, she seemed relaxed and happy.

She explained that it got much easier once your body stopped fighting the constant travel and not knowing what city you’re in. “I’m just going with it now and it’s much better.”

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I was recording the interview on my iphone – a brilliant app called italk – because it’s been so long since I’ve done a formal interview, I don’t have a dictaphone anymore.

My view from the window

I also took my Flip as back-up (is this boring?) because every journalist’s worst fear is your recorder not working (second only not to having no pen). And you don’t get another chance with the PM.

I wolf down my eggs (served with sausages, mushrooms, tomato, toast and a side of fresh fruit and yoghurt), knock back a strong cup of tea and try to gather my thoughts as I watch the flight time tick away. At the start of the flight, I’d been told by Russell that Julia had some work to do and he’d come and get me when she was ready to talk.

I was starting to worry that my half hour would be cut short. Gulp.

Finally, Russell came to get me and I walked through the middle cabin to Julia’s cabin.

We shake hands and I sit next to her with my feet tucked up and my body twisted around to get closer to her. I position my iphone carefully on the arm rest between her and she reaches over to take my ipad to see how it works. Has a play.

On the plane

She wonders if I’m recording the interview on it and I say no (I didn’t think of doing that) and she says she’s noticed some of her colleagues starting to give their speeches from ipads and that she was going to give it a go soon.

The next half an hour pass very quickly and you can read about that in my interview here.

There were a couple of hitches.

The first came with some serious turbulence. For someone who has previously been struck almost to the point of incapacitation by a fear of flying, let me just say it occurred to me that the universe was trying to tell me something by having me do the most important interview of my career with the Prime Minister of Australia ON A PLANE DURING EXTREME TURBULENCE.

Where does that sit on the scale of life’s more stressful events, hmmm?

It also occurred to me that it’s a good thing I no longer require medication to get on a plane. Interviewing the Prime Minister when under the effects of Stillnox would have been quite a story in itself.

Brekkie.

The second challenge occurred just  a few minutes into the interview when the seat-belt sign came on and the flight attendant came around to say “Can you please turn off all electrical devices?”

Um, no I can’t. My questions are on my iPad. My iPhone is recording the interview.

“I’m sorry but you’ll have to.”

Oh Ok, I said and pretended to, hoping that she wouldn’t come back and check.

HOW DID YOU CHOOSE WHAT TO ASK HER ABOUT? AND WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HER DIFFERENT QUESTIONS?

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There have been many comments about the questions I asked Julia during the interview. Many people were appalled that I didn’t dig deeper into policy issues, that I asked about so-called ‘trivial’ matters, that the interview was ‘fluffy’ or even ‘sexist’ because I noted what she was wearing and asked about Botox.

Here’s what you should know.

I made a conscious decision not to make this an interview about policy and I’ll tell you why. Politicians LOVE being asked policy questions because then they can launch into the party line, just as they have done 1000 times before in 1000 other interviews, press conferences and policy announcements.

At Blacktown RSL posing for photog Andrew Meares

This sucks up valuable interview time and can leave you with nothing more than you could get from a press release. It’s their job to be as ‘on message’ and uncontroversial as possible which is smart for them but makes for a dull interview if that’s all you ask.

When writing a profile of the PM, I have to make the assumption that anyone reading it is going to have read other interviews and other analysis by other journalists and commentators. I can’t possibly hope to be a one-stop shop.

Every journalist brings a different viewpoint.

My intention was never to do an in-depth analysis of Julia Gillard government policies. But nor did I go in with a ‘fluffy’ or ‘female’ agenda.

I always approach anything I write with the possibly selfish approach of wanting to write something I’d like to read.

And what I wanted to read was something about Julia that was a bit more human. A bit less political. Because in talking about ‘ordinary’ things or even slightly trivial things, you can often learn a lot about how someone thinks. When you talk to politicians or public figures about things they’re NOT asked about every single day, you’re more likely to get a spontaneous, more revealing answer, not just to your question but to the question of who they are, how they think.

The AFP – security – who shadow JG everywhere

It’s a very high pressure situation doing an interview like this – even without the turbulence. You have your list of questions which range from the serious to the superficial. You’re not sure when your interview might be stopped or how many questions you’ll get through. You have to make snap decisions about when to go on an unplanned tangent and when to press on with your list of questions.

It’s exciting but not easy.

Also, after writing up my piece, I have to submit it to an editor – in this case 2 editors at 2 different newspapers. They obviously couldn’t run it all. They chose which bits to cut out and which to run.

Fortunately, I could run the whole thing here on Mamamia but it’s still not the full transcript. No interview you read contains every question asked nor every answer given. I had to cut a lot of content and in deciding what to prune, I mostly got rid of answers I felt I’d read many times before, answers that didn’t add anything new to the picture we already have of Julia Gillard, answers that weren’t particularly interesting or revealing.

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Power walking

As for the ‘fluffier’ questions, I have to say that being interested in things like Botox and her skin does not make me any less interested in her policies about gay marriage for example.

But 20 minutes is not a long time to cover everything. I did my best. Of course when I listened back to the interview there were a million times I wanted to smack myself for either interrupting or not asking a different question.

It’s quite an odd thing because while you’re asking questions, you’re partly listening to the answer, partly trying to observe things like body language and facial expressions and partly thinking about your next question. In this case I was also partly wondering if the plane was going to crash and partly wondering if I was going to get in trouble from the flight attendant for not turning off my electrical devices.

Anyway.

We landed, we shook hands and I was ushered back to my seat while Julia got changed before disembarking. I was told to get into one of the staff cars by Russell who said “Remind them that you’re a journalist” and I did.

Walking, talking.

As I drove through the streets of Western Sydney in the back of a staff car with Alex and another junior staffer, I balanced my laptop on my knees and tried to upload my interview which – thank God – did actually record.

We arrived at Blacktown RSL for Julia’s campaign announcement and for our photo opportunity. Julia disappeared to get her make-up done and when she emerged half an hour later, she was bursting with energy and good humour. She joked with everyone as she sat for her formal portrait. Her staff plainly adore her – and you can’t say that about all politicians.

It was decided that I’d walk with Julia up to the room where there were hundreds of people gathered along with media to hear her policy announcement about a new bonus for apprentices.

One of her press secretaries held my handbag and Fairfax photographer Andrew Meares ran backwards as we walked – she walks quickly – surrounded by the Australian Federal Police contingent that shadow her everywhere except to the loo. I was standing quite close to Julia and kept accidentally banging my hand on her bottom but fortunately I wasn’t arrested for man-handling the PM.

In the media scrum.

And then….she was gone. Swept off into the crowd and onto the stage. Meanwhile, I was left to wander back out to the streets of Blacktown to hail a cab and return home to lock myself in the bedroom to file my story. I worked until 2am when the words started blurring on the page and then got up early to do a few more hours before I filed on Saturday morning, just in time for publication.

I never did find a pen.

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