How do you get politicians to tell the truth? It’s a question most journalists ask themselves at some point. When you sit down for long interviews with two Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard it becomes the most important question of all.
The two political stars of their generation of labor politics had ended each other’s political careers; each wanted their version to be the accepted history of those tumultuous years.
When I made the ABC series, “The Killing Season” on the Rudd/Gillard governments with my colleague Deb Masters, we moved fast.
Filming, writing, editing five hours of television with 144 hours of interviews there isn’t time to reflect, which is why I have written a book about the series: The Killing Season Uncut, about how we made it, the experience of these interviews and of course the good, the bad and the ugly behind the scenes (and crucial questions like how you wear the same outfit for an interview over three days with nowhere to wash it overnight.)
The usual pattern is work hard, throw myself bodily at a project, finish then move on to the next thing. This time I got to pause and think about the story I had been involved in.
Politicians work with lines, scripted, pre-tested lines that they are used to repeating until those lines are almost devoid of meaning. They know how to build a narrative that suits them. If you want to find the truth you have to get beyond the lines and disrupt the narrative. The more skillful they are the harder it is.
But no matter how smart Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are, no one is fully prepared for the effect of an interview that lasts for 8 hours or more, for the way themes emerge over time and the way the camera itself seeks out its own version of the truth.
Former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner said, “The truth is always conditional in politics”. We knew there would be no single truth in the series, rather the subjective recollections of the players, sometimes an approximation of the truth was the best we could hope for.
I asked Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard if they believed each other. Rudd said this about Gillard,
“I think Julia has always had a bit of a problem with the truth. I think she has a problem with sincerity. Julia is such a disciplined political player that she has almost in her mind a scripted answer to any question which you ever put to her.”
These weren't the only pointed commented made throughout the interviews (post continues after video):
Gillard responded, “Kevin’s entitled to his views, and obviously his views about me have been shaped by a very hot political cauldron. I understand that.”
It was a hot political cauldron. By the time we made the series, Gillard and Rudd had moved into the nether world that lies beyond politics but both wanted their version to dominate. Their approaches to the interviews mirrored their methods in politics.
The word most often used about Gillard by her colleagues is transactional. We met Gillard first at a hotel in Sydney and then at her home in Adelaide before we did the interview. She was wary and still angry about the media’s role in bringing her down.
I expected the warmer version would emerge, the side of Gillard that her friends admired but her guard stayed up, even at her home. (I have noticed this about politicians, their homes are not sanctuaries in the way they are for most of us, being used too often as places to conduct business, I wonder where they ever feel completely safe and private. Everyone needs that space I think.)
I am used to building quick rapport as a journalist, not through false intimacy but rather as a means of reaching an authentic exchange quickly but those techniques did nothing to alter the relationship. I even tried talking about shoes, demonstrating how well made my high heels were by running in the studio. Gillard looked at me, bemused.
When I sat down for the interview with her, the studio felt tense (as it did with Rudd) and that tension never really left. I was a female journalist interviewing a female Prime Minister on a program with a female series producer and executive producer. I celebrate the fact that in Australia that is unremarkable.
It was the irony of Gillard’s arrival in power that I found fascinating, the first female Prime Minister had got her job thanks to the manoeuvrings of a band of male factional leaders. Gillard said she had not looked at her early political career “through a gendered prism” but then she was subjected to a string of repugnant personal attacks drawing on deep misogynist currents in society. It was her male colleagues who wept on camera over her mistreatment.
Rudd chose a richer engagement, funny, often exasperating, more heart on sleeve. He understands the power of connection (which doesn’t mean he always used that knowledge in office) but at the same time you recognize it is also a skill, something to be wary of yourself.
Wayne Swan described it like this: "Kevin was very close to many people in the media and he was very good at exchanging information off the record, to in return receive favorable coverage for things that he might do down the track. I’ve never seen a more effective media operator than Kevin."
Rudd and I talked mostly by phone and met twice in hotels in Boston and Sydney. I drank tea the first time, feeling that alcohol in a hotel bar suggested collusion. When you are practicing strict neutral even a whiskey sour can lead you down the wrong path.
The second time we had to talk half in French half in code because a man in the bar of Sydney’s Intercontinental was eavesdropping. We moved.
Wayne Swan’s analysis played on my mind. Rudd’s narrative about Gillard was fixed, her decision to remove him was a moral not a political one. He repeats the phrase “But Julia you’re a good person.” over and over. When she becomes Prime Minister he insists he didn’t stalk her, that her faults were of her own making, not his.
I understood with Rudd the way through is trust not combat. He trusts few people but the only way to reach below the surface is by securing at least an element of trust. When he doubted our intentions for the series, he became more guarded, on one occasion refusing at first to come back to the studio after lunch.
On better days he made jokes about the clothes I wore, likening my tight fitted purple jacket to a star trek outfit. Some female journalists might not have appreciated the commentary.
In the book I was able to free myself to use favorite moments from the interviews that weren’t in the series – television has its own demands of delivery and dramatic tension that mean some of your best material never makes it to air. We call it murdering your darlings.
Now my darlings could live again, what was Bill Shorten’s role on the night of the challenge in 2010? The TV drama is all about the relationships between Gillard and Rudd and Wayne Swan. But there was so much else going on: one of the chief instigators of the challenge at the end of the day dismissing his co-conspirator Victorian MP David Feeney as “fucking mental”, one of Gillard’s staff members lamenting the party atmosphere of those celebrating in her office, he said Kevin Rudd was owed dignity at that moment not a party with beer and pizzas and gloating.
Jenny Macklin told us that late that night Julia Gillard was testing the phrase "A good government had lost it way" to use the next day; Macklin advised against it.
History is made up of the small moments as well as the momentous.
You can buy a copy of The Killing Season: Uncut by Sarah Ferguson here.
***Featured Image: Screenshots via ABC