Bill Ralston: leave Hosking alone, the moderator is just a traffic cop

Hosking before he chaired the 2014 leadership debates.
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Hosking before he chaired the 2014 leadership debates.

OPINION: Predictably, a lynch mob has formed now that TVNZ has announced broadcaster Mike Hosking will be the moderator of its election debates. Note that I called him a broadcaster rather than a journalist. It is a distinction he makes himself.

Petitions have been launched demanding TVNZ replace him in the role because he is not politically neutral or, as New Zealand First's Winston Peters says, he is "wholly unsuitable" and his appointment as moderator is "outrageous".

You may recall similar complaints, but from the political right, at the last election about TV3 having John Campbell front their debates. Campbell, like Hosking, has strongly defined ideological opinions, even if the pair are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Bill Ralston reckons people should leave Mike Hosking alone.
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Bill Ralston reckons people should leave Mike Hosking alone.

While John has plenty of journalistic credentials where Mike Hosking has not, the job of moderator in the televised debate does not necessarily demand a journalist for the job. The task is to be an onscreen ringmaster, ensuring both participants get roughly equal time, are asked similar questions and do not keep talking over each other. 

Read more: Peters condemns Hosking debate decision

Having run several such leaders debates in the distant past I can verify that being moderator is a lot like being a traffic officer on points duty, indicating who should talk and who should hold their piece until the other is finished.

That was a role John Campbell performed admirably, despite his political opinions, in the 2014 debates. At the end of the show John Key, who was no bosom buddy of John Campbell, had no complaints about his handling of the programme, although he bitterly moaned to me that then Labour leader David Cunliffe "wouldn't shut up" and he "couldn't get a word in edgewise". Such are political debates.

I have no doubt Mike Hosking, who has chaired such debates before will handle his programme just as competently. Every day he handles dozens of interviews, often involving more than one guest at a time, on his radio programme. He is used to it and the role of moderator is less interviewer and more presenter and host.

Both the Greens and Labour have no objection to Hosking or, at least, they are not voicing it.

It is hard to resist the feeling that Winston Peters' objections to Hosking are just more posturing and an appeal to those who are signing the "axe Mike Hosking" petition. The last political leader who objected to a debate moderator was Sir Robert Muldoon in 1984, who refused to appear with David Lange in a debate programme when some TV ONE staff were proposed, but he eventually agreed to Ian Fraser. A lot of good it did him.

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Similarly the New Zealand First leader's forlorn cries to be allowed into the National – Labour debate are likely to fall on deaf ears. The polls show that National and Labour will be the strongest parties by far and whoever wins will lead a coalition government. The 60 minute debate between the leaders of the two parties will be instrumental in allowing New Zealanders the chance to decide which one will do the better job of that.

There is a 90 minute debate programme where the several leaders of the minor parties can put their case as to why they would be a coalition partner and what their policy price may be but the decisive debates will be between the big two, National and Labour.

Winston Peters deserves respect for his sheer political longevity but that long time in politics reminds us that in almost every election since he entered parliament he has complained about interviewers, reporters, debates and the stories they generated.

 - Stuff

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