Mark McGowan was advised by Labor strategists to deliver his answers at yesterday’s TV debate straight down the camera – a move that led to accusations of political bias by a Liberal Senator strongly defended by the ABC today.
In the starkest visual difference between the two leaders, Mr McGowan chose to answer questions directly to camera while Mr Barnett instead chose to address the panel of journalists who asked him the questions.
To television viewers, it appeared the men had been framed differently by the ABC’s cameras but in fact the setup of the studio was symmetrical with both leaders shot in the same manner.
Both camps were afforded an opportunity to check the studio setup and format prior to the debate.
Mr McGowan claimed today he was simply following the advice of his wife to “talk to people in their living rooms” but The West Australian can confirm he was told by his chief of staff Guy Houston and media advisor Steve Kaless to address the camera directly.
Asked about the issue today, Mr Barnett told 6PR: “I didn’t really give that a thought, to be honest”.
“I went in there, there were two cameras, so I simply looked at the panellist asking the question,” he said. “There was no direction or advice as to what to do. There were two cameras, I didn’t know which camera was operating.”
Liberal Senator Mathias Cormann described the TV production on Twitter as “a shocker”, “incompetent” and “unprofessional”.
“Why does ABC present Mark McGowan looking directly into the camera during his opening statement while showing Colin Barnett sideways,” he tweeted.
ABC journalist Andrew O’Connor, who was executive producer of the debate telecast, said: “Our instruction or recommendation was simply that it was up to the speaker how they presented themselves”.
“We didn’t want to place unnecessary constraints by dictating how they presented themselves, but we did recommend when they gave their opening statement and closing statement that they did consider doing it directly to the camera,” O’Connor told ABC radio.
“There was no conspiracy … The thing that I would probably do differently next time is that we would probably more strongly recommend without necessarily insisting … that they do one or the other just so you don’t have that situation where the viewer is left perplexed and wondering, as Senator Cormann was, why there was this difference in the presentation.”
Opinion was split on Twitter, with many viewers highlighting the difference between the leaders and opining that it favoured Mr McGowan.
But others felt it made no difference, or even gave Mr Barnett and advantage, with one user describing Mr McGowan’s approach as “creepy”.
TV insiders questioned why Mr Barnett’s chief media advisor, former Channel 9 newsreader Dixie Marshall, did not advise Mr Barnett to address the camera directly. Ms Marshall declined to comment.
Former TV reporter Gemma Tognini, now a media strategist and trainer, said in a TV interview for a news or current affairs program, “the talent would never look down the barrel of the camera”.
“However outside of that context, for example during a live cross into an event, a news bulletin or a program such as Sunrise or Today, the rules change,” she said.
“Our view is that clients must always be trained to deal with the situation they're preparing for and adapt accordingly.”