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O'Brien/Keating (The ABC's 'fictional' Frost/Nixon)

By Randal Stewart - posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014



Keating: Mate, it is going to cost you

O'Brien: The ABC will not pay for a political interview

Keating: Not that, mate, not that! I am talking about the questions… (Harrumph)…they need to encourage my brilliant repartee and celebrate my achievements

O'Brien: Of course, there will need to be questions that…

Keating (waving hands): No worries, no worries. As I am a lot smarter than anyone, even you Kerry, I will handle these

O'Brien: We will need to tackle the hard issues…the piggery for example

Keating: Well that was handled in a ham-fisted way to be sure…but, but… it pales into insignificance, like a pimple on the ass of progress, compared to my floating of the dollar

O'Brien: But Bob Hawke claims…

Keating: Kerry, Kerry, Kerry. In life there are always levellers and straighteners, the young green tree and the old ossified oak. Bob Hawke is an oak tree

O'Brien: And we will be seeking an apology to the Australian people

Keating: For what?

O'Brien: From you for leaving the country short of a colourful turn of phrase in politics, for abandoning the people who needed to be reminded on a daily basis that they are much more stupid than you. This is the apology that the series must deliver

The pre-broadcast negotiations were hard with the subject himself who was very disorganised, "I like nothing better than sitting around after breakfast in pyjamas…no shave…no shave…" and especially within the ABC itself. Managing Director, Mark Scott, was sceptical saying, "This is ancient history. Most people will not even recognise who Paul Keating is, let alone sit through four hours of one on one interviews. Anyway, the Guardian will not syndicate it so that is a worry".

The format was settled after intense discussions between O'Brien and Keating. O 'Brien was funding the interviews using his own production company and had borrowed heavily, even selling the Prius. It was a turning point in a long and illustrious career. O'Brien, had developed as a reporter hosting the daytime program, "Kerry's Corner on Political Correctness" and had graduated to the late night current affairs program, "How to lock the conservatives into a corner and assist the forces of social democracy" or, as it was known, "ConLine".

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But Kerry's career had stalled at the ABC. His period as a union official for the journalists union had brought him into conflict with ABC management and "ConLine' had been handed over to another ABC golden boy. The Keating interviews were a chance to return to prominence.

There were to be four one hour broadcasts in November/ December, 2013. The first was simply called "The Piggery" and was to discuss the rise and fall of hog farming in the Hunter region. O'Brien persuaded Keating that it was best to tackle the big issues up front. The second was entitled, "Keating and the World". This was to tackle the practice, instigated by Keating, of wearing funny, batik shirts at APEC meetings. The third was called, "War at home and abroad", and was directed at Keating's relations with Bob Hawke. The fourth and final episode was titled, "Keating, the Man" and was to examine family life in Blacktown, where Keating, sitting on the floor in the laundry to escape the oppressive heat, first conceived of the idea of floating the dollar.

The filming took place over a six week period at an undisclosed terrace residence in Darlinghurst. This was the home of one of the Keating children. The ABC took over the top floor bedroom, removing the Daft Punk posters and clearing away the left over, half eaten bowls of muesli. Keating entertained the crew between filming with jokes about native title and pointed out the homes period features especially the Queen Anne balustrade that had, unfortunately, been varnished over in the 1970's.

The interviews themselves were great television. Kerry, a Keating true believer, kept his enthusiasm in check trying hard not to show bias. There was a subterranean theme that the point was to stick it up the tory wankers who could not reform a wet paper bag in the Saharan desert. Kerry would nod sage-like in furious ideological agreement. Keating himself would sort of stutter into life like a World War II bi-plane, and then he would be off, fascinating the crowd with coruscating loops and double back flips. Viewers wondered in the first place whether he was going to get going, and then whether he'd have enough fuel to keep it all up in the air. Even the Tories were on the edge of their living room seats wondering if, through some catastrophic error on the part of interviewer or interviewee, they might slip into a state of balance. It never happened.

The series was an outstanding success. The first episode drew record viewers, the biggest television audience for a pig industry documentary in history. Paul Keating sent Bob Hawke a card that simply read "On ya, Bob" and Kerry O'Brien recovered his reputation and purchased a new Prius.

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About the Author

Randal Stewart is a Canberra-based consultant, trainer and author. He is co-author of the popular politics textbook Politics One.

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