Charlie Pickering: “I am dead centre”

2013-09-17_2243Charlie Pickering is rarely short of an opinion.

Juggling a comedy / news anchor role on TEN’s The Project, the self-confessed news junkie veers between punchlines, questions, opinions and driving a segment, all Live to air.

With around 1,100 shows in the can, by now the audience has formed a view on Pickering’s personality and even his politics. But according to the man himself, it may not necessarily be correct.

“The funny thing is a lot of people have assumptions about my politics based on what I’ve said and they’re all categorically wrong. I will get criticised in the same night, in the same programme, for being a right-wing Gina Rinehart puppet and for being a Kevin Rudd left-wing lapdog,” he says.

“But the reality of my politics is I am dead centre. I have voted for both sides of politics. I never decide my vote until the night before the election. I am a swinging voter. My only position has been that policies should always stand up to scrutiny.”

According to Pickering, merely expressing a moderate view has the impression of being hard-line left wing, because of where the conversation in the media is happening.

“I genuinely think that media in this country skews right (wing). Because of that often a centre-ist position will appear left wing because it sticks out from the rest of the discourse in the country,” he says.

“I find it ludicrous when people criticise the ABC for being leftist because every audit of their journalism shows that they do not have a bias.”

Citing evidence of a lack of ABC bias, when he was on TripleJ on the day Australia joined the War in Iraq, he told listeners “we don’t feel like today’s a day for jokes so we’ll just play some music” but was disciplined for “being political.”

Maintaining a moderate-rage, he has no problem in advocating social justice while remaining a swinging voter. There are issues that still fire him up.

“Simple things like human rights and due process, obligations under international treaties that we have signed onto –and that we signed onto in the shadow of the Holocaust– little things like that…. expressing an opinion saying that those things are important somehow gets mistaken for being left wing,” he insists.

“The entire Refugee debate has gone so far in one direction and there’s been almost no resistance the other way. The moment you try and say ‘Well, shouldn’t we do what we signed a Treaty to say that we’d do?’ that’s apparently a left-wing opinion.”

But if The Project is one end of a political spectrum on TEN, then The Bolt Report is surely another. Pickering is up front in acknowledging the stark differences.

“The biggest difference between us and Andrew Bolt is he’s hired to have an agenda,” Pickering concedes.

“He’s literally hired to be a right-wing voice on this network. He wouldn’t argue with that. That show is a conservative voice. He wouldn’t be offended by my saying that. He sets out to do that and that’s his brief. He was hired by the powers that be at this network to do that.

“We’re not hired to do that. We’re hired to entertain and that’s our brief. We could never be as positional as he is in our timeslot. I don’t think you could go into primetime during the week and only broadcast from one end of the political spectrum. I think that would be disastrous.”

In its 4 years on air, The Project has defied critics and weathered timeslot changes. In recent months it’s seen a rise in its figures, at best just shy of 700,000 viewers.

Last week the Roving Enterprises show averaged 574,000 viewers, well short of its 2010 highs when it was rested during the Commonwealth Games.

“We were of the opinion that we should stay on during the Commonwealth Games, because we’d hit a million before that came along. The decision went another way and it felt like we lost a bit of momentum there and started again,” he admits.

“But then we changed timeslots. We were half an hour. We were an hour. We were up against the 6:00 News, then 6:30 which feels a much better fit.”

The show’s second half hour is particularly strong, perhaps as an alternative to Reality on Nine and Soap on Seven.

“If you look at the 7:00 – 7:30 half hour, we’re really adding a lot of numbers. And that’s been happening consistently,” Pickering explains.

“The first half hour has also been growing over the past 2-3 months.”

But the television landscape continues to evolve, including with direct news competitors on multichannels.

“There’s so much news on offer now, essentially because it’s cheap. Once you’ve got a newsroom the back-end is there and you just need different hosts because the news is always coming in,” he says.

“If I didn’t have my current job I’d sit at home watching news all day. But for the general viewer who possibly has more varied tastes than I do, I’m not sure if they’re sick of having so much.

“I think there would be a lot of people who have come back to us having been looking at some other things in that timeslot. The job then is to keep them. If they are Big Brother refugees then our job is to make sure they have no other reason to go anywhere else.”

Yet while The Project comes under scrutiny for its numbers, many overlook its lukewarm lead-in. On Monday night The Simpsons was just 366,000 viewers -around a quarter of the audience of Seven News and Nine News.

Pickering can’t help but offer another opinion.

“I don’t think shows should be overly-dependent on their lead-ins. Shows should stand as shows themselves. But that said, when 6:30 on Seven and Nine are getting handed 1.2m consistently a night as their starting point, we talk around the office about what would be something good in that office,” he says.

Tactfully he adds, “I cannot be clearer about this: I don’t know what Hamish (McLennan) or Beverley’s (McGarvey) plan is.

“But we’ve been saying for a long time that something like an edgy game show, or something that is ‘on brand’ with Channel TEN. It can’t be something lame or whatever. Deal or No Deal and Hot Seat actually pull pretty consistent numbers. People like game shows and that play-at-home aspect. It’s something that’s missing at the moment in the broader line-up at TEN.

“I always get in trouble when I start talking about how I’d programme the network! There are much smarter wizards than me programming those things and there’s a science to it that I don’t claim to know.

“But I think there is a potential there in that slot for something to happen.

“That half hour of news is probably the most ingrained habit in Australian television.”

Pickering’s work-day begins with an editorial meeting at 11am but as a news addict, he chases the news from the moment he awakens.

Whilst he necessarily follows Fairfax and News Corp stories, his personal favourites include The Atlantic, The Guardian, and anything on his favourite news app, Zite.

“I’ve been up in the morning reading, listening to the radio, talking on the phone, emailing in stories that I think should be a priority for the day,” he explains.

“Then it’s constant with production and a series of meetings and decisions, conversations, interviews, voice-overs.

“Part of why I worked for this show is I brought a genuine fascination for news into it and I have a sometimes-painful encyclopedic knowledge of the last 25 years of politics. I’ve always just been really interested in it.

“But the thing I look forward to the most is Saturday morning reading the NY Times in bed, knowing that I can just read the news I want to read and not have to talk about it that night. (With a coffee) that’s about as good as it gets. And reading the NY Times makes you really sad about Australian newspapers.”

Tempered by Carrie Bickmore, Dave Hughes and a host of regulars, Pickering obviously loves his Project role, steering the conversation from news stories to human interest, entertainment, social and public affairs. Somewhere in the middle of it all he’s expected to get a laugh and maybe to leave the audience thinking.

“There are nights I just feel like a duck, calm on top of the water but with legs and a brain churning to find a way out. But that’s what makes it exciting too,” he concedes.

“We’ve been doing it so long now it’s a bit like breathing. No-one is entirely predictable but you know you can rely on them in those situations. But it is still a very weird thing to do for a living.

“It’s a very odd job.”

The Project airs 6:30pm weeknights on TEN.

26 Comments:

  1. I know he’s a lawyer but that’s no excuse to be so deceptive. He promotes collective solutions that involve government force to virtually all social problems. That’s the very definition of a leftist or a statist.
    Just because all of his fellow arts and law students at Monash and all his fellow presenters at Triple J agree with him about everything doesn’t make him “dead-centre.”

  2. @oztvheritage: I certainly hope the rumour about Working Dog formulating a new quiz show for the 18:00 slot on TEN is true. I was a big fan of The Project and used to really like it complimenting the 17:00 new bulletin but then TEN shoehorned The Simpsons in between both so I haven’t been able to watch The Project at all. If 25 year old American cartoon crap which has been repeated over 40 times is replaced by something a bit more contemporary and relevant to 21st century Australia then I will keep the TV on TEN for The Project once again.

  3. Totally agree with the article, if any journalist/Media outlet dares to question a Right Wing politician they are automatically labeled as a lefty, if a Jurno dares to ask a tough hard question to a Right Wing politician, they are labeled a Far Lefty with a left wing agenda.

    It’s disgraceful just after a federal election, the media outlets are just now explaining the coalition policies, this should have been done before the election. The problem in Australia is that at least 75% of Australia’s media has a Far Right-Right wing bias, there for any journalist who is a centrist is labeled a Lefty. This is very bad for our country and democracy.

  4. @bettestreep2008
    I’m not sure how long it is since you’ve watched The Project but they continue to present stories regarding marriage equality and asylum seekers. Particularly in the lead up to the election.

  5. I can understand what Charlie Pickering means. When you are centre, you can agree with some issues and disagree with others. Individual issues with both parties holding separate positions.

    A political moderate has the freedom to look at issues independently. I think of myself as centre myself, however, I do disagree with Pickering on the ABC. Q&A is notorious for its left-leaning twitter feed and staged questions. ABC News Radio has resident left-wingers Marius Benson. They often interview people who will hold the left-wing opinion, such as Ian Rintoul. ABC does have its moderates, even a few to the right, however, it’s largely a left-wing organisation, despite what the audits might say.

  6. I’m with Charlie on one thing. Those who voice what used to be a basic Australian sense of a fair go are these days decried as bleeding hearts. And good luck if you want to have a sensible discussion on environmental issues. John Howard, Rupert Murdoch et al have succeeded at dragging the country so far to the right that I’m surprised it still takes so long to fly to New Zealand.

  7. Great interview.
    I am noticing though that the promos for The Project are starting to ever so slightly resemble TT & ACA. I am sure that this will continue with Peter Meakin at Ten now. Shame.

  8. Nice interview David. Good to see Ten sticking with The Project. Good to see it slowly improving.

    They just have to get the 6pm slot working. Hopefully, the rumour of Working Dog working on a game show for this slot is correct…or have i just started one.

    While Charlie appears left of centre, he does come across as logical. Steve price is very right…and I enjoy their brief discussions….Would like to see more of it.

    I would actually like to see some Project specials featuring them both covering various social issues/topics. Would help build the project brand.

    Carrie is a delight….Dave does nothing for me. Presents poorly and is embarrassing. Lemo and Pete are excellent.

    But Yes – I find the Project very enjoyable and there is nothing else like it on air…..keep it up guys!

  9. @David Knox
    I was simply hoping that Charlie would one day win enough to become financially independent, and ditch ” being dead centre ” that no doubt is the lessor of all evils if he still needs to be employed in his current role.
    To one of being ” Fair Honest and Consistent ” that many times needs to be anything but ” being dead centre ” and is something that has been sadly but blatantly missing in our media sources of late, and it seems the only association of ” being dead centre” is just who was in the ” dead centre of vested interests Targets “

  10. Thanks for your interview with Charlie David, but ask of Charlie will you keep buying tickets in the millions of $$$$ to be won most weeks, so that you can tell us exactly how it is in the world of population manipulation by very vested interests.

    • Advoc8: don’t understand the question.
      Carly: a gentle reminder that people in interviews are responding to a conversation and questions involving a second party, therein myself. This is standard interview convention, thanks.

  11. I think if you have to come out and say “I am dead centre” then its a pretty good indication that most people see you as anything other than “dead centre”.

    I actually switched off the project prior to the election because I got sick of Charlie’s attitude to people with a different opinion, almost to the point of being rude.

    I also find that the panel has a bit more fun and is more interesting when he is not there….

  12. I guess Charlie feels the need to tell the world he is ‘dead centre’, ‘swinging voter’ and ‘have voted for both parties in my life’ because he doesn’t want to upset his bosses Lachlan and Gina.

    Hamish McDonald made the mistake of showing his leftwing hand and was shown the door.

    Charlie realises that he won’t be enjoying the 6 figure salary for much longer if he makes one more remark about marriage equality or asylum seekers.

    No wonder so many of us have deserted The Project in droves.

  13. @Pertinax- Charlie might be a comedian but he is also the smartest guy on TV. I don’t know if he has a journalist degree, and if he doesn’t it does not matter as he far more educated (self) than most journos. He sees through all the crap and is unafraid to speak up on the behalf of those who cannot. He is a great human being and I also agree that he is in the middle.

  14. @ Pertinax – correct me if I’m wrong but before he became a comedian he was in law, which makes him perfect to be a journalist as he has a keen insight into the legalities surrounding stories on policy and legal issues.

  15. I’m always fascinated by people who publicly declare they are “dead centre” or “swinging voters” or don’t make up their minds until the last minute. It’s trendy to declare in the media that there’s no difference between the major parties, but even a cursory look at their actual policies will reveal there is a massive philosophical divide and very practical differences in every major area of policy – and differences that do not change significantly over time. So the pretence at open-mindedness is either disingenuous or an accidental declaration of a total lack of principles.

  16. I love Charlie! He’s soooooo funny! So many quotable jokes: “People like game shows and that play-at-home aspect. It’s something that’s missing at the moment in the broader line-up at TEN.” And what about, “The entire Refugee debate has gone so far in one direction and there’s been almost no resistance the other way.” Zing! Why can’t other comedians be as funny as Charlie? You don’t see Billy Connolly reading the news!

    • SuperFunNight: News and comedy has a long history including David Frost in That Was the Week That Was, The Naked Vicar Show, and even Jon Stewart currently in the US. If you don’t like the show fair enough, but your suggestion his views at my prompting are supposed punchlines is pretty harsh.

  17. Excellent interview with Charlie.I so respect his passion for stories that often only last a couple of minutes.It seems as though in today’s political climate , especially if you listen to Bolt,if you have compassion you must be a “leftie”.The right wing love to demonise compassion, and that is so wrong.

  18. I’m glad the project is still on air. Every promo I see for TT and ACA make me cringe.

    While I don’t necessarily love Charlie or the bunch, I much prefer the stories they report on.

  19. According to Charlie, Andrew Bolt is “hired to be a right-wing voice on this network. He wouldn’t argue with that.”
    But he would. He always denies that he’s right-wing, and cites his time working for Bob Hawke as evidence of that.
    Of course, we all know that’s a crock of … , but it doesn’t stop him from saying it.

  20. Great article Dave! I love The Project and sure everyone on the panel has varying views and political ideologies (with Steve Price being as old school and conservative as you can get) but that’s what makes it great – an analysis of stories from multiple angles, and not simply stating facts like every other broadcaster.

  21. The Guardian is the most progressive English language paper in the world. The NYT is the most progressive paper in the US. Fairfax and the ABC both push progressive politics. Zite a site that will tailor news to your own biases.

    But Pickering claims they are right wing. Well they are to the right of Green Left Weekly I suppose. And thinks he is in the middle, as everyone does, because he is to the left of them!

    The guy is a comedian not a journalist, and it shows. He should concentrate on what he is good at, being entertaining.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.