14 January 2010

Sketchy politics

Annabel Crabb offered this as a description of what she was trying to achieve and why. She didn't do a good job of explaining why she chose to be a political sketchwriter, what she might have achieved in doing so, or what else she might have done instead - or even how Australian politics might have been better had reporting on it been more effective.

Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens and Matthew Parris wrote/write well, they were/are observant and had/have a fine command of the language. The comparison here does not flatter Crabb: perhaps like all performers she is throwing herself upon the kindness of strangers. Annabel Crabb bolts together clich├ęs to make bloated McMansions of articles that squat on the outskirts of political reporting - far from the central business of the economy and national security, far from the dormitories of health policy or screening the internet, all the while denying space to articles that might be useful in helping us appraise who it is that governs us, and who should, and why they want to; who benefits and who loses from which decisions.

Useful, and well written - a lot to ask, and too much of Crabb perhaps, but surely not too much for some writer as yet filtered out by the recruitment processes of Fairfax and other corporate media?

Matt Price at least tried to imagine what sort of impact any given policy might actually work in the country beyond Canberra. Some of his best pieces dealt with the sheer contrast between the verbiage surrounding some regulatory instrument and the actual way it was expected to play out upon those being thus regulated. Annabel Crabb never did that: she regarded "punters" as irrelevant by their not being directly represented in Australia's best subsidised and most boring theatre.

I loved reading his articles. They beckoned me into a lifelong interest in politics, with their affectionate and mischievous portrayals of Westminster's principal cast.

See, there you have it. Crabb regards politics as a spectator sport, something that occurs pretty much exclusively within that purpose-built building inside a Canberra hill. It's scripted and lame, yet she tried to make it as compelling as some awful "must-see" TV drama. She excluded the staffers and the lobbyists (and the serpentine career paths they followed) from her scrutiny, she cared not a jot for how policies would work (or not) in the wider community, in order to craft 300 words on something really important like Peter Costello put-downs or Mark Latham's complexion.

Parris gave me the rich lunacy of politics and a whiff of what it was like to be John Major, the then prime minister, whose promise to bring British politics "back to basics" had rather unluckily coincided with an unprecedented outbreak of conspicuous debauchery among his colleagues.

It wasn't a coincidence: there was a complete contradiction between what was said and what was done, a situation in which government becomes impossible. Traditional journalism was and is utterly unable to cope with this: a situation in which a politician has so lost credibility that nothing they say on any issue translates in any way to action for or against a policy objective, or to aid any people outside the process.

In our own time we've seen the journosphere flounder in dealing with big issues from outside "the arena" of politics - Pauline Hanson, war and economic turmoil - issues that the journosphere of the press gallery mentions but dares not examine for fear of losing access to snippets such as, say, Andrew Thomson's reading material.

Parris combined a good historical knowledge of politics and a sympathy for his subject with an elegantly whimsical style of writing.

Crabb, his antipodean admirer, offered her readers:

  • No historical knowledge to speak of ("Wasn't John Howard leader of the Liberals during the 1980s? What happened to that Joh who wanted to be PM, or that Peacock guy - are Joh Peacock the same person?");

  • Considerable sympathy for certain individuals, but not for the jobs they were doing or for those affected by those jobs;

  • Functional, not elegant style; and

  • OK, I'll give her whimsy - the whimsy of a person deeply enmeshed in an environment from which she tries to maintain a knowing distance, a whimsy that leads to dissonance in the absence of real wit - present in Crabb's antecedents but pretty much absent from her writing.

The historical diversion was pretty much irrelevant:

The Westminster system, from which Australia derives much of its parliamentary design, has only really been open to direct public scrutiny for about 200 years ... In 1803, reporters were finally allowed to take seats in the chamber, removing any obligation for them to make everything up ... Some of its great writers - Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens, Bernard Levin and Frank Johnson - worked in politics as sketch writers.

Frank Johnson? Great writer? Really?

The political sketchwriter as working "in politics"? Really?

The choice of example of Parris' wit was a poor one, for his sake and Crabb's.

Australian parliaments had press galleries from day one. Reporters from W C Wentworth to Alan Reid to Paul Kelly blatantly played favourites, excoriating their opponents and shining a kindly light on their friends. This is the standard of the journosphere then as now: no imagination, no sympathy for those who are governed or the longterm consequences of decisions taken by government. Crabb is no different to that tradition and not distinguished within it.

The Australian journosphere offers two alternatives to this model of the press gallery, the chooks happy to feed on whatever is fed to them:

  • The first is the grey bureaucratic-style reportage of conventional wisdom that you find in Michelle Grattan, who in forty years has never written a sentence that can be remembered the day after it was first read. Grattan dutifully reports the Treasurer accusing the Opposition of being economic ignoramuses; when the current Treasurer was Shadow Treasurer, he was so accused by the incumbent, and so on, etc.

  • The second are the crusties tired of playing by the rules, who have done the straight reportage and see how limiting it can be and who bag the "players" based on a real appreciation of what it is like to be governed by monkeys who don't give a toss. The examples here are Mungo MacCallum and Alan Ramsey. They did everything that Matt Price ever did, including all that AFL stuff, in any given week and still propped up the Non-Member's bar.

The journosphere think that toeing the line is the only alternative to being dull or bucket-list wacky, and they're wrong about that too.

Consider a piece of commentary like this:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin ... I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

You can overdo that kind of stuff, it becomes empty hype and it takes a real pro to do it well. Thompson could demonstrate his perceptiveness about politics while at the same time showing how alienating it was in its irrelevance and hostility until its relevance hit vulnerable people hard.

Again, Annabel suffers by comparison:

The odd thing about such lampooning in politics is the extent to which its targets are unperturbed by the attention.

Obviously, you're doing it wrong. When they're perturbed you've earned your pay (especially as readers will turn to sharp observations well-written).

When I first arrived in Parliament House as a political reporter in 1999, I went to a party in the suite of Bronwyn Bishop (then the minister for aged care) and was stunned to see her private office was a shrine to the political cartoonists' art. Even the savage cartoons were there, proudly framed.

She's still a good sport; in late 2008, when a brocade-clad Bishop appeared gloweringly behind her new leader, Malcolm Turnbull, in question time having just been dumped from the front bench, I described her as looking like a "small, malevolent armchair".

Of course, I ran into her the following day in the corridor; resisting the urge to flee, I was rewarded by a brilliant and diamond-hard Bronny smile. Phew.

That office is not "a shrine to the political cartoonists' art" - it's a shrine to herself. She looks around that office utterly mystified that the Liberal Party might want it for any purpose other than her own. What's most significant about her was not her "smile", but her malevolence - that smile is utterly empty of warmth and is more like the blade of a bulldozer than the start of a human digestive system. The whiff of kerosene, the hapless mismanagement of defence personnel issues, and the fact of Senator Fierravanti-Wells screeching in Senate Committees like the first Mrs Rochester is her true legacy, and Crabb was remiss in not having reported on that.

Andrew Thomson, who served John Howard briefly as minister for sport and ultimately was hunted out of the federal seat of Wentworth by Peter King, who was duly hunted out by Malcolm Turnbull, was a magnificently eccentric MP.

He was also a waste of time. The failure of Australia to capitalise on having hosted the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is partly due to his ineptitude and lack of vision. His parliamentary staff ran errands for his children. Thomson "served" us all, not just John Howard. Against that, who cares what he reads?

Sketch writing is not designed, on the whole, to stand alone; it provides an accompaniment to straight news reporting and an opportunity to learn, not whether the Grains Marketing Amendment Bill 2009 was passed or rejected but what the Parliament felt and sounded like as the vote was taken.

Sketch writers have the greatest luxury of all, in that we are permitted impossible latitude in our coverage of a day in politics.

Who was behind that bill? Who benefitted, who lost out? Did consumers of grains benefit as much as grower interest presumably did? Was that legislation inspired by the fallout from grain sales to Iraq, perhaps? I'm sorry the straight reportage is, like, so totally beneath you but the fact that the Member-for-so-and-so said "ah" or "um" 52 times in seven minutes really is neither here nor there. If you're going to report on Parliament, then don't just give us a boiled-down press release or a funny anecdote - put it into context.

I once read a Parris column in which his entire account of question time was taken up with his chance sighting of Peter Mandelson checking that his sock had not fallen down ... To write such a column was, of course, a fabulous indulgence.

But somehow it conveyed more about Mandelson's slightly sinister, fastidious clinicism than might a whole page of news coverage devoted to what he actually said.

Pity you could never do the same.

The common criticism of the sketch writers' art is that it is essentially insulting; that in poking fun at politicians and concentrating on their quirks of personality, the sketch writer reduces the noble cause of politics to low comedy.

And that in concentrating on personalities, the sketch writer twists and perverts politics into some kind of "Miss Congeniality" derby.

As you might expect, I disagree. Most people will tell you politics is boring. It isn't and one of the reasons it isn't is because it is a terrifyingly unpredictable science. Personalities matter, because sometimes - no, regularly - the difference between the success or failure of a policy will come down to the historical relationship between two ministers, or two factions, or what sort of a week the Prime Minister is having.

Annabel Crabb's sketches never contained that level of background - just the shallow stuff. The kind of long-standing personality traits/conflicts and particularly tough weeks tend to be reported only as part of in-depth profiles some time after the event. If there was any of that information available, Annabel Crabb wouldn't share it with the likes of you, dear reader.

Politics isn't boring because it is the process by which resources are taken from us, and decisions are taken as to the use of those resources which affect us in the execution and in the fact that the decisions were taken in our name. It all depends what you mean by "politics", really, and your own powers of observation and description in sketching them.

The journosphere faces a dilemma in reporting on what they know, lest it discourage their sources - and they always get it wrong. If you had an art critic whose commentary was limited to "ooh, look at all the pretty pictures!", or "I really liked the one with the guy wearing the hat", this critic would have no credibility and would be replaced. In reporting on government in similar fashion, this level of reporting is not just OK but continuation of a venerable tradition and "a good thing". Stuff that - it's inadequate when done by ditzes like Crabb and the hit-and-miss Christian Kerr.

It isn't just politicians who let the country down, poor reporting plays its part in poor decision-making and in the decline of credibility of those who hire and broadcast such sketchy reporting of politics. It's nice that Crabb has enjoyed such luxury, being plucked from an obscure job in UK retail like Eliza Doolittle, but I wish her readers had been better off for her good fortune. Still, a well-informed populace may be essential to democracy and a well-entertained readership may take a heightened interest in politics - but they won't shout you drinks at the Holy Grail.


  1. Kids, this is how you curmudge.

  2. Andrew - this is an excellent article. I've long been fed up with Crabb and her coterie of adoring fans, but have lacked the words to properly express my disappointment with her "analysis".

    I hope you get a lot of people reading this article.

  3. ah, loved this :) indeed, this is curmudging!

  4. No, sting and Daniel, it isn't. This is showing how a much-ballyhooed spokesmodel is not up to covering the field of which she proclaims herself, and is proclaimed by others, as an expert.

  5. Come on Andrew, you're worth $250k!


    ...or at least a comment on it.


  6. Aren't we all? ABC Radio 702 is basically The Sydney Morning Herald read aloud so this looks like a sideways step to me. I reckon she'll have trouble keeping up the giddy fan-girl routine, and if the ABC come to rely on her too heavily she'll just flit away.

    Sheehan's comment was interesting though - that whole "seduction" thing was starting to get creepy and the tour of the US media landscape is only interesting to those who work in media, really.

  7. I like the piece, but I can't help but feel that your opinion on the worth of what Crabb does is coloured by your opinion of her actual writing talent - which is purely subjective.

  8. It's both, inseparable.

    She writes badly because she's imperceptive and insouciant about the subject-matter before her. She has never written a piece that mixes the trivial with deeper issues effectively, as Parris did with Mandelson (see her article), nor has she done a worthy research piece (with the possible exception of her work on Turnbull, which again missed the mark). She coulda done more about staffers and lobbyists as a phenomenon of our time and I hate the way she sees people outside the parliamentary process as irrelevant, backdrop, "punters".

    Subjective? You say that like it's a bad thing.

  9. I would weep with joy at reading this, if I wasn't such a cynical and hardened member of the underclass who has to live with the real life consequences of decisions made by the political class Crabb fluffs for so well.