The Firth Estate

There’s been a bit of talk in the past year about whether this country’s political journalists are doing a good job or not…

From New Matilda:

ABC journalist Annabel Crabb last night began her sickeningly sweet profile of former Immigration Minister and current Treasurer Scott Morrison like this: “People describe Scott Morrison as ambitious, hard-line, even arrogant. But I’ve also heard compassionate, devout and a rabid Tina Arena fan. Clearly the man requires some further investigation.”

Well, yes, he does require further investigation, but probably not on his infatuation with outdated popstars (no offence to Tina, of course).

And more recently, there’s been the Leigh Sales controversy. From Medium:

The frustration that many consumers of political journalism — citizens — feel about everyday political journalism can often be traced to a sense that journalists are working from an understanding of what the job entails, one that is fundamentally different to their own.

If you’ve ever watched a bunch of people yelling at a television while a journalist asks a politician questions, you will know what I mean. “Don’t ask that! Don’t let him get away with that! Make him answer! Can’t you see that you are being played!” You know the sort of thing. People can become incredibly angry that, in their opinion, the journalist isn’t doing his or her job properly, where “properly” is to do with their unspoken presumptions about what the role of journalism is.

That anger, about journalists not doing their job properly, about them not holding politicians to account, about them not asking the sort of piercing questions we’d like to ask them if we got the chance? We think that applies to political comedy too. Political comedy should ridicule politicians and rip their idiocy to shreds, as well as make us laugh. Shouldn’t it?

Interestingly, we learnt during the election campaign, this isn’t a view shared by some comedians whose job it is to produce political comedy…

Charles Firth, who returned to The Chaser a while back and was a writer for The Chaser’s Election Desk, appeared on the ABC’s The Party Room podcast during the election campaign to talk about comedy and politics, and he had a few interesting things to say about how The Chaser operate these days.

Firstly, he reckons The Chaser are wasting their time watching hours and hours of 24-hour news channels, looking for short clips they can make fun of. In his view, they should just go through the papers every morning and look for ways they can build gags which involve them handing Malcolm Turnbull an oversize prop.

He was possibly being facetious about that, but there were an awful lot of prop and prank sketches in the show that were basically:

  1. Take something a politician has done
  2. Turn that into a wacky challenge
  3. Ta-da! We’ve nailed it!
  4. Shot of politician in question laughing along and/or security escorting Chaser member off the premises
  5. A growing realisation in the audience that this isn’t achieving anything politically or comically.

More interestingly in the context of the Sales controversy, Firth argued during his appearance on The Party Room that he feels The Chaser writing team go wrong sometimes because they’re part of the same “echo chamber” as the party machines and the Canberra press gallery. Ordinary members of the public, he thinks, dip in and out of political coverage occasionally and don’t know who many of the major figures are. The Chaser’s mistake, he says, is to make jokes about people like Antony Green, a figure he feels is too obscure.

Really? The sense we get is that the population at large are more engaged in politics than ever, and turning to the ABC to find out what people like Antony Green are saying. The era of a bland two-party system, where it doesn’t matter who you vote for because they’re all the same, is over. People want politics with substance and politicians that stand for something and are taking to social media, news website comments sections and other forums to demand it. Haven’t The Chaser noticed the increase in people voting for fringe parties, nutbags and extremists, instead of the centre-ground approach of Liberal and Labor? And shouldn’t their comedy reflect this?

Instead, their comedy reflects the bland consensus that we’re seeing fall apart across the western world. Their approach to politics is that none of it really means anything (when you’re wealthy enough to survive outside the system) so why not have a good laugh at it all? But for the last decade or so that approach has increasingly fallen out of favour, as shown by the rise of The Daily Show and its offspring. Politics is no longer two warring sides in Parliament: it’s the right-wing neo-liberal consensus behind both parties versus the public they’ve been screwing over.  If your comedy doesn’t reflect that, you’re just another part of the problem.

But there is one thing Charles Firth said on The Party Room that we can agree with: his criticism of The Chaser’s creative process. According to Firth, writers for the Election Desk would post their ideas on the team collaboration website Trello, read everyone’s suggestions, then hold meetings to select the best ones. Except, he says, anyone who criticised other people’s ideas got shot down because there isn’t a culture of criticism in the group. The result, he felt, was that lesser quality material got on air.

It’s hard not to agree with Firth that a culture which discourages constructive criticism in a writer’s room is a bad one. Sketches which appeared on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, considered by many to be one of the greatest sketch shows of all time, underwent extensive criticism in the writer’s room and the result was a very funny show. Perhaps The Chaser’s Election Desk would have been funnier if a higher standard had been demanded?

But, it’s unlikely that a higher standard of show would have come about had Election Desk featured even more props gags and pranks and less trawled footage or gags about political commentators – they were the best bits!

And why must the audience necessarily be in the know anyway? It doesn’t matter if the public hasn’t already seen the footage or the people being mocked. In fact, that’s an advantage. In an era when any event in politics has the piss ripped out of it on Twitter within seconds of happening, television comedians need to work harder to not look like they’re re-hashing the best of the funny tweets from the past week.

Frankly, trawling through hours of footage and getting stuck into the minutiae of politics are the only options for TV satire right now. At a time of niche politics, we need niche comedy.

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