Take a leaf from the back pages


Politics in Australia and the various codes of football and cricket have a lot in common. This election campaign bears it out in spades. In both cases one team thrusts into attack, only to be repelled by a gritty defence with the occasional ‘rough play’ – such as a ‘shirt-front’, head high tackle, ankle crushing late tackle and bone cracking bouncer delivered by a fast bowler to a hapless tail-end batsman.

The media’s coverage of politics, football and cricket also mirror each other. We have endless panel discussions with ‘experts’, and our newspapers provide thousands of words and hundreds of columns in detailed analysis of the ‘game’, particularly during election campaigns.

Fortunately, football today has something one does not find in politics. That’s the capacity of two commentators to stand back, muse on the history, the present and the future of the game, and to effectively describe those occasional moments when a genuine feat of brilliance is performed.

Reading Fairfax cricket columnist Peter Roebuck, or the opinionated and passionate AFL writer Patrick Smith of the Australian, is a delight. Roebuck and Smith have differing styles “ the former eloquent and languid, the latter sparse and withering. Yet each is able to place the daily flotsam and jetsam of their respective worlds into context.

Smith’s perspective on the sex scandals that plagued the AFL earlier this year should have been compulsory reading for those who think sport is nothing more than a fantasy played by overgrown schoolboys.

And Roebuck’s assessment of the maturing of Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting, from a callow and unsophisticated youth brimming with talent to a shrewd tactical player, was written with an insight second to none.

Australia is lucky to have columnists of such calibre writing about great sporting traditions that have nourished this country’s spirit and soul for many a year.

The qualities that make the writing of Smith and Roebuck such essential reading are lacking from political journalism today. Where are the Peter Roebucks and Patrick Smiths of Australian political commentary?

Paul Kelly of the Australian? The Age‘s Michelle Grattan, or even the Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Ramsey?

While each is a fine chronicler of the times – and in Ramsey’s case a detective of cant and hypocrisy in Australian political life – there is a density about their writing that makes it an acquired taste.

Just how many readers get to the end of a 2000 word Paul Kelly Saturday feature piece, or a Michelle Grattan Sunday Age column?

The perspective of both writers is what the Americans call ‘inside the beltway’ “ a reference to the road that divides Washington DC from the suburbs beyond.

Kelly and Grattan, even Ramsey (and his wife, the Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle), are immersed in the entrails of life on the Hill and in the backrooms. They communicate the ever changing, nuanced and manicured messaging of the political parties.

For afficionados of Canberra politics, it’s a compelling read. But for those with a passing-to-mild interest in the functions and capacities of our body politic, this writing is relatively inaccessible.

Another major and important distinction between Smith and Roebuck on the one hand and Kelly, Grattan and co on the other, is that placing the current in the context of the past and future is a central feature of the Roebuck/Smith style. The rhythm of the game is important to them.

This sense of perspective is often missing in political columns. Rarely, with the exception of Ramsey, is there any explicit referencing of current events to the long political and social history of Australia. The here and now is what matters.

It’s ironic, that the ‘insider’ writing of political columnists occupies the prime and prized positions in newspapers. The opinion pages and the weekend features section almost always lead with political writing.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasure if the writing on those pages was more up to the standard of the back page efforts of Roebuck and Smith?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.