Soundbites, slogans and political memoirs

In the ‘soundbite and slogan age’, why do political memoirs remain enduringly popular and why do ex-politicians suddenly become courageous when writing them?

The art of policy-making can be reduced to a soundbite or slogan. Let’s call it ‘slogan diplomacy’.

Tony Abbott was a master of the three-word slogan in his (nearly) two-year tenure, with his promises to “stop the boats”, “end the waste” and “axe the [carbon] tax”. Oh, and who can forget Julia Gillard’s “moving forward” mantra? Or Kevin Rudd’s “Kevin 07” campaign?

Soundbites and slogans are frequently used in the media.

“They seem to be getting shorter and shorter though,” Dr. Nicholas Barry, a lecturer in Politics at La Trobe University, says.

A politician must now “communicate a message in a very short time”, which can have a negative impact on debate and discussion.

“The format of the media has changed,and the way in which we access news has changed,” Barry says.

“But if we are only receiving news in very short soundbites and slogans, it means that we are inevitably getting less of an in-depth understanding of what’s going on.”

It is surprising, then, that a (sometimes) long-winded political memoir can attract a large and eager readership. (Yes, people are still buying, and reading, books).

If you don’t believe me, look at this graph. It’s legit.

Barry believes that, for the most part, they are “already interested” in the field.

“They might want to know more about a political figure, a controversial figure, or go ‘behind the scenes’, particularly of a government or decision that was made,” he says.

“The fame and power of the memoirist, the drama inherent in the events being narrated, the entertainment of secrets revealed and gossip about cohorts” (Egerton 1994, p. 3) drives their fascination.

“There is a gossip-like quality that attracts some people, but it depends on the nature of the memoir,” Barry says.

“Some are more revealing than others. Some are written in a sensationalist way.”

Mark Latham, a former government minister, provided an honest and critical review of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in his memoir The Latham Diaries, calling it a “whingeing, gossiping, sickening caucus”.

He described Kevin Rudd as a “treacherous, nasty piece of work… addicted to the media and leaking”, Kim Beazley as an “indecent, dirty dog” who “stands for nothing and does nothing” and Bob Carr as an “a grade asshole” (my personal favourite).

It was not entirely unexpected from Latham. He was deeply embittered by the 2004 post-election fallout, and disillusioned with his former party, which he believed was overtaken by a culture of “leaking, backgrounding and sabotage”.

The year of Latham’s bitter defeat.

“Latham was always a provocative figure, even when he was in parliament,” Barry says.

“He was known to be fairly colorful in his use of language.”

He also lamented “the time [he spent] away from home, loss of privacy and impact on [his] family”, which “tempted [him] to pull the pin” on his career, in The Latham Diaries.

“If you look at the way his career ended, it had a big impact on his personal life,” Barry says.

“The level of attention on you, on your personal life, the stress and the media… has a big impact on people.”

Latham was, no doubt, “happy to leave [this] behind”.

He showed a ‘human side of politics’ in The Latham Diaries.

“It was an interesting part of the memoir,” Barry says.

The idea of politicians being human beings, and the personal cost that being involved in politics can have on them, often gets lost in the cut and thrust of political debate.”

Strong language aside, readers appreciated, and expected, his searing honesty.

“When you are reading a memoir, you want a person, whether they are a politician or sports person, to be relatively honest, especially when they are revealing information that you otherwise would not have known or is not on the public record,” Barry says.

It is a stark contrast to life in the political arena, where they are constrained by electoral pressure and party discipline.

“When they are in office, they are mainly concerned about what voters think,” Barry says.

“If they are seen to imply criticism of a particular figure in the party during interview, it is likely to get picked up and create damaging publicity for the government.

“So, that is why they can be misleading when they are in office.”

These concerns are no longer pressing when they leave parliament.

“When they leave parliament, they are not worried about getting re-elected,” Barry says.

“They can afford to be more honest in their memoir.”

However, truthfulness is a separate question. In their memoir, an ex-politician can provide an honest view or opinion, or an honest recollection of an event, but it does not mean that it is an accurate view, or accurate representation of an event.

The Latham Diaries was an honest and fairly truthful account of a crucial time in ALP history.

“[His memoir] was infused with a fair degree of bitterness, but that doesn’t mean the judgements that he made about the impact of factionalism were necessarily inaccurate,” Barry says.

“Factionalism is, to an extent, a problem in the ALP. So, some of the criticisms that he made about the internal workings of the party, and the role of factions, were actually pretty accurate.”

Truthful or not, it is useful to have the personal reflection of an ex-politician, which has not been filtered through someone else’s interpretation, on the public record.

“It is a precise account of what they think occurred, what they remembered occurring, and their reaction to it,” Barry says.

“For a political scientist, a journalist, an interested citizen, it is a valuable resource.”