Saturday, January 8, 2011

That's Why We're in Trouble Now

The title -- So Greek -- got my attention on the New Arrivals shelves at the university library. Maybe the subtitle, Confessions of a Conservative Leftie, should have warned me off (Melbourne: Scribe, 2010) . The author, Niki Savva, worked as an Australian print journalist, with a bias to the liberal-ish Labor Party, for a couple of decades before becoming press secretary to conservative Liberal politician Peter Costello. Six years later she joined the staff of arch-rightie John Howard. What the hell, could be interesting, I thought, and checked it out.

I imagine I'd have the same complaint about most books by journalists. Savva, who seems to be almost my exact contemporary, emigrated to Australia from Cyprus as a toddler with her parents and her older brother. Two sisters followed, one of whom died as an infant. The other, Christina, struggled all her life with beta thalassemia major, a form of anemia, and Savvas' account of her courage and determination are the best parts of the book.

Savvas covers her early life in the first chapter, which is interesting enough, but after she gets her first job with the Dandenong Journal she's much less interesting except when she mentions her family now and then. She writes like the newspaper reporter she is, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but what she writes about here is mostly gossip with no context -- what I'd call thin writing. I expect even a native Australian would have trouble identifying all the personnel, media people and politicians from the late 1960s on. Here's an all-too-typical sample from the 1980s:
Hard as it might be to believe now the politician I was toughest on was John Howard.

We were watching the news in the press-gallery office one night when a member of Andrew Peacock's staff walked in and saw Howard on the box. 'He's got new teeth,' he said. His name was John Harvey and he was a dentist, so he knew what he was talking about.

Howard was in trouble then, as he was for a good part of the 1980s. My story the next day was both cruel and apt: John Howard was hanging on to the leadership of the Liberal Party by the skin of his new teeth.

Not content with that, I followed up with a column, putting it together with the more modern glasses he had acquired, and gleefully pointed out that he had had his eyebrows freshly clipped -- an attempt, I wrote, to tame the old ones, which I said resembled wayward caterpillars.

It provided fodder for Keating and other comedians to ridicule Howard for years [79].
Pardon me, Ms. Savvas, but I think you've mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck. I'd heard of John Howard before, in the context of politics in that part of the Pacific, and as a participant in the neoliberal economic policies that have been so destructive around the world. But even if he played a more significant role in my political history, of what possible interest are his teeth, his glasses, or his eyebrows? I know that for many people these are the things that matter about their politicians, and that's a lot of what I think is wrong with politics and journalism in the US; apparently it's also what's wrong with politics and journalism in Australia. Bummer.

(Click on the image above for a sample of Savva's current newspaper writing.)