Laura Tingle is the chief political correspondent for the ABC’s 7.30, and was previously the politcal editor for the Australian Financial Review.
She has authored three Quarterly Essays, Great Expectations (2012), Political Amnesia (2015) and Follow the Leader (2018), as well as Chasing the Future: Recession, Recovery and the New Politics in Australia (1994).
Laura has received two Walkley Awards, in 2005 and 2011. She was awarded the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2004 and was shortlisted for the John Button Prize for Political Writing in 2010.
Astrid: Laura Tingle, welcome to The Garret.
Laura: Thanks Astrid.
Astrid: You're a journalist and the Chief Political correspondent for the ABC's 7.30. You have written three Quarterly Essays, including the most recent, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman. We have previously spoken to Don Watson, George Megalogenis and Benjamin Law on The Garret, all of whom have written Quarterly Essays. Ben Law mentioned how difficult the process was and how much it took out of him. Can you speak to how hard it is to write a Quarterly Essay?
Laura: It is hard to write a Quarterly Essay, and I have written three. And it must be like childbirth, you forget what it's like and you remember the satisfaction of it. But it is difficult, it's a difficult length for a lot of people to write to, certainly for daily journalists. You do, as a writer over the years, develop a feel for different lengths of writing and what you can construct and include in them. For example, I've written a column for the Financial Review for fifteen years or so. It's 1,100 words, and I've got to the stage where now I'll be writing away and I'll sort of think, 'Hm, that must be about right’, and I'm usually within three or four words of 1,100…
Laura: Which is just habit. Twenty thousand ... Even after three, it's not that easy. And often, it's because you're dealing with a story that's evolving or an idea that's evolving and that was certainly the case with this last essay. I ended up writing about thirty thousand words. I don't know what the printed versions ended up being, it's being cut back a bit. But it is a difficult distance to cover. In shorter pieces, essentially you've just got one idea. Out of twenty thousand words, you've got a few of them, and trying to corral them and turn them into something vaguely coherent is a challenge.
Astrid: For the latest Quarterly Essay, which of course is on political leadership, it is literally just been published after Australia got yet another new Prime Minister. Clearly that content was directly relevant to what you were writing about. So, what was the deadline process, the drafting and redrafting process like?
Laura: Look, it was actually not too bad. And it's actually turned out to be fortuitous. My very good friend, the wonderful David Marr, ended up on the wrong side of a deadline with his Kevin Rudd essay, it published just before Kevin's demise.
This one I put in about three quarters of the essay, perhaps a little bit more in July, to Chris Feik, the editor of Black Inc. And I said to him, 'Look, I haven't written the end of this. It's partly because I'm not exactly sure where it's going to go, and just partly because I'm really busy. But you have a look at it.' And he's without a doubt the best editor I've ever worked for, so he always comes up with some really good observations and contributions and things. So, I was interested to see in this particular case, because I'd been struggling with material, what he thought. And that was going to always sort of help shape what I thought needed to still be said at the end of the essay. So, he gave me a bit more time on that into August. And then, I might've put something to him back... There was a bit of toing and froing about that last section, and neither of us were completely happy with it, so it was still morphing a little bit.
And then, of course, the great drama happened in Canberra with Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. And that actually ended up being fantastic, because at the end of the day all that stuff didn't involve rewriting the essay as it was at the time it happened, other than to essentially change the tense of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership. And also it gave it a certain natural finish. It wasn't there you go moment, but it brought together a lot of the themes in the essay in a quite coherent way, and of course made it look incredibly contemporary that I was actually able to include them.
Astrid: Definitely. You mentioned that Chris Feik is one of the best editors that you've ever worked with. What makes him a great editor?
Laura: Well, I think he's got a fantastic eye. He looks at what you're trying to say and isn't looking for what he wants you to say, which is of course what newspaper editors are doing, which isn't necessarily their fault... Their expectations about what a newspaper story is going to be are much tighter because of formats. So, Chris is looking for what you're trying to say and will say to you, 'Look you've got that point there and you haven't actually drawn it out, you really need to... I can see where you're going, but I'd love to know more about that’. He's also unbelievably well read, so will often say, 'Oh, here's twelve things I just happened to have stumbled across that might be relevant in the last week’. And some of them are, some of them aren't, but that might send you off on the search for another idea.
So, he's great like that. Because we've now done three essays together, we've got the hang of each other. We bumped horns a lot more on the first essay, sometimes over some really ridiculous things. But there's now this element of trust. With the second essay, I went to him and said, 'Look, I think there's an essay to be done on institutional amnesia in politics’, and he goes, 'Great’. Whereas with the first essay he'd said, 'Look, can you give me a chapter?' Just to probably reassure himself that I was going to be able to do it. On the second one I said, 'Oh, I don't think I can give you an early chapter’, he goes, 'That's fine, just when you're ready’. So you develop that relationship of trust and if you work in daily journalism you don't get precious about your copy or stay that way for very long, but I always just absolutely listen to what he has to say, don't always agree with him... 'Well, I can see what you're saying, but what about this?' So, we can just have this great conversation, and I regard him as not just an editor, but as a great contributor to the essays as a result.
Astrid: So, did you pitch this third one?
Laura: I did.
Astrid: You did. And you now, as you say it, have written three and they essentially form a trilogy of sorts. At what point in the process... So, you publish in 2012, 2015 and 2018, at what point in that process did you realise there was a theme emerging?
Laura: Late 2017. [Laughter] Once I'd had the idea about leadership I thought, 'Oh, it's the end of the trilogy’, it seemed like it was really obvious. I hadn't really thought about writing a trilogy at all. The first essay Chris had approached me about writing something about something, and that was what emerged with 'Great Expectations.' The second one was one of those light globe moments where I said, 'There's an essay in that’. And this was very much the same, this came out of a conversation I was having with a friend via email who just went on this rant about leadership and things. And I think I was actually disagreeing with what he said, but I suddenly thought, 'This is actually the third leg of what's going on in politics. I've looked at what we expect of politics and the nature of our politics. I've looked at the institutions of politics, but all the conversations you have with people about politics these days are about the leaders’. And I thought, 'That's what I've got to look at’.
But my feeling wasn't any more formed than that as an idea, and my feeling was this could be a really great essay, which really has something thought provoking to say, or it could be really easily terrible and just go over the same old clichés. I don't know, I think it's probably fallen somewhere in the middle, but I didn't want it to just be a review of every political leader we've had for the last fifty years and rate them on a scale of one to ten, that was not my intention.
Astrid: As a reader who is well known to love the Quarterly Essay series, your latest is not that. But I do have a question. How do you as a writer come up with something that is new and offer something to your readers, even about figures like Angela Merkel or Donald Trump who are so well known and have been written about so much?
Laura: Well, they have been written about a lot, but I think they aren't all that well known really in Australia. We know about them in the context of stuff we have imported – we essentially import our news from other places – and so, I wanted to look at them through the prism of the Australian system if you like. And I spent some time in Germany last year covering the German elections, and it was interesting to sort of... When you're on the ground in Germany, the perceptions of Angela Merkel are completely different to the ones that we see in the media here. And so, I was really sort of trying to say, 'Well we've got these things going on in Australia... If we don't really just think about the personalities of Merkel and Trump, but we think about systemically what they're doing, are there lessons for us, or are there comparisons for us in the sorts of discussions we're having here?' Because I think we do have a very insulated conversation in Australia. We tend to think all of this stuff is just happening to us and we don't sort of see ourselves as part of international trends. And so, I wanted to just throw up some comparisons and contrasts.
But Trump, I have to say, I wasn't planning on writing quite so much about Donald Trump, but he's just such a huge story at the moment, and it goes to all these issues of what is a leader that I couldn't not do that. So I had to dump a lot of original plans, which were a look at a new democracy like Indonesia, to look at what's happening in Japan with Abe, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, maybe even Canada, but it became consumed by these themes about Trump, and then saying, 'Well that's not the only model’ – because we tend to sort of say that's the only model –but to sort of look at these two very different examples of what's happening in Western democracies in France and Germany, to say it can actually be different.
Astrid: You just mentioned dumping information, dumping research. So, when you are constructing what is quite a tight argument in an essay like this format here, how do you make sure your argument is that tight and how do you make the call to get rid of what you originally thought?
Laura: In some ways, this essay is a bit odd because it's not that tight. I go through stages where you go back and read it, and you go, 'Oh, this isn't too bad’. But then half the time you go back and go, 'Oh, Laura just... Where are you going with this?'
Because I suppose I got to the stage in life now where I'm prepared to sort of throw stuff out, as in throw an idea out or make an observation which I don't quite land, and that's one of the things about Quarterly Essay... If I read all three essays, there are all these points where I go, 'Well you never actually came back to that point Laura,' or, 'You never actually answered your own question there,' or whatever. And that used to worry me. And now I sort of think, well with political leadership there's so much to talk about. I've been more prepared and kinder on myself on just saying, 'Well, I'll just throw this stuff out there’, either I don't know what the answer is or I've run out of space to go back to it or whatever.
So particularly the first chapter I think is very much like that…
Astrid: You quote Shakespeare.
Laura: There's a bit of everything in there. But there's a lot of stuff that's been thrown out as well, but I suppose I ended up thinking, right, there are three or four main ideas that I want to put in there and around which I constructed sort of chapters if you like. A lot of subsidiary ideas, but you sort of essentially end up knowing that these are the three or four that you really want to sort of nail down, and the other ones are the ones you can squash in on the sides.
Astrid: As a journalist, you are objective but you also I guess have responsibility to maybe acknowledge counter arguments or the other side. But in 2018 some counter arguments aren't quite as robust as others. How do you navigate what goes in and what you don't even bother to acknowledge?
Laura: I think in fact journalists these days, or certainly somebody in my job, you lead this split life. Part of the time you're just telling people, 'Well this is what this person said, this is what that person said, the context is this’, and that's where I think you add the value, that you try to explain to people why we're having this conversation about whatever the issue is. But we're also asked to be sort of commentators and analysts about politics or policy, which is a very different role, which does involve you being opinionated and things like that. And I digress a little bit, but it's interesting because now I've gone into television. When I started doing stuff for 7.30, which is often pretty much in that former role of, 'This is what happened, then this happened,' maybe some more constrained analysis, people would say, 'Why can't you be like you are on Insiders?' And I'd say, 'Well, because I'm not on Insiders, that's a very different format and it's much more free ranging’.
So, we do both of those things, and you've got to try to keep your brain in two separate halves I suppose to do that. But it is tricky now, because you'd see my colleagues in America having this problem where, if the President is just telling lies, what do you do about it? I mean, I think all you can do is say, 'Well the Prime Minister or the President or whoever you're talking about, has said this. However, this is factually incorrect’. That's about your only option. And then there are some things that are just so far-fetched that you just ignore them. And often I think you find there are stories where you just think, 'Actually this is sort of below us, I'm just not going to give this any value’.
Astrid: So, you've just drawn a distinction between your role as a journalist and also a commentator as such. For you as that individual, what's the difference in your process and your research?
Laura: Well I suppose when you're just doing straight journalism, you're just collecting facts, you're trying to talk to as many people as you can and letting the story as I say, tell itself. As a commentator, you've got to think about issues that aren't necessarily immediately in play, you put them in a broader context, you I suppose allow yourself a little more indignation sometimes, or possibly a little bit more compassion. News stories do tend to be really black and white. And I suppose, as an example I'd say, obviously there's been a lot of excitement about the ABC in the last week in which we're talking. In a black and white sense, what are the facts – I don't know if they're even facts really – but Michelle Guthrie has been sacked, Justin Milne is gone, it was seen in very much black and white terms being all about ABC independence. But it was a much more complicated story than that. And I think increasingly with so much demand for fast news and not enough space in the media to often do this properly, there's more nuanced arguments about, well what was it that actually drove the board to sack Michelle Guthrie? Was it actually editorial independence issues – brackets I don't think so – that goes more into that realm of commentary and analysis, and to do that it requires you just to take a step back from trying to say, 'Well what are the bits that we know happened?' to saying, 'Well, how does a board... What was the order in which the board was thinking about this, and what do we know about the personalities involved?' And you've got to make a lot more judgments about it than just looking at what is materially known.
Astrid: When you are filing immediate pieces to be published that day, I imagine your first and potentially only reader before it goes public is your editor. For something like a Quarterly Essay, is it just given to Chris Feik or do you have other readers whose judgement you trust?
Laura: I think in this case he was the only one who read it. And I can't actually remember whether I gave it to other people. I know other people often will give to a couple of trusted readers. And in other circumstances I probably would, but I was actually under such time pressure on a day to day sense with this essay... I had the idea in the late last year and then during the time when I was starting to write it I had a couple of overseas assignments, I made this huge career change, my life went through all sorts of turmoil. And then, there was politics going through quite a lot of turmoil, so I literally didn't have the sort of leisure to be getting a lot of people to come back and say, 'Look Laura it's fine, but you've made this ghastly sort of error of judgement here which I've got to completely contest.' I had to basically just trust myself and Chris to sort of say… Well, they say journalism is the first take of history, and so maybe this is a first take of the essay, but I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to let it go out there, warts and all’. It's not an academic piece, it's been written in a fast moving environment which feeds into sort of sense of all these issues that are going on that we're trying to be contemporary about. So, I just left it with Chris.
Astrid: It's not an academic piece, but the series itself and your essay is up for public comment as such. I'm interested in your opinion of the printed correspondence that always appears at the end of a Quarterly Essay and what would prompt you to potentially reply to any correspondence that you get?
Laura: Look, I think the correspondence process has become much better over the course of life of a Quarterly Essay. I know that often it's... Early on, that was quite difficult to get people to give considered responses for various reasons. I think it's quite vibrant, I look at some of the correspondence and go, 'Oh that's... He would say that, wouldn't he?' [Laughter] It's a little bit dull. But mostly they're all very interesting observations by people who know lots of stuff, and I think it's fantastic that that idea is there that this is about... The essay is about starting a conversation, it's not the final word. That you get all these people who are interested in these areas, and you are trying to stimulate debate, that's exactly what the purpose of the essay is, so I think it's fabulous.
And so, with the two essays I've written to date, some of the pieces I thought, 'Oh, that's really interesting, I hadn't thought of that’. And other things I just thought, 'Well that's a bit...' It wasn't very negative about the essay, but they to me showed a reluctance to even contemplate that there might be an idea there that was worth debating. Not necessarily agreeing with, but just... Sometimes it's made me a little bit disappointed in people who I had regard for just because I felt that they weren't as opened to ideas as I thought they would be. But it's fine, whatever people say, that's fine. And I think if they... In my responses to them, if it stimulates a further discussion I try to include it in my response to them.
Astrid: Now Laura, many listeners of The Garret want to publish non-fiction, articles, opinion pieces, but also essays and non-fiction books. In your career, what are the most common mistakes that you see people make that cut short their career, that means they don't make that name for themselves?
Laura: I think often over complicating things. You try to impress people by covering every single base, and I think... Particularly unless you're writing twenty thousand words, the bottom line is you write one idea. You've got to have one really good central idea, and that becomes the clothesline on which you hang all the other little bits. So, the important bit is to have really coherent idea to start with and to be able to sort of punch that through really clearly right at the top of whatever you're writing. And once that's done, you're home and hosed as I'm concerned. That's the thing I find that people try to... Because they're insecure, they try to cover all the little t's and dot the i's, it doesn't matter. The important thing is to have a central, galvanising idea that makes people go, 'That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that before’. So that's the crucial bit I think.
Astrid: The changing nature of journalism and news and the media is much discussed. And I'm interested Laura in your opinion of... Someone with your reputation and public profile, do you feel a responsibility to write outside traditional masthead, for example not the column in the AFR, but the Quarterly Essays or appearing on TV. Does that help the news process and independence?
Laura: It's tricky, isn't it? I never particularly wanted to do television because, particularly when I was younger, people would say, 'Fantastic earrings. Fantastic earrings’. And you go, 'But what did I say?' 'Oh, I don't know what you said, but you looked great’, and I just found that completely infuriating. But pragmatically, I think you've got to get into as many mediums as you can – media, sorry – and you've got to look at yourself I think, as a business, as a self-employed business these days. And I don't mean that in an economic sense, but to me it's a way of reinforcing the idea that the only value you have is in a value of your by-line, and you add value to that. And I don't necessarily mean financial value, but value in terms of reputation by writing well and by making your opinion count. And if that involves having to do television, so be it. I've come to enjoy radio, I'm getting the hang of television, if that makes it work, that's fine. And there are so many people I know who have no idea that I've spent 35 years, 37 years writing, but will have seen me on Insiders or have listened to me on radio and if that's a way of... Not getting yourself out there, but making some sort of contribution that makes people... Even if it's making them yell at the television or the radio and say, 'The woman is full of absolute nonsense’, but it makes them think about things differently, that's what I think journalism is about. It's about making people think about stuff and then giving them some information with which to do that.
Astrid: You're engaging them.
Astrid: You must've seen... In those decades you must've seen an awful lot of incredibly poor writing. What should listeners of The Garret avoid?
Laura: Well, clichés. Says she who has been in political journalism and can write an entire story that's only clichés. Mainly clichés, and just the regurgitation of... I suppose one of the things about this essay is, I talk about how we've reduced our discussion about leadership to being personality contest, and I think that's one of the big challenges for political journalists now, how we retreat from that, how do we help politicians help themselves and as a result the rest of us by not just seeing the world as a personality contest. So, I think that's really important.
Astrid: So, whose writing do you admire?
Laura: One of my all time favourite writers at the moment is Doris Kearns Goodwin, the American presidential historian. And by happenstance, she's written a book on leadership, which has just come out, I wish it would've come out about two months ago, mind you, that would only confused me. I think she's just a beautiful writer and her research is just fantastic, so I really love to read her, it's just an absolute joy. And in some ways, the people I enjoy the writing of aren't the people who are writing in my field, it's the people who are writing in other genres really or who are writing about things that I'm not writing about. And that's not because I think I'm better than all the people I'm writing about, but politics is just as much a small world as all the other ones. And so, people who will tell me about other worlds are to me much more interesting.
Astrid: Laura thank you so much for coming on The Garret.
Laura: Thank you for your interest.