Never Trust The ‘Diary’ Of A Political Spinner

Diaries claim to reveal more about their author than a traditional memoir. They usually reveal much less.

Hopefully Bruce Hawker’s diary, published this week as The Rudd Rebellion: The Campaign to Save Labor, is not, in fact, an accurate account of the thoughts of Kevin Rudd’s chief strategist during the 2013 campaign.

If it is, then Hawker has a crippling lack of self-awareness.

Take just one example. Hawker does not explain one of the most bizarre and ludicrous decisions Labor made throughout the first few weeks – to run a scare campaign on the GST. The only justification for this scare was the Coalition was going to conduct a broad tax review.

On this thin hook Rudd hung almost his entire economic message. Don’t vote for Abbott: he’ll increase the GST. Don’t vote for Abbott: he’ll increase the GST. It was unrelenting and desperate and obviously false. The word “vegemite” does not appear anywhere in Hawker’s diary.

So let’s be charitable and say there was a lot more to the Labor campaign than Hawker suggests.

The political diary is the falsest, most self-serving form of confession. No wonder it’s grown to be a favourite genre for political warriors.

For a long time it was a tradition that Australian politicians wrote themselves out of their own memoirs. The political historian Sean Scalmer points out that Australia’s insider accounts tended to be an account of political history where the protagonist was strangely missing.

Alfred Deakin’s story of federation included this disclaimer: “Those who desire to know the part the writer himself played in the public debates or campaigns must turn to the Reports published officially or by the press.” What a tease.

Over time such nineteenth century modesty was abandoned. The audience came to expect more reflection and more personality in political memoirs.

Memoirs are usually written years after the events they depict. They have a certain distance. Diaries promise something else entirely – a sense of intimacy with the author.

In theory, political diaries can take readers inside the tent. More than memoirs, they can convey some of the pace and excitement of politics, the sort of energy and uncertainty that is hard to reproduce in retrospect. And – most of all – they do so in an unedited, raw and highly subjective fashion.

After all, diaries are where we keep secrets. That’s their appeal. To read a genuinely private diary – even of someone long dead – feels like crossing an ethical boundary.

The modern political diary is the exact opposite of this. They are deeply self-conscious. They are public statements only pretending to be private.

Of course, every political diarist promises their book has been published with minimal edits. But there is no reason to believe, and every reason to doubt, these books are faithful records of the private inner thoughts of their subject. These diaries are written to be read. Hawker is a spinner. That’s his job.

Samuel Pepys – the diarist by which all others are measured – wrote his diary in code and it was not published for 150 years. Bruce Hawker’s diary was published in 50 days.

Why does this matter? Because it’s deceitful. The modern political diary is narrative construction and score settling and blame shifting masquerading as honesty.

When Hawker skips happily over the most bizarre decisions he and Kevin Rudd made, it’s obvious readers are being played.

The interest in political diaries does not come from the revelations about how the author felt in key campaign moments, but what they want the reader to believe they felt.

And it seems, as Katherine Murphy points out in the Guardian, that Hawker wants to be seen as a nihilist.

I don’t mean to pick on Hawker specifically. Few political diaries show the author in a positive light.

The 2010 equivalent of Hawker’s 2013 diary was Paul Howes’ Confessions of a Faceless Man. It was as much a confession as the author was faceless. Howes’ diary was obviously supposed to be an apologia for his highly public role in the spill that replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

But as the blogger Piping Shrike has argued, the only impression Howes’ diary gives is that high politics is utterly inconsequential. Howes surely doesn’t believe that nicknames and YouTube videos win elections, but – if one were to trust his diary – they seem to have been his primary focus during the campaign.

When Mark Latham released his diary in 2005 it was impressive how unguarded it was. It was packed with devastating character assessments. Its depictions of internal Labor politics were so sharply negative they could have been satire.

But since then we’ve come to realise that bile and insult is actually Latham’s usual writing style. His diaries weren’t an expose. They were an audition.

There was nothing revealed in Latham’s diary of his character that he hasn’t revealed over and over in the years since it was published.

Just as there is nothing in Bruce Hawker’s diary that he didn’t want thousands of people to read.

The political class has co-opted the private intimacy of the diary to deliver nothing more intimate than snarky interpersonal rivalries and ham-fisted narrative-shaping.

But that’s politics, I guess.