Can political sketch writing survive in the digital age?
"Perhaps we are all about to fall off the edge of the world.”
I am sitting in the press bar at the Houses of Parliament waiting to meet eminent journalists from some of the country’s most established titles. I want to know whether the political sketch – the craft they have honed with frequently hilarious results – has a future in the digital age.
“It’s a dying trade,” laments Ian Dunt, editor at politics.co.uk. Is he right? Will this quintessentially British tradition of linguistically mocking our leaders go the same way as local papers, classified ads and the political cartoon?
The parliamentary sketch grew out of a legal inability to quote parliament during the 1700s and early 1800s. With journalists unable to quote politicians from inside the chamber, they had to sketch out the mood and character of the House on a given day. A generation or so later, when radio and television still couldn’t fill in the gaps the sketch provided the colour description modern media was barred from providing (radio mics weren’t allowed in the House of Commons until 1978).
The sketch deals not with what was said, but how it was said, the reactions, and the characters. It does so with humour, and by giving a nod to some of the nations most cherished cultural treasures.
“The laws of the Sketch Writers' Guild dictate that members must not go longer than a month without making reference in copy to at least one of a) Just William, b) Dad's Army, c) Fawlty Towers and d) P G Wodehouse,” says Michael Deacon of the Daily Telegraph. “If you manage to write a sketch that contains all four you win a bottle of port and a special commemorative tie-pin.”
Not straight reporting, not dripping with satire, Ann Treneman of the Times admits that when she tells people what she does, often they mistake her job title for that of the cartoonist. So what accounts for the continued appeal of a genre rooted in another era, and which many of us would struggle to define.
“It’s niche, but those who read it, love it,” says Treneman.
“A lot of people read it first, as a way of easing themselves into the serious news. It’s like the chocolate on your pillow. It’s nice to nibble at before you tackle the serious business.” The Guardian’s Simon Hoggart tells me.
“We’re like those two old men in the Muppets shouting down from the gallery. We’re just part of the circus of this place,” suggests the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, “Sketch writing isn’t really brutal, sometimes it can be, but parliament is theatre. It’s not just to do with policy, it’s the way you walk and talk. That’s how people connect with politicians.”
Despite appearing a relic of a by gone journalistic age, the “famous five” see no reason to fear the future. None of them can tell me how many hits their sketches get online, but none of them appear overly concerned about competition from blogs or other informal styles of reporting.
“The internet has taken some of the novelty from the sketch certainly,” confirms Letts. “It means we’re no longer the rudest, some of the Internet stuff is pretty low grade. We’re suddenly looking like the gnarled old establishment; some of us look almost objective. It’s a rather strange turn of events.”
“The web is an infinite space,” explains Deacon. “I don't see why an infinite space should contain only one style of writing. It would be a bit weird if we decided that everything in this limitless new expanse had to be written in the same Special Web Voice, which is all slangy and matey and hammered out in seven minutes flat because rereading is for losers.”
If it’s not going anywhere, why there are so few sketch writers? Despite the form’s long tradition, only the Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Times and Independent currently carry a sketch every day.
“It’s the commitment,” Treneman tells me. “You need to be here everyday. One journalist from the paper doing only this. There’s not reason why the Mirror or the Express don’t have a sketch, except that, they don’t. It does seem to be a tradition thing. Why don’t weekly magazines have a piece about the best piece of parliament that week? I think it would be wonderful if everyone had one.”
"Niche" doesn’t equate to "endangered". It would have been easy for the Independent to quietly remove it from their portfolio after their former sketch writer, Simon Carr, left the paper. Instead they called in Donald MacIntyre from Jerusalem to take up duties. (“Don’s a substantial figure, it’s good news for sketch writing,” eulogises Letts.)
Letts is hopeful: “It will see me out,” he said. “I won't be the last Daily Mail sketch writer.” He paused, before conceding Dunt may have a point. “Perhaps we’re deluded, perhaps we’re a bit too close to it. Perhaps we are all about to fall off the edge of the world.”
The sketch, itself an eccentric foible of the British media, celebrates exactly the same in the parliamentarians it so frequently lambasted. Perhaps that is why it is unique to this isle. We celebrate eccentricity, and enjoy reading about it. If the sketch lasts as long as our fascination with politician’s idiosyncrasies it might not only see out its current exponents, but maybe their newspapers as well.