The Writing Practice: Journalism by Marcus Niski

Don Watson Stephen Sewell Robert Dessaix Anna Funder Liz Jensen


Don Watson: A Writer's Profile

Don Watson is an Australian writer of extraordinary talent and versatility. He has written books, essays, films, and speeches for politicians, most notably, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. His previous book, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, charts the "...four turbulent and exhausting years..." he spent with Keating as his speechwriter. Recollections won the Age Book of the Year, the Age Non-Fiction Prize, the Courier Mail Book of the Year, the National Biography Award and the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies Colin Roderick Award. His latest book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, has received widespread interest and acclaim.

             Following on from his highly acclaimed portrait of Paul Keating PM in Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Watson's recently released Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language draws not only upon his own experiences of drafting and crafting some of Australian public life's most important speeches, but also upon his own reflections as a long-suffering "...customer, rate-payer, voter and reader of newspapers..." subjected to many of the ills of which he so eloquently analyses in the book.

              Here, in Death Sentence, Watson rails tirelessly against the "dead language" which he says now pervades so much of our public language.

                  Central amongst this notion of dead language is what Watson refers to as the 'managerial language' which came with the new wave of economic rationalism and management theory that burst on to the Australian political landscape in the late 1980's. Management language, as Watson argues, has been constructed as a sort of "...assembly line language - language as machinery - you don't speak it you implement it" he says. It is the sort of language, as Watson writes, which "...handcuffs words to action, ideas to matter, the pure thought to the dirty deed." It is, as Watson ultimately suggests, "...the one bit of trickle down theory that actually works..."

             Death Sentence charts some important examples of how this rhetorical and linguistic sea change has impacted upon Australian cultural and political life with many concrete examples of its insidious nature with respect to communication and cultural life.

             In railing against the demise of public language, Watson concomitantly rails against the demise of many of the skills long associated with the crafting of important public language. Speechwriters, as Watson observes, no longer serve their political masters by producing finely crafted and eloquent public statements, but create as series of 'dot points' designed to chunk down and simplify the issues under discussion in such a way as to carefully package and dispatch them with maximum media impact.

             Another casualty in this assault on our public language according to Watson is what he describes as the 'death of the verb.' Dear to Watson's heart, the verb is the primordial stuff of good English composition. Citing the writings of Ulysses S. Grant, Watson reflects upon Grant's astonishing capacity to recount even the most complex political, military and political history with impressive eloquence. When asked how he was able to achieve this task with such precision Grant was said to have replied  " 'with verbs' " as Watson retells.

              While corporate and 'managerial bumpf', contemporary speeches, speechwriters and politicians all cop a fair spray from Watson, some of his most important criticisms are leveled at our educational institutions and curriculum writers who are complicit in turning out some of the worst language in documents such as curriculum outlines which, to add insult to further injury, surround the English programs of our secondary education institutions. These documents, as Watson suggests, are often themselves written in "language that cannot covey an idea, a conviction, an emotion, an ironic sensibility, a lyric sensibility..."; a poor starting place for documents that are intended to be the very basis on which the teaching of the English language and its proper uses are intended to be based.

               Aside from the education system reinforcing the use of dead language, Watson also believes that the relationship between the writer, technology and the media, has also played a role in the manufacturing and commodification of language intended for public consumption. Politicians, government bureaucrats and business leaders draw upon such managerial language to target and package their messages to carefully defined audiences. In a process of paralleled evolution, the word processor has brought with it the ability to cut and paste words and turn them out as commodities allowing us the facility as Watson suggests of "processing words as opposed to sheep guts...". It has ideally been made for a language that "... people can cut and paste."

             The success of Death Sentence and its impact of the public psyche has been most gratifying to Watson. While he might in some quarters be dismissed as exhibiting somewhat of an obsessional zeal for his analysis and criticisms of contemporary public language, Watson is heartened by the strong and positive response which he a received since the book has been published. As he reflects, "people email you, they ring you up on talkback radio...the reason that the book has gone as well as it has is simply because people hate it [assembly line language]."

             Having tackled the demise of public language, what is Don Watson's next challenge? "Perhaps a  dictionary of 'weasel words'..." he suggests, words that are used as 'empty shells' there meanings carefully hollowed out by our politicians, government departments and business leaders.

                   No doubt having already gathered a sizable amount of material for Death Sentence through friends, colleagues and acquaintances sending him constant and copious amounts of new material, Watson shouldn't have too much trouble in getting this next project off the ground.

             Amongst his concluding remarks in Death Sentence Don Watson has truly thrown down the gauntlet to both current and successive generations of Australian writers who will shape our public language: "All writers can improve, so the public language can improve. It is a question of consciousness. And necessity." Accordingly, it will be up to these generations not only to heed the call, but to reverse so many of the Orwellian trends which Watson so passionately identifies within the pages of Death Sentence.

Interview and story by Marcus Niski, Copyright 2003.



  Don Watson: The Interview...

©2005 Marcus D. Niski