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Parliament Matters – ‘These guys like to be written about’: The art of parliamentary sketchwriting, with Rob Hutton (Episode 9)

15 Dec 2023
Press Gallery, House of Commons. ©UK Parliament
Press Gallery, House of Commons. ©UK Parliament

Learn about the secret ingredients to one of the UK's oldest journalistic traditions in this bonus episode of Parliament Matters, with Robert Hutton, parliamentary sketchwriter at The Critic Magazine.

In this bonus edition of Parliament Matters, Mark and Ruth talk to Rob Hutton, columnist and sketchwriter for The Critic Magazine, about the way he practices one of Britain's oldest journalistic arts, sketching the proceedings of Parliament.

Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Parliament Matters Episode 9

Please note, this transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript copy below, please first check against the audio version above. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:17:15

You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society Production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn More at hansardsociety.org.uk/pm.

00:00:17:17 - 00:00:49:14

Hello and welcome to a bonus edition of Parliament Matters. I’m Mark Darcy. And I’m Ruth Fox. And in this edition we're talking to Rob Hutton, columnist and sketch writer for The Critic Magazine, about the way he practices one of Britain's oldest journalistic arts, sketching the proceedings of Parliament. I have to explain my job to people about once a week, including I has to be said to people who are quite into politics.

00:00:49:16 - 00:01:12:02

So a sketch writer's job is to convey in words not I don't actually draw pictures, to convey, to convey in words what it was like to watch something. The feeling of a particular day. And some of that is as it were, a great event. So I, you know, did the queen's funeral and the coronation and that kind of thing and just sort of how it felt and generally, but not always.

00:01:12:02 - 00:01:37:10

Generally, these are you put some jokes in, you try to keep it light. I tried to describe it as what it would be like if the reader was sitting next to the press in the press gallery, because you will know that up, up in the press gallery of the House of Commons, there's sort of benches and benches of reporters, and when it's busy, there's a sort of running commentary that's going down the line of, you know, well, he would say that, or what an idiot.

00:01:37:11 - 00:01:58:09

Yes, I moments where when when Yvette Cooper was making a speech in the Commons recently, there was a moment where she made a joke so bad that literally heads went on two desks, sort. And the thing is, it's great fun. Actually, one of the reasons why I love I've always loved being journalism is that all kinds of journalism is great fun.

00:01:58:09 - 00:02:32:06

And even when you're writing very serious stuff, that's not necessarily what the conversation in In the Room is like. And the idea of the sketch is sort of come and sit with us while we watch Prime Minister questions, and we will try to give you a flavor of how it felt. The thing about it, the advantage it has over straight reporting is that you can talk about how plausible in a sense the things that people are saying are, So were I writing for Bloomberg, you try to say, well, Rishi Sunak says this, Rishi Sunak says that, and you try and explain to your readers why he's trying to position himself.

00:02:32:06 - 00:02:53:18

He's got this problem, he's got that problem with a sketch. It's much easier to say. For instance, Rishi Sunak is losing his temper now. I mean, I think that one of the things that immodestly I have been writing since the summer is that Rishi Sunak is enormously tetchy and doesn't like it at PMQs when people ask him rude questions, which is a problem because half of PMQs is rude questions.

00:02:53:18 - 00:03:11:01

At least he doesn't like it. He doesn't like it when journalists ask him rude questions. And you can see you can see him being being snippy. You can see him being snippy with Laura Kuenssberg. You can see him being snippy with with Keir Starmer. I was able to write in the summer that this is like watching a teenager being told he has to tidy his bedroom or something.

00:03:11:01 - 00:03:30:20

And he's so. And it's the way that you know that he throws his head back and lets out a sigh when someone asks him about PPE, procurement or something. You're talking a cop leave. We're doing that again. And I would never been able to do that. In a news story with the first time that news reporters were able to do it was with the Greek prime minister.

00:03:30:20 - 00:03:52:10

When he told the Greek prime minister, essentially the meeting's off because there you have an actual solid, incontrovertible. he's had attention. And this is the Parthenon Marbles moment. Yes, but the sketch writers had all seen this much earlier. So we were we were I mean, obviously, we were delighted about the Parthenon Marbles. But it was we were delighted because we had seen that this was coming.

00:03:52:14 - 00:04:11:21

Do you ever get pushback from them? Do they ever come back to you, the sort of subjects of your satire? And then they come back and say, you know, take issue with you, you know, much less number ten officials, or you get feedback from a very senior government ministers. Describe me as quite annoying. I'm sure you treasure that.

00:04:12:00 - 00:04:34:03

yeah. Do you really? I do. You get the occasional little note from MEPs. I mean, I try to be. This sounds odd given what I've just said. I do try to be sympathetic to members. Fundamentally, I think the Nmps are doing an important job and a really difficult job. And although there are there are moments in their lives that are ridiculous.

00:04:34:05 - 00:04:52:16

I don't this is not universal. I'm sure people can find examples to to call me out. I try not to just say, this person is an idiot, if you see what I mean. There are people who lots of people might think I don't understand why he is doing this, but he or she will have a reason why they're doing and it will seem reasonable to them.

00:04:52:16 - 00:05:10:10

And and I think sometimes you can say, look, what this person said was was daft, I mean, quite often, but that's not quite the same as saying that they are daft. I did I mean I sort of you do occasionally get little sad notes from people saying I sort of enjoyed the sketch, but I feel it was quite fair, but actually much less than you think.

00:05:10:10 - 00:05:38:02

I mean, to a surprising extent, these guys like to be written about. I mean, I know well, I know, I know one one MP listeners will probably be able to guess which MP when my dear late colleague Simon Hoggart died about ten years ago and was replaced by John Crace, Hoggart had had particular characters that he liked to feature and John quite reasonably sort of felt he was going to do his get the sketch his way, which is the only way you can do it.

00:05:38:04 - 00:05:58:15

I'm one of the MPs that Simon had like to write about, got in touch and asked if John too would would be right about what would you like to mock me to do You know what is he did you? I'm doing other people. So do you feel you've been especially blessed? I mean, you've been doing this, Joel, for, what, two years?

00:05:58:15 - 00:06:19:14

Three years, Three years now. So you've had the ear of Boris Johnson. You had the brief interlude of Liz Truss. Now you've got Rishi Sunak and you so great, the Liz Truss. I mean, it'll never be as good as it was. yes, I mean the actual question do you question U.S. policy, do I worry about what do I do I worry about the future that we might be approaching with.

00:06:19:14 - 00:06:40:18

You have as much fun sketching Keir Starmer as Prime Minister. I mean the answer is I do worry, but you see I'm worried with I wish I worried. When Rishi Sunak was appointed I thought he is objectively more sensible than Boris Johnson. And yet you find other things. I firmly believe that the Lord loves sketch writers and continues to provide.

00:06:40:20 - 00:06:56:22

And so we will just find other things to to write about. It may not be his target rich environment. Reading the sketches that you produced about Boris Johnson in front of the COVID inquiry, there was a feeling that you were kind of reprising your greatest hits a bit here because this is all the stuff you've been writing about.

00:06:56:22 - 00:07:15:11

When he I will never chance to say it again. I will never be able to pass up an opportunity to you to write about Boris. I'm afraid. I mean, I should make it clear. Look, I live in this country, okay? My children go to school in this country. We are treated in hospitals in this country. I have quite strong personal interests in the country being well governed.

00:07:15:13 - 00:07:35:23

All of that said, he's just an amazing person to write about because because there are so many jokes that you can make and even when you know Rishi soon I made a joke this week about under the Conservatives, there are more families than ever or something. And it's like, well, I mean, you know, thanks. Thanks to the efforts of at least one conservative prime minister who started three or four himself.

00:07:36:00 - 00:08:16:08

Exactly the sort of. it's just I mean, do you ever get lawyers checking your copy? I should I mean, come and sue us for that. We're weird. I mean, I think I think we have a qualified privilege for reporting things I said in the House of Commons, so long as it's a fair and accurate report. And actually so, you know, there are times when you will say maybe he was thinking this or, you know, but I would say, for instance, I never put anything in quotes that I don't think I would try very hard to not put anything quotes that wasn't said, because actually what you forget is that that there are readers who

00:08:16:08 - 00:08:36:09

for whom the irony just completely passes them by. And, you know, you sort of have to say, no, no, that was that was he wasn't actually wearing a spacesuit, you know, or whatever it is. He so you do you do have to be a little bit careful. And one of my colleagues has once got into trouble for putting something that he thought was so obviously ridiculous that no one would have said it inside someone's mouth.

00:08:36:09 - 00:09:03:01

And it kept appearing in the news reports. So are there any up and coming targets for mockery you can see emerging into the political front rank at the moment? I was very excited when great Grimsby MP Lee Nietzsche intervened in the Boris Johnson's reputation debate to say that she personally found him to be an obviously honest man. And I thought a star is born.

00:09:03:03 - 00:09:23:21

But a but I'm to be honest, a lot of these people, I'm worried that they're not going to be around in parliament for very much longer. So a whole new load of people. Yes, well, they would they will be and and they will quite possibly be on the Labor benches. The question is, how good is the Labor Party's auditing?

00:09:23:23 - 00:09:44:06

Are they going to be people? But anybody, even if they try in a way, you end up getting bit. I mean, this is a sort of if you look back at the stuff that was written in 97 about, you know, who are the stars, who are the sensible people, this kind of thing, some of these people turn out to be a great gift to this get tranches, nonetheless, when they when they actually get here.

00:09:44:08 - 00:10:07:08

Well, Robert, thanks very much indeed for joining us on the pod. Absolute pleasure. A Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit hansardsociety.org.uk/pm or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

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