Mark Latham, Jeremy Corbyn, and the quest for authenticity

IT is more than a decade since Mark Latham’s spectacular departure from federal politics, but the former Labor leader is still making headlines.

For the past eight years, Latham has been a regular columnist in the Australian Financial Review, and for those interested in politics, it has been required reading.

Like his seminal The Latham Diaries — which provided a unique, if self-serving, take on what happens behind-the-scenes in federal politics and the Labor Party — you might find yourself frequently disagreeing with what Latham has written.

But more often than not, his columns have been insightful and provocative, with grains of truth buried within. And frequently, very funny. He is a gifted wordsmith.

Sometimes they have also crossed the line; more so in recent months, when he has taken aim at some prominent women including Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and transgender military officer and writer Cate McGregor.

Career over?

But his career as a columnist ended abruptly a little over a week ago when Latham quit/was sacked over a series of bullying and offensive tweets from an account called @realMarkLatham, which while it may not have been officially registered by Latham, was loosely connected to him and not disowned by him.

(Coincidentally, another former Fin columnist, Liberal pollster Mark Textor, ended his writing career in similar circumstances a few years ago after some injudicious whiskey-fuelled late night tweets aimed at female journalists. What is it about these alpha-males and social media?)

Days later, Latham poured fuel onto the fire with an expletive-laden appearance at the Melbourne Writers Festival, where he called his host, journalist Jonathan Green, “a wanker” among other things. That has prompted a number of people, including his former publisher, Louise Adler, to express concerns about his state of mind.

Perhaps one of the lessons of Latham’s latest burn out is that you shouldn’t say anything on Twitter that you would not say in a respectable newspaper. Maybe a rehabilitated Latham will be back. There must still be one or two media outlets he has not got offside (although we can pretty safely bet he won’t be writing for BuzzFeed any time soon).

The purpose of this column is not necessarily to defend Mark Latham. There are others, such as Jeff Kennett, who are prepared to do that.

Undoubtedly, Latham gets up a lot of people’s noses. As at least one Sydney taxi driver can testify, he is an obnoxious character, either deliberately or accidentally, with a macho chip on his shoulder, and despite having been handed more opportunities than most — including being taken under the wing of Gough Whitlam in his early days — he has burnt almost every bridge over the years.

There is a crisis of faith in modern politics in the developed world, and part of the solution is more authenticity, not less.

But Latham’s refusal to play the part of a sanitised, machine man politician is noteworthy because at least he’s not pretending to be something he’s not.

How often do we read or hear people in the media decry the lack of “authenticity” in contemporary Australian politics? That there are too many cookie cutter politicians who have had any lingering personality traits bleached out of them in the well-trodden pathway from student politics, to political staffing, to a seat in Parliament?

And that just about everything we hear come from the mouths of politicians are vacuous and safe motherhood statements, messages that have been tested in focus groups to ensure they actually say nothing?

So when a politician steps off the treadmill and speaks their mind or expresses some other aspect of authenticity, it comes across as something fresh and unique.

That’s why so many people are nostalgic about the likes of Paul Keating, why they embrace Nick Xenophon or Ricky Muir, even if they don’t necessarily agree with their politics, why Albo was the popular choice of Labor’s rank-and-file in 2013, and why Malcolm Turnbull consistently out rates his Liberal Party colleagues as the public’s choice.

And it partly explains why Jeremy Corbyn, who is in many ways the antithesis of the smooth, manicured modern politician, is leading the race to be the next leader of the British Labour Party.

With his grizzly beard, slightly scruffy dress sense and professorial bearing, the 66-year-old Corbyn shouldn’t even be in the running.

But once again, what Labour supporters are responding to is what British public relations executive Joe Paley describes as “the PR of authenticity”.

‘A bloke you could drink a pint with’

Some of his policies such as renationalising Britain’s railways, reopening its long-closed coalmines, and effectively opting out of NATO may appear unworkable, but voters feel like Corbyn is “bloke you could drink a pint with”.

And much of what Corbyn says — particularly about economic inequality — has innate appeal, particularly because he doesn’t speak in soundbites, but takes the time to explain his views, just like a real person.

Sadly, like Latham, Corbyn is virtually unelectable. Many of the policies he supports are simply too whacky to convince the middle ground of electors that British Labour needs to win power to switch their votes from the Conservatives.

And David Cameron’s friends in the mostly pro-Tory Fleet Street press are licking their lips at the prospect of destroying another Labour leader.

The cases of both Latham and Corbyn seem to suggest that while the media profess to crave authenticity in politics, they recoil if they are too authentic.

While authenticity is their greatest strength with the public, sadly it can also be their point of vulnerability in the eyes of the political and media establishment.

More’s the pity, because there is a crisis of faith in modern politics in the developed world, and part of the solution is more authenticity, not less.

This story was originally published on Working Life on 27 August 2015.

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Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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