Making a Brilliant Political Documentary is Possible – just not in the UK

Australian ABC television's The Killing Season Documentary is quite brilliant.
Australian ABC television’s The Killing Season Documentary is quite brilliant.

We all love a good documentary, Dig!, Fire in Babylon, Boogie Man – The Lee Atwater Story, because not only do they entertain, they also inform. So, it’s with pleasure that I can offer into this pantheon a political documentary made by a public service broadcaster, and called: The Killing Season.

Australia’s under-siege public broadcaster, The ABC (aka ‘Auntie’) is an organisation that I’ve had many a lovely hour working with in the past. The current Liberal (aka ‘Insanely Right-Wing’) government lead by Tony Abbott has done its best to slice, dice and otherwise prepare the way for an ABC buffet served up for the likes of Channels 10, Nine and 7 to pick over the bones of after one of the Murdoch organisations finishes up, burps and moves on. So, you might expect a defensive ‘doco’ aimed at the Libs. But you would be wrong.

The Killing Season delves into the internecine battles of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), specifically those between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, both Labor leaders, both Australian Prime Ministers, both flawed. It’s fabulous film making that transcends the small, usually drab television world of political analysis. It is also supported by an excellent website that provides more depth and flavour to the already gripping story using additional interview footage, analysis and information.

The Kirribilli Agreement vs The Granita Pact Bob Hawke and Paul Keating vs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The Kirribilli Agreement vs The Granita Pact?.

Internal strife and factional blood baths are not new to the Australian Left though, battles have plagued the ALP since its inception as a ‘caucus’ of linked state parties. In fact, factionalism is an accepted, even integral part of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) with official factions existing within its structure. Understanding this is important (Australian viewers do, it is par for the course). Not understanding it, or not mentioning it in an analysis of the series and of Australian politics and Left politics generally, will lead to poor, misleading pronunciations. That poverty of analysis includes seeing the Rudd/Gillard scrap as ‘bad politics’ rather than simply the way that this federated and factional Labor party has always operated – yet is still going strong (despite the problems faced by former Union man and current ALP leader, Bill Shorten).

(The idea that it is bad politics for Rudd and Gillard but not for Bevanites versus Gaitskellites; or more obviously for younger readers of the deeply destructive Brownites and Blairites battles is obvious nonsense. Both of those situations (let alone Bennite vs Wilsonite, SDP vs Labour, Ramsey McDonald vs Everybody) does nobody any favours.)

Back to the matter in hand: The Killing Season. While this background to the ALP is important, it is not put into the main three episodes other than in brief mentions. This doesn’t detract, in fact the series benefits remaining, fresh, sometimes painful and alwasys engaging because of its immediacy and directness of approach. We, the viewers are also expected to look further. We’re not patronised at any point, in fact we’re “nudged” to keep up, not only to be informed but also to inform ourselves.

Greg Combet - angry and insightful.
Greg Combet – angry and insightful.

I would, for example, recommend episode 1’s brief interview with former ACTU Secretary (and later Labour minister) Greg Combet – and even more so the extended interview (to be found here) in which he provides the sort of primary source detail into the destruction of previous Labor leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham. It is the kind of raw, meaningful, genuinely engaged and angry political material that makes me proud to have worked with the ABC, and it’s only a scratch on the surface of the series as a whole.

Now I live back in the UK, and I’m working on a dissertation about UK Labour. While we have seen insipid dramas about New Labour leadership problems and the bromance gone bad of Brown and Blair, all soaked in faux drama when the real thing is far more important and entertaining, we’ve yet to see anything of the gravitas, production elegance, political rawness or basic bloody insight and entertainment of The Killing Season. Even if you know nothing about Australian politics, you should watch this and appreciate the importance of a decent public service broadcaster to its audience. You can even watch it, online… in the UK (see below for references).

Good on you Auntie (BTW, I would love someone to prove me wrong about the weakness of British political documentary making for television – see my contact details below).

References


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