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Sunday, 2 April 2006

Review: The Whites of their Eyes: Profiles by David Leser, David Leser (1999)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 080 17

Leser's 1999 book often seems dated. His profile of John Howard is wildly out of date. The 1998 election, won with a diminished margin, is ancient history now, and nowadays Howard seems bullet-proof: a major player both internationally and domestically.

His profile of Pauline Hanson is better, and that of Kim Beazley even better yet. Beazley is nowadays beleaguered by party squabbles after four losses to the Liberals. His popularity rating is declining and his soft-spoken earnestness seems at odds with the aspirations of the wider community.

Andrew Denton, too, has moved on but, in his case, to greater things, becoming Australia's first interviewer, the equal to Britain's Michael Parkinson. Denton's subtle technique and his ability to draw out the best from his subjects has earned him the applause of the nation, not just that of more dutiful ABC watchers.

Other Leser profiles are of forgotten quantities. Who knows Petrea King or Michael Kroger? Big names in their time, perhaps, but the past decade has effaced even the last trace of these individuals from the popular consciousness. Same goes for Michael Gudinski and Richard Wherrett.

Alan Jones continues to fester in the body public, a thorn in the side of intelligent journalism, and a source of enervation for the great unwashed, spewing out torrents of matter that serve to excite but not question. Jones doesn't come out of the profile looking very good at all. A bully in private and a bully abroad, he seems to embody everything bad that you can say about shock jocks and talk-back radio. Who listens to this crap? Obviously some people do, or he wouldn't be on air at all.

Leser is a good journalist, that's clear enough, but it is surely a criticism of his style that the pieces about people who have disappeared from public view make your eyes glaze over and wish it would end, so you can get onto something more substantial. While he is trenchant in his questioning and broad in his coverage, when the material is out of date he is not compelling. The updates at the end of each piece only take you up to the publishing date, and so much has happened since 1999 that it is not enough to whet your curiosity.

Worth an afternoon on the couch but not the most compelling book available.

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