Last week saw the return of one of the ABC’s most popular and innovative political media formats – Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet, featuring on the first edition Jacqui Lambie.
You probably know the drill: Annabel rocks up to a politician’s home, or said pollie comes to her place in Sydney, and the two converse over food and drink about, well, anything really – not usually the big issues on the campaign news agenda, or the merits of the latest stoush between Malcolm and Bill, but personal stuff.
How did you get into politics? What drives you? What kind of person are you, really, and can you make a mean muffin?
Critics see Kitchen Cabinet as part of the problem of modern day political culture. It’s “dumbed down”, human interest-oriented current affairs, they would say, avoiding the complicated, often difficult substance of politics in preference for the style and image of the individual politician. It’s infotainment, and too cosy to qualify as “serious” journalism, providing its subjects with a platform to promote themselves rather than address the concerns of the nation.
And indeed, Kitchen Cabinet is a good example of the hybridisation of political media we see in much of Australian TV today. An important element of the reality shows that dominate prime-time is the journey made by participants, as they compete with each and overcome personal obstacles to emerge triumphant. MasterChef’s tagline of ‘ordinary people, extraordinary cooking’ exemplifies this approach.
Kitchen Cabinet taps into several elements of the cookery show format, providing a hybrid current affairs space where our interest in the private, domestic lives of politicians can be explored through polite, friendly conversation.
By this means Crabb hopes she can reveal more than the tougher interview styles pursued by Leigh Sales or David Speers. Or, if not “more”, then something else that adversarial journalism tends to miss – the human dimension of those strange individuals who aspire to govern over our lives.
In her Sydney kitchen, Annabel Crabb explains to me that the idea for Kitchen Cabinet arose from her experience as a political reporter in the Canberra press gallery. In the late 1990s she, like her colleagues in the gallery, would use various techniques to obtain material from political sources.
One was to invite him or her for dinner, and talk “about other stuff. It wasn’t under the pressure of an interview situation, you talked to them about their experience, or what they want to talk about”. For Crabb, these encounters produced information about the politician in question that was,
incredibly interesting in itself, because you immediately start learning about what’s important to them and what isn’t. That’s all useful stuff, because it helps you to predict how they‘ll respond in certain situations. It tells you about what they’re more or less likely to go for in a policy sense, the things they’re drawn to, the things they’ll die in a ditch for, and the things they won’t.
This knowledge she regarded as an accidental by-product of her journalism, but “I always thought it would be a good thing to be able to let voters in on that kind of perspective”.
She first suggested the concept that became Kitchen Cabinet in 2007, while she was still a print journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was not initially successful.
The first couple of times I proposed it to various people there were raised eyebrows, and ‘that doesn’t sound like a very good idea’.
By 2011, however, the ABC had expanded its digital presence, and there was space on channels such as the newly launched ABC2 for what Crabb characterises as “more experimental shows”. This was facilitated by the then-fashionable status of cooking-based reality TV shows. Kitchen Cabinet, says Crabb, “got on the tail end of the cooking craze”.
Her approach in Kitchen Cabinet reflects the broader cultural trend towards confession and self-revelation in the public sphere, and the now routine assumption that private lives and values do relate to public performance; that trust is a key criteria in evaluating politicians.
I feel really strongly that there is nothing wrong with people learning about politics in a different way, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to look at our system and recognise that yes, it is about policy, but policy is always at the mercy of the people who make decisions about what policy course will be embarked upon and what won’t be.
The more I watch and learn about politics the more convinced I am that even though from the outside we look at the process of decision-making and assume that it’s bound by rules and regulations and it’s about standing orders, and numbers in caucus or the party room, and factions and whatever…it’s very frequently, disproportionately affected by very personal things.
Moreover, in the multiplatform digital era of always-on news culture, Crabb sensed that a different approach to political coverage would add something valuable to the stock of public knowledge.
My view was that the modern environment gives you lots of opportunities to do things differently, and to develop things that should complement other forms of reporting and coverage. I felt that if there was some space on a channel to see politicians differently, to interact with them differently, give people a different view apart from just the straight-down-the-barrel press conference, it couldn’t harm the process.
To achieve this level of insight, she argues that the program must be perceived by politicians as honest and sincere in its aims, rather than a media trap. Says Crabb:
If you think about what all this proliferation of media appearances has done, it’s actually taught politicians to be very buttoned down, and to speak in prepared phrases, and that’s what people see. They see the rote learning and mistake it for a lack of personal affect. I think if you change the context, and suddenly you’re in their house…
In this sense the format sets out to create a space in which affect can be mobilised and displayed. “It’s not really about the cooking. It’s about having the props that allow you to talk to someone in a different way”.
This allows Kitchen Cabinet to work as a promotional vehicle for anyone who participates; an opportunity to shine away from the routine cycle of media conferences and adversarial interviews where the only thing that matters is being “on message”. The rules of engagement are agreed in advance, the conversation edited to remove the jaggy bits, the politician promised no nasty surprises. This careful management is partly to make Kitchen Cabinet good to watch, and partly to relax the subject, on the grounds that this is how to get the most honest, most authentic expression of his or her private self.
Kitchen Cabinet seeks to gain the trust of politicians, and Crabb’s assurances that the editing process will be fair to the spirit of the format is key to that goal. As is her resolve to interview her guests with politeness, generosity and good humour, as opposed to the “lying bastards” paradigm of the more adversarial political interview.
Of course it’s softer than most political interviews. The whole idea of it is, I’m coming to your house and I’m being polite to you, I’m not yelling at you or calling you a hypocrite. I’m genuinely giving you an opportunity to say what’s important to you, and why you are where you are.
For the politician, she hopes, this approach is conducive to self-revelation of the type the audience will value and learn from.
You liberate them from all the constraints of the standard political interview, and you say, for example, what’s the thing you remember about growing up? Or what do you care about more than anything else? Seeing what people choose to talk about when they have the opportunity to talk about anything tells you an enormous amount straight away about who they are and what’s important to them.
Many of Crabb’s peers have praised the format, and the logic behind it. Sky News’ political editor, David Speers says he found “the two editions of Kitchen Cabinet with Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd during the  campaign two of the best snapshots of those leaders that I saw. It does put them in a different setting, a different context, and that can be very revealing”. Judged by the ratings achieved in previous seasons of Kitchen Cabinet, the audience agrees.
Kitchen Cabinet airs on ABC and iView on Thursday at 8pm