Whenever Simon Hoggart writes about Michael Fabricant, he makes note of the honorable gentleman from Lichfield’s hair. “How many My Little Ponies, we asked, were slaughtered to make such a creation?” reads one of his countless dispatches. That 2003 piece, in fact, was devoted entirely to Fabricant’s mane (or lack of it) and its uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and length. The previous day, Hoggart had noticed that Fabricant’s blond toupée “used to be roughly normal length, finishing round the level of his ear lobes.” Yet twenty-four hours later, “the thing had reached his shoulders, a great lustrous cascade of tresses curling over and even caressing the collar of his jacket.”
It’s hard to imagine a congressional reporter for a major American newspaper writing such things about a member of Congress. But Hoggart is not an impetuous blogger; he’s a parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian, the paper of Britain’s right-thinking liberals. His kind has existed for centuries, dating back to Samuel Johnson, one of England’s greatest literary figures (born, as it happens, in Lichfield). The eighteenth-century poet, essayist, lexicographer, and biographer began filing parliamentary reports in the 1740s, and often had to use his imagination to describe how elected officials conducted the people’s business—journalists were banned from attending parliamentary debates at the time, and so Johnson had to piece together his reports using bits of information gathered from witnesses. Or he just made things up. Many of the speeches today attributed to William Pitt (the Younger) were actually written by Johnson, who simply printed what he imagined Pitt had said.
Today, sketch writers don’t need to make anything up partly because they are allowed to watch parliamentary proceedings, but also because they have such great material. Sketch writers differ from typical legislative correspondents in that their primary duty is to provide colorful accounts of parliamentary debates, not report hard news based on interviews with sources or analysis of thick government reports. The closest approximation to a sketch writer in the U.S. is The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose three-year-old “Washington Sketch” is described as “an observational column about political theater in the White House, Congress and elsewhere in the Capital.” While Milbank has the entirety of Washington—think-tank events, scandal personalities, foreign dignitaries—as his canvas, the U.K.’s sketch writers, aside from the annual party conferences and parliamentary elections, are limited to writing about what transpires in the parliamentary chamber.
The lack of sketch writers in American journalism is attributable to the fact that actual debates in Congress are rare (though John McCain has proposed a ritual similar to that of Britain’s Prime Minister’s Questions). Every week, the prime minister ventures to the House of Commons, where he is subjected to merciless questioning from not only the backbenchers in his own ranks, but also members of opposition parties. Other days of the week, government ministers also face questioning. As any American viewer of c-span (where Prime Minister’s Questions is one of the most popular programs) knows, a member of Parliament who rises to speak risks a barrage of insults and jeers no matter what he or she says. (“New Labor, new hair,” Labor MPs yelled at Fabricant when he rose to ask a question not long after their party’s 1997 election victory.) A day in Parliament makes a congressional hearing look like the q&a segment at the Miss America pageant. Sketch writers turn in copy typically four times a week, regardless of how amusing the day’s events. “If we didn’t know how to sketch boring, we’d be out of a job,” Ann Treneman, a sketch writer for the London Times, tells me.