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Aug 27, 2010

Hey Watson, first rule of speechwriting: the words aren't yours

When I read Don Watson’s comments about the Redfern speech my overwhelming feeling was embarrassment, writes speechwriter, poet and novelist Joel Deane.


As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on August 27, 2010.

I’ve never met Don Watson, but I like him. Like his books. Like his essays. Like his George Orwell-like pronouncements on the death of public language. Watson’s a public man of letters, which, in this post-literary period, makes him a rare bird, and therefore worthy of serious attention.

What I don’t like is the way in which, Galah-like, Watson has been seen squawking for public attention this week at the expense of his old boss, Paul Keating.

In case you missed the story, it was announced that Keating’s landmark speech on Reconciliation, delivered at Redfern in 1992, had been added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s collection of national significance.

The day of the announcement Watson was asked about the speech and, in a nutshell, claimed the speech as his; that he had authored it and Keating had delivered it word for word. Watson added that Keating deserved credit for having the courage and conviction to deliver the speech holus bolus.

Unsurprisingly, Keating came out swinging, sledging Watson for claiming authorship and claiming the speech as his because Watson was giving voice to his sentiments.

Some commentators — such as a fellow speechwriter Denis Glover — have made the fair call that both men deserve credit for the Redfern speech.

As for me, when I read Watson’s comments my overwhelming feeling was embarrassment.

What I was embarrassed by was an unseemly outbreak of authorial hubris.

Judging by his reported comments, Watson seems to have forgotten the first rule of speechwriting: the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker. That’s part of the deal when you sign on to be a speechwriter for a politician.

As a speechwriter, your job is to find, then write in, the voice of the person who delivers the speech. Your job is to hunt down their beliefs, convictions and ideas, then write a story that makes that person sound like an amplified version of his or herself.

In my experience, the speechwriter should share similar beliefs and convictions as the speechmaker, because they are then able to write with greater verve and passion.

Having read the Redfern speech — not to mention other Keating speeches such as the Unknown Soldier speech — it’s obvious that Watson was a brilliant match for his boss.

He wrote fabulous speeches that clarified and amplified Keating’s pungent message.

No doubt, he shared many of Keating’s beliefs and convictions.

Here’s the rub, though. A speech is not what is written by the speechwriter. A speech is spoken word.

What am I saying? That without Keating’s platform and performance there was no Redfern speech. The speech is what Keating did on that day, in that place. What Watson wrote is just words.

Or, as one politician is fond of telling me, it’s all in the delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, speechwriters are not word processing machines. They are required to give much of themselves to the speeches they write. But the point of the process is not authorial kudos, but political progress.

The reason I worked as a political speechwriter for five years was that I thought it the best way I could make a contribution to the progress of a set of beliefs and convictions I shared with Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

Yes, there are some speeches I wrote that I am proud of, but the only reason I was able to write what I wrote was because of the platform created by the leaders for whom I worked. Bracks or Brumby stood at a lectern before a room of strangers and gave those words life.

That’s why when you sign on as a speechwriter, you have to leave your ego at the door.

The trouble with Don Watson is that he seems to have forgotten that lesson.


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34 thoughts on “Hey Watson, first rule of speechwriting: the words aren’t yours

  1. Gavin Moodie

    I disagree. The issue is not egoism but accurate ascription of authorship.

    The source of ideas and text should be acknowledged in all statements that seek to be taken seriously, whether they be speeches by politicians or anyone else, books, government reports, columns or articles for Crikey.

  2. Trevor

    I can understand Watsons pride in his work and wanting some acknowledgment for what has been recognised as on of the great political speeches of this country. Unfortunately by commenting he has sparked an unedifying spat that we could have done without.

    What he probably should have realised is that people who take an interest in these things would be aware of the author and that it was indeed a collaboration.

    Nothing though will ever take away that it was Keating’s speech.

  3. Socratease

    Shades of Hollywood here, where screen a credit (which attracts residuals) gets down to a union agreed formula of percentages of contribution to the shooting script.

    So, here we go:

    STORY: P Keating
    SCRIPT: D Watson

  4. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Joel Deane you have convinced me, well done.
    Watson gets recognition by publically being acknowledged as Keating’s speech writer.

  5. redroger

    Don Watson should understand how odd it would seem if Keating said “…when I gave Don Watson’s famous speech at Redfern…”. Joel Deane is right – a political speech belongs to the speaker and the speaker, not the speech writer, will reap the consequences of the words.

    This is quite unlike the big playwrights (of whom Shakespeare alone will suffice) who are remembered by name after their most famous leads have long been forgotten.

  6. Joel Brooks

    There’s a pungent smell of irrelevancy permeating this spat. Why can’t old politicos and their minions decompose gracefully?

  7. redroger

    I thought rhetorical questions were excised by the mediator.

  8. kebab shop pizza

    The speaker gives his/her name to the speech by delivering it, so I agree, they own it. After all, they are the ones who cop the credit/flak. The speaker signs off on it as they would the letters that are 100% of the time written by someone else (usually a low level minion). A high level minion is still a minion.

  9. Carolyn Hirsh

    Well said Joel. Both you and Don Watson have plenty of personal writing success. The Redfern speech is Keatings. Don should enjoy the success of his books.


    Well, er…hmmm, yes, you say it in the first sentence: you’ve clearly never met Don Watson.

    Enough said.

  11. freecountry

    Paul Keating seems to have been content for years to let others take the credit for his achievements. Howard reaped the success of his economic reforms while adding a few of his own. Keating became best remembered for his colourful insults and a recession some RBA directors had to have, for reasons they’ve never really explained.

    It seems as if Keating always had an optimistic faith that these things would come out in the wash. That over time, historians and contemporaries would set the record straight. A few have done so, notably economics journalist David Love, whose entertaining book on Keating’s “golden circle” to sustainable wealth makes it unsurprising that Australia weathered the 2008-9 crisis so much better than its peers. Another achievement credited entirely to the government on duty at the time.

    When Blanche D’Alpuget’s book and its soap-opera TV show cast him as a villainous thug, enough was enough. It seems to have finally dawned on Keating that there was to be no valediction for him, no setting of the record to rights, unless he did it himself.

    What did Don Watson think – that a man who’d been all but stripped of his rightful place in history wouldn’t mind relinquishing one more piece of himself, the inspiration for his greatest speech?

    It’s one of the saddest cases of tall poppy syndrome in modern Australian history, when a Prime Minister who did at least as much as any person still living to set Donald Horne’s stale, provincial “lucky country” on the road to world-class success, is left all alone to stand up for his own reputation.

    Saying a simple thank you isn’t really one of our strong points, is it.

  12. John64

    So who wrote Kevin Rudd’s “sorry statement” to Aboriginals?

  13. Moving to Paraguay

    This issue exposes a fault line in most public productions, like cinema, publishing and design. We still don’t quite a way of acknowledging who produces what comes to us – http://www.craftunbound.net/country/australia/the-politician-and-the-speech-writer-designer-and-maker

  14. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    John64, Kevin Rudd told us in his own words that after he had attended church on that Sunday he went home and wrote the speech he would deliver a few days later.

  15. Socratease

    Kevin Rudd told us in his own words that after he had attended church on that Sunday he went home and wrote the speech he would deliver a few days later.

    Unless it started with the words “Can I just say …”, then Rudd didn’t pen it.

  16. Greg

    That you “share similar beliefs and convictions” as John Brumby is not a good platform from which to make moral judgements, I would have thought. Although whoever generated the spin for the latest bushfire buy-back pronouncements would want to run for cover I guess, rather than take the credit.

  17. Bob the builder

    So if I write a book about geology, does that mean the rocks wrote it?
    Just because Watson was allegedly ‘channeling’ Keating, he still wrote it. Otherwise, why didn’t Keating himself write it? Watson has got to get some credit for it.

  18. Stiofan

    What a lot of confusion.

    We have a thing called “moral rights” in the Copyright Act. That preserves the right of an author not to have his/her authorship attributed to someone else (even if that someone else is paying the author). There are some exceptions, but I can’t be arsed going to the Act to see if they include self-important wankers like Watson (Recollections of a Bleeding Heart has to be the most overblown piece of self-justification from a political bit-player that I’ve ever read).

    Leaving aside the legal position, the bargain (spelt out or otherwise) is that the person who delivers the speech or signs the letter gets the credit. That’s for several reasons:

    * at the end of the day, they are his or her ideas;

    * he or she may get the credit, but they also cop the public odium when things go pear-shaped (in other words, it’s they – not the writer – who’s the flak-catcher);

    * if the bargain didn’t exist, there’d be no work for speechwriters and assorted other ghosts.

  19. Gavin Moodie

    The person who delivers the speech may have contributed all of the ideas, some of the ideas or none of the ideas. Where the speech writer contributed some or all of the ideas they should be credited with that. Where the speech writer contributed no idea to the speech but most of the wording they should be credited with that. All speeches should include an acknowledgement of the various contributions made to the speech.

    One of the unfortunate consequences of not acknowledging contributors to speeches, policy documents, etc, is that it gives the misleading impression that bosses are enormously productive in a wide range of activities, justifying the outrageous wages they pay themselves.

  20. JamesG

    The words of Shakespeare can be sublime or ridiculous when spoken by different actors but we credit him with the major act of creativity, not them.

  21. freecountry

    STIOFAN, it’s section 36(6) of the Copyright Act 1968:
    [Where a literary, dramatic or artistic work to which neither of the last two preceding subsections applies, or a musical work, is made by the author in pursuance of the terms of his or her employment by another person under a contract of service or apprenticeship, that other person is the owner of any copyright subsisting in the work by virtue of this Part.]
    And Keating was a very demanding employer. David Love’s book quotes former Treasury officer Ted Evans, who wrote some of the explanations of economic proposals that Keating took to the Labor caucus:
    [“He (Paul Keating) sent my paper back and said, ‘I don’t fully understand this myself. I know my audience, and I know this won’t go over with caucus. Try again’. I sent a second minute and he sent that back. On the third try he was happy. But he sat down and wrote it out long hand into his own words. When he went to the caucus he took me along to sit in the background. And as I listened to him present it I thought to myself, I could not have hit the mark as nicely as he did. I saw immediately what he meant by knowing his audience.”]
    Watson’s fair claim to brilliance is that he understood exactly what Keating meant – no need to send it back for a rewrite – and he and Keating between them turned those thoughts into something close to poetry.

    Isn’t that enough? Couldn’t Watson be satisfied with that?

  22. Bob the builder

    I don’t know Keating and I don’t know Watson and I doubt I’d like either of them, but why are so many people so keen to give the credit to the puffed-up bosses?

    @ Freecountry – Couldn’t Keating be satisfied that he got to speak the speech and thank Watson for writing it so well (particularly when it’s clear so many others couldn’t)?

    If speechwriters are so superfluous then why are there so many of the useless buggers everywhere? They, like the pox of PR consultants, pollsters, media advisers, ‘staffers’ and all the rest of the useless hangers-oners should be given credit for the sh*t they create and the sh*t they make look competent – let’s acknowledge them all, as well as the empty vessels (and their boosters) who pretend it’s all their own work.

  23. freecountry

    That’s a typo, I meant section 35(6).

  24. Stiofan


    Moral rights are nothing to do with copyright – they’re in s 189 et seq of the Act.

    If I commission you to write something for me, I usually buy the copyright, thus giving me the right to use the material (eg, printing it in a magazine or reading it out in performance). However, copyright doesn’t give me the right to claim that I wrote the piece. That “bragging right” is the moral right, and is covered in Pt IX of the Act. The Act is a bit unclear on the circumstances in which moral rights can be overridden.

    Anyway leaving all that legal guff aside, a slightly Berkeleyian approach to this particular issue is the best. If Watson had gone down to Redfern and read the speech out himself, would it now be in the archives?

  25. freecountry

    STIOFAN – Yes, I see what you mean. Looks like a bit of room for interpretation there. And as you say the legalities are just one side of it … The law represents our attempts to codify morality, rather than the source of all morality, or a perfect guide to the understanding that existed between the two men.

  26. Arley Moulton

    If it was a garbage speech and everyone came out and said “Hey PK gave a garbage speech” would Watson be standing there saying “Hey, hey, that’s my garbage speech, not PK’s. Give credit where it’s due”
    haha yeah right.

  27. Bob the builder

    Yeah and would PK say it’s mine and I take responsibility? Or, sorry everyone, I’ve just sacked my speechwriter?

  28. Stiofan

    And the elephant in the corner: almost nobody outside the inner cities of Sydney or Melbourne even knows what The Redfern Speech is.

  29. Peter Phelps

    When you write a speech for your boss, it’s his, not yours.

    Don’t like it? Then run for Parliament yourself.

  30. Gavin Moodie

    Not even a hierarchical capitalist society such as Australia’s should tolerate a boss take all system. Apart from everything else, not everyone can be bosses. There must be a balance of rewards and privileges between bosses and workers.

    Bosses should recognise their writers’ work with at least an acknowledgement, if not the joint or sole authorship that is their due.

  31. Stiofan

    @gavin moodie

    As I pointed out several days ago, the Copyright Act already contains provisions requiring acknowledgement of authorship (moral rights).

    However, give the old Marxist cant a rest. This has got nothing to do with “bosses”. It’s about a division of labour. I write a speech for someone which incorporates their ideas. When they stand up to deliver it, they’re putting forward their ideas – and indicating a preparedness to stand by them (ie, it’s their balls on the line). As the speechwriter, I have no skin in that game (to continue the metaphor) – I require no more acknowledgement that the guys who set up the mikes or photocopy the speech for distribution.

  32. Gavin Moodie

    Blind to sexism as well as to the obvious power differences between bosses and workers.

    If a speech writer is simply puting into words some one else’s ideas then one kind of recognition is due, I suggest a brief acknowledgement. If however the speech writer contributes ideas, as Watson claims for the Redfern speech, then a higher recognition is due.

    But of course notwithstanding the Copyright Act routinely no recognition is given to speech writers, however significant their contribution. That is a problem which needs addressing.

  33. Stiofan

    @Gavin Moodie

    The implosion of the USSR and its adherents is now so long ago that one forgets just how humourless the old left are.

    What “sexism” are you referring to?

    The “guys” who photocopy the speech – which was a joke about sex-role stereotypes?

    The reference to “balls on the line”, which is a metaphor (look up it up)? It’s no more “sexist” than “uptight”, “knickers in a knot”, etc.

  34. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    @FREECOUNTRY – Posted Friday, 27 August 2010 at 11:24 pm | and later

    You surprise me, pleasantly.
    By the way the very beginnings and essence of morality start and sprout from a modern day ‘illegality’, discrimination. Such is our modern day wisdom especially with public communication.

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