Sketch writing is essentially “verbal cartooning,” Quentin Letts, the parliamentary sketch writer for Britain’s The Times, told me. “Like cartoonists, we deal in caricature, character assassination, whimsy, broad-brush generalization.” The goal of sketching isn’t to report on what a politician said—that is the job of traditional journalists—but to reflect how the politician said it, why it matters, and what kind of reaction it sparked. Parliamentary sketch writing at its best makes readers feel as if they were there. It also, of course, should make them laugh.
Parliamentary sketch writing is, fundamentally, a British institution. To date, no other country has a media tradition quite like it—a fact that can be attributed, at least in part, to the history of sketch writing itself. Some of England’s greatest literary figures, including Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens, began their career reporting on the inner workings of Parliament. In his autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, in which the eponymous main character is a parliamentary reporter, Dickens appears to sum up his own experience sketching: “Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.”
Such sensational reporting wasn’t always tolerated in Westminster, the London neighborhood where the Houses of Parliament sit. In fact, there was a time when journalists weren’t allowed to publish what was said in Parliament at all. “In the early 18th century, people who printed accounts of what was being said in the House of Commons regularly got carted off to jail for weeks and months at a time,” Andrew Sparrow, a political correspondent for The Guardian and the author of Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism, told me. These barriers forced reporters to find creative ways of illustrating what was happening within the Commons, often by using secondhand accounts or gossip, or simply by making things up. In the 1740s, when Johnson, Britain’s preeminent sketch writer, discovered that his parliamentary reporting for The Gentleman’s Magazine was being cited in history books, he was reportedly mortified. Even though his reports were only a sketch of what had occurred in Parliament—an impression of what was said in debates, as opposed to a transcription—they were effectively being treated as fact.
“Among his other distinctions,” Sparrow wrote in Obscure Scribblers, “Johnson deserves to be singled out as one of the few writers in the history of British journalism to have been embarrassed by the fact that people actually believed what he wrote.”
Reporters were finally granted a space in Parliament in 1803, but that didn’t stop them from being creative with their stories. In addition to reproducing what was said in parliamentary debates, newspapers began running general summaries of what they deemed to be the most newsworthy parts—a precursor to the modern news story. “But they were also in some way the precursor of the modern sketch, because they editorialized a bit,” Sparrow said, noting that over the course of the 19th century, people began referring to these summary authors as sketch writers because they were seen as being interested in only the drama and ephemera of the Commons, such as what people were wearing. “Frankly, the view was that they were not serious, because they were not just transcribing what was said.”