Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 17, 2018

Off the Record (2018), by Craig Sherborne

Off the Record is a deliciously droll satire.  It’s Craig Sherborne’s third novel, following on from The Amateur Science of Love (which I really liked when I reviewed back in 2011) and Tree Palace (2014) which I put on my wishlist but #SmacksForehead forgot to buy.

Callum ‘Wordsmith’ Smith, a.k.a. ‘Words’ is a tabloid journalist whose marriage is in trouble. He’s a pedantic neat-freak, picky about grammar and tidiness but not above faking outrage stories or making up lies about the man he thinks is wooing his estranged wife.

Words is alternately brutally honest with himself and self-deluded.  Sherborne (who used to be a journo for the tabloid ‘Melbourne Sun’ a.k.a. The Melbourne Daily Astonisher’) skewers the methodology of tabloid journalists.  Here’s Words admitting his tactics while falling prey to what’s called Noble Cause Corruption i.e. believing that the ends justify the means:

I, Words, am a provider and required to earn wages.  In the service of which I have knocked on flyscreens and said to mothers of kidnapped toddlers, ‘Don’t you feel guilty for leaving your child in the front yard alone?’ I have shamed them to tears for the photographer. I have gatecrashed funerals, linked innocent corpses to local crime syndicates. Or feigned empathy to the grief-stricken to make copy from their hard-luck stories. I enjoyed the kudos of my name beneath headlines on front pages and became used to the heartlessness as if blank inside. I was doing it for my family—it was worth the cruelty. (p.4)


There is an equation to shame where wrongdoing is converted to rightness.  It requires no thinking – it does the reasoning itself.  My asking Ollie [his son] to spy was a shameful act for a father, but my religion of family made it dutiful. (p.49)

Hmm.  This is a man whose religion of family does not preclude a one-night stand with an ad rep – sex of the clothes-on, standing-up kind that no one could call by the wholesome word lovemaking.  His idea of self-reflection is to regret his own honesty in telling his wife about it, so that by confessing, the great gesture of being honest would void the sin.  He seems genuinely surprised by their estrangement and maintains throughout the novel a naïve optimism that all he has to do is stage-manage various reconciliatory gestures and the marriage will be ok.  No woman reading his litany of self-deception is going to be convinced.  Sherborne structures his novel so that readers are more likely to be barracking for Emma to give him the heave-ho as fast as she can!

Tabloid journalism is about making people feel angry and superior to evildoers and the stupid, or invoking sentimentality or moral outrage.  Words has just changed jobs and is working for an online operation called but he has brought with him his file of stories he’s especially proud of.

First a ‘human’ story about ballet dancers overdosing on diuretics.  Then a ‘moral outrage’ feature – wild rave parties on sacred Aboriginal land.  The best was a money-laundering yarn with a rag-trade angle.  Fashion labels hiding income in overseas tax havens.  They’d used Swiss bank accounts to convert company finances to cash, then wired it to Bermuda for secret investing.  (p.42)

Scouring these triumphs for inspiration, Words marks this last one with ‘update and reuse’, and reuse it he does, because readers of tabloid ‘news’ just love to read about rich people evading their taxes, don’t they?

Words’ boss, Justin ‘Pockets’ Nash is fabulously wealthy and has decided to invest some of his inheritance in dabbling in online journalism.  This is a man who is proud of the fact that for the first time ever, he has made his own lunch:

He took a brown paper bag from under his desk.  Unrolled the neatly folded top, slow and ceremonious, took out cling-wrapped sandwiches.

‘I made my own lunch this morning.  With my own hands.  These ham and tomato sandwiches are more than just sandwiches.  They’re a symbol.  They’re something I created myself.  Something I haven’t inherited like money.  They haven’t been handed to me on a plate but brought to work by me in a bag.’

‘That’s placing a lot of responsibility on a ham and tomato sandwich.’ (p.104)

He asks Words about his philosophy of journalism and provokes laughter over such a high-minded word being linked to what we do.

I said, ‘It’s like break-and-enter into other people’s lives.  Taking their tragedies […] and turning them into stories for us’.

When Words sinks to his lowest level, inveigling his way into a grief-stricken household so that they can tell their previously unheard story, I thought immediately of Helen Garner and Joe Cinque’s Consolation.  It’s all there in Sherborne’s characterisation: the ‘sincerity’, the ’empathy’ and the very gentle questioning that a skilled journalist can use to get the story that’s wanted, designed to appeal to the prurient.  ‘Crossing over’ to become a new friend to the household.  Nauseating.

It all ends badly, I am delighted to say, but what a pleasure it is to read this witty comedy with a darker side, not least because of Sherborne’s own wordsmithery.  He won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award in 2012, and these examples show you why…

A drive home in heavy Melbourne traffic gives Words an opportunity to woo his adolescent son Ollie into prying on his wife’s activities under cover of training him as a journalist.  These memorable words will surface in my mind next time I’m becalmed in traffic:

The lights went green, but we couldn’t move because roadworks shunted traffic into one stagnant lane (p.43)


The traffic stretched and contracted like metal elastic (p.44)

and, when – to lengthen the time he has for his nefarious plans – he deliberately chooses a route home where there’s a likelihood of getting caught behind a tram…

There was no tram: the road lay lonely and greenly sentried with oaks and bushy creepers.  Roof-high hedges for fences around the bigger homes.  The sun was shimmering like water on the footpaths.  House bricks shone like brass.  The kind of morning more pastoral than city, with breezes coming up and sounding like leaf fire. (p.45)

Malvern Road Malvern,  it has to be.

I loved this book, I really did, and not just because it’s set in Melbourne!

Author: Craig Sherborne
Title: Off the Record
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603248
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Off the Record: A Novel



  1. Very much like the idea of this one. I spend a good deal of time in a state of fury about tabloids who are becoming ever more hateful here in the UK as they’re pushed out by internet news. This sounds as if it skewers them nicely.


    • I’ve got personal baggage arising from tabloid journalists being intrusive at a sensitive time. So I despise them as a breed!


      • I’m sorry to hear that. They’re a malign influence.


        • Yes, but only because people read them. If people were more discerning, and had more respect and compassion for the people whose lives are being trashed, there would be no market for them.


  2. Definitely Malvern, though there’s probably 2 or 3 roads. I don’t understand how moral people can work for the Murdoch press. Its methods and its objectives are abhorrent to any thinking person not of the far right.


    • I think it’s been very difficult for journalists as opportunities for work have contracted. Most of them are people just like us with mortgages and credit card bills and they have probably had to take a deep breath and compromise while they look around for other jobs that no longer exist.
      There is another argument as well: if we assume that people who read The Oz (apart from politicians, who have to) are all the demographic you describe, then perhaps there’s an argument for hoping that something a journalist writes might influence them not to be quite so dogmatic about things…Look at the influence that Pamela Bone had – just one woman, originally confined to the Women’s Pages…


      • It must be a shock to journalists that their profession has shrunk so drastically, so quickly. And no, I don’t know how they are going to support their families, the same way as Ford and Holden workers maybe. Though I do acknowledge I have carried and probably will again, uranium mining and army stuff, both industries I am opposed to.


  3. I love the idea of a character who is alternately brutally honest and delusional: that makes for an interesting perspective! Also, I am intrigued by your mention of the Melbourne setting, as I have recently read the introduction to the Text Classics edition of Helen Garner’s plays, which talks about how different Melbourne and Sidney are (which is something I imagine to be like the different between Halifax and Vancouver, although I’m still feeling my way around the whole idea).


    • Oh, our cities are vastly different. Ours is often referred to as a European city and theirs as an Asian city, and that’s nothing to do with the composition of the population, both are proudly multicultural and cosmopolitan.
      As far as the excerpt is concerned, it’s the fact that Melbourne is (mercifully) cooler and less humid than Sydney that means we have more European trees and plants than they do. Also, because Melbourne really hit its strides during the Gold Rush, there are more magnificent old Victorian mansions and public buildings.
      I’m always surprised by tourists whose trip to Australia consists of Sydney, the Gold Coast and Uluru (the Rock.). And then they go home!


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