Chas Licciardello: chasing the intelligent opinion

Though best known for silly stunts, Chas Licciardello is committed to voluminous research and considers fighting partisan hackery his mission.

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Chas Licciardello: chasing the intelligent opinion

Young Chas, back in 2007.

Young Chas, back in 2007.

Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

Young Chas, back in 2007.

Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

Young Chas, back in 2007.

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Chas Licciardello has been a member of the Chaser comedy team since 1999. He currently co-hosts the weekly American Politics program Planet America on ABC News 24.

He has a double degree in law and science majoring in computer science, but he always wanted to be a writer.

“I was deeply sceptical of my ability to pull it off,” he says.

“I went to uni with the sole purpose of (a) giving myself five years to learn how to write before it mattered and (b) give myself some backup degrees so when I inevitably failed I would have some fallback options.”

At university, Chas considered most Chaser members to be “posers and [] attention seekers” but was persuaded to join by member and his friend Dominic Knight.

This was because the group needed someone with knowledge about popular culture, in contrast to the other members of the Chaser whose specialty was Australian politics.

This was believed necessary to relate to Triple M listeners, and Chas’s willingness to be undignified meant that Executive Producer Andrew Denton had him be the one to pull public stunts in The Election Chaser, which proved to be the most popular part of the show.

Subsequently, the other members of the team chose to participate in such stunts when making The Chaser’s War on Everything.

Chas emphasises that he is a private contractor and not actually employed by the ABC.

“My dad would disown me if he thought I was an employee of the ABC because I have a very very right wing dad which is … part of the reason I am constantly thinking about what people from different sides say … because my entire family is split down the middle”.

In 2007, the Chaser team was offered “a very lucrative contract” (in Chas’s words) to move to Channel Nine.

They decided against doing so as a group, fearing that the job would not last.

Chas says he later learned that the short lifespan of comedy shows on commercial channels is due to executive meddling.

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“In the TV industry [the Chaser] are notorious for our research,” Chas says. Even when pulling “some silly gag”, the Chaser team would prepare “like a military operation” with research on their legal limits, scouting of the location and determining their target’s likely movement.

But where they took research to extreme levels, was in the “What have We Learned from Current Affairs this Week” segment.

“I had a database going where I watched every single current affairs show,” Chas says. “I would log them assiduously. For half an hour of current affairs TV it would take me four or five hours … I would log every bloody word they used that I thought we might be able to use somewhere down the track. By category, by sin”.

This database was needed to determine what topics they could mock and, and what clips to show and when. The Hamster Wheel, which mocked the whole news media, required an even greater amount of research.

“We used to log literally every single second of news television including the two twenty-four-hour news channels” Chas says, “morning news, afternoon news, nightly news on all channels and all of Sky and all of ABC news 24”.

This required four full time staff watching news at double speed. People who joined the chaser team as Hamster Wheel loggers include Ben Jenkins, Zoe Norton Lodge, Kirstin Drysdale, Scott Abbot and Andy Matthews. Chas describes this as “one of our ways with the Chaser of giving back to the comedy world”.

Chas oversaw the database and ensured that people’s inputs maintained linguistic consistency. He says the Hamster Wheel was “the show we made that I’m proudest of” though “no one seemed to remember it at all”.

Chas could also be found “logging like a maniac” after elections. “I’d usually stay up three nights in a row. Those used to kill me those post-election episodes”.

Planet America also uses a database, albeit low enough in detail that Chas Licciardello can maintain it on his own.

Chas has long held an interest in American politics that he lacked in Australian politics. He says this was originally due to the much more partisan nature of our politicians, in contrast to those in the USA in the early ‘90s who “acted as individuals, and would often argue against the particular party line”. “The transparency with which partisanship was working in Australia I find very, very depressing. Like when you hear politicians argue lines that they couldn’t possibly believe just because they’re following the party line”.

The smart guys are smarter; the dumb guys are dumber. The bad guys are worse; the good guys are better … the smartest people in America are trying to work it out and they’re failing”

— Chas Licciardello

Though Chas notes American politics is “almost as partisan as Australian politics was in the late ‘80s when I used to hate Australian politics” he has found other things to appreciate about it.

“American politics is that it is just so complicated. It is the ultimate intellectual challenge,” he says. “The smart guys are smarter; the dumb guys are dumber. The bad guys are worse; the good guys are better … the smartest people in America are trying to work it out and they’re failing”.

Chas enjoys the political analysis that occurs in the USA which would be impossible in Australia. “… the data doesn’t exist here to use whereas in America there is data for everything” he says. Chas also believes that the study of American politics has attracted the smartest people there, but Australian politics has not done the same here. This is another factor that ensures the USA has a wealth of political analysis worth reading, unlike Australia.

On this topic, he provides an explanation for the polls getting May’s election wrong – he points out that Labor were only two points ahead in the average of the two-party preferred vote, but the problem was they were near-universally ahead.

Chas reads the political coverage of Nate Silver’s statistics analysis blog FiveThirtyEight, which made a rare mention of Australian politics to note that the poll results were suspiciously similar to one another. This is what is known as hearding, and it is bad because polls are usually inaccurate to a small degree and if they are hearded they will tend to have the same inaccuracy.

Chas says he knows why this happened: the use of the same election model by all pollsters. In contrast “In America every single pollster has their own model … of projections, demographics … what is defined as an uncertain voter versus a certain voter”.

This produces a variety of polling outcomes of which the election will validate some more than others, allowing polling models to improve over time and giving a clearer indication of uncertainty.

Chas says his hatred of Australian politics extended to the journalists who reported on it: the Hamster Wheel was a show devoted to mocking the media and journalists, which Chas felt gave them a taste of their own medicine.

However, Chas’s endless blogging caused him to have an epiphany during its second season.

“I stopped seeing the media as malign, and wrong and malicious and lazy,” he says, “and I started to see them as under resourced and unqualified”.

Chas went on to describe TV reporters’ youth and inexperience while emphasising the demands placed on them including acute time pressure. “… no one could do what they are asked to do and do it competently,” he insists, “So of course the result is terrible. All the incentives are wrong”. Chas came to believe he was “part of the problem” of journalists “running scared” of making a mistake that could ruin their career due to social media and “comedy shows making fun of them”. Chas notes “here I am running this death star of logging watching every single thing they do … that’s adding to their fear incredibly. No wonder they’re screwing up”.

Given that Chas Licciardello had obtained financial security, he decided to be “part of the solution” as he saw it, and “make a show that no-one else would be able to make” with a take-it-or-leave it offer to ABC News 24. Chas says that American politics is “a topic I understand backwards” as he was “was reading it all the time for fun”. Hence, his coverage of it would aid the media as “normally [journalists] don’t know the topic they’re reporting on”.

Planet America was conceived with the idea it would host Chaser-esque stunts, but the ABC lacked the budget for it. “in 2017, we were so poorly funded,” he explains, “I had to pay for my own graphics … So I was paying thirteen hundred dollars a week for someone to do the deep dive … I was being paid a thousand dollars. You don’t get paid much, at News 24 and so I was making a loss, all through 2017 to make the show”.

Apart from its hosts Chas Licciardello and John Baron, Planet America has only five other staff: one producer, three editors whose combined work add to make one full time job and a graphics designer that works two days a week.

Chas aimed Planet America to be both “entertaining” and “genuinely informative”.

He says he wanted to “cover the topics that you’d never be able to cover on a normal news show” because the executives would say people would find it too boring.

“This is News 24; no one is watching anyway and this is the condition of me making a show. We are going to talk about economics for five minutes. The condition of this show is that I’m going to explain in detail, with loads of evidence and statistics and graphs … I don’t care what you think”.

He describes “the idea of Planet America” as being “to combat all the forces I saw as negative in news and try to build a case study that you can make a show that is entertaining and at the same time genuinely informative and not partisan hackery”.

Chas says it is “really really really important to me to combat partisanship”, believing the echo chamber to be a major problem in modern news. He wanted the show to appeal to people across the political spectrum. If the comments on the Facebook page are representative, he seems to have succeeded.

He aims to limit his reporting to facts while disclosing his point of view for the purpose of transparency.

When asked what sites or pundits people ought to pay more attention to, he opts to instead give advice that must be individually tailored:

“Every person should find one or two sites or publications that are from the other side of the partisan divide … and who they trust to not be dishonest”.

“No one is all right or all wrong. No one is all smart or all dumb.”, he says.

Chas identifies as a left-leaning libertarian, though one gains the impression from Planet America he is far more moderate than most self-identifying libertarians (either left or right wing).

The publication he chooses to challenge his bias is “National Review, because they’re conservative… They are a as anti-libertarian as you can get, but they are also honest”.

Asked about what he’d like to do in the future, Chas says “I’m one of those people that plans out my life well in advance”. He says he would “like to make a show, down the track, where I or my team, take a topic, and we explain it from the beginning to the end”.

He gives an example: “Let’s explain, from the beginning, negative gearing: how it came about, all the ins, all the outs, the whole history, what’s the theory, what do the different sides say, who’s right, who’s wrong, what are the questions that need to be asked, what is a reasonable position to take if you’re on this side or on that side, do the whole lot, so that every single person at home, who knows nothing can be completely across the issue at the end of it”.

In fifteen years’ time Chas aims to be in “semi-retirement” where “I’m hoping to write really intelligent opinion columns … I am of the opinion you shouldn’t write opinion until you really know what you’re talking about and feel like most people don’t really follow that rule … I want to show an example of how I think opinion columns should be written: with lots of information, lots of intelligence, with lots of thought”.

 

Nikolas Dart is a Graduate Certificate of Journalism student at La Trobe University.