22 January 2010

Will the 2010 UK general election be the first one to leave us speechless?

This post was initially prompted by an invitation from Angela Definis to contribute to her latest blog carnival on the theme 'Public Speaking and the New Year', which has now gone live and includes links to seven other blog posts looking forward to 2010 (even if this one is dreading the prospect of the forthcoming UK general election!).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I find it quite depressing that the British media (aided and/or abetted by politicians themselves) show fewer and fewer excerpts from political speeches on their television news programmes.

Every night during the 1979 UK general election campaign, BBC 2 Television broadcast a half-hour programme called 'The Hustings', featuring excerpts from three of the day’s speeches - which I remember because it was where I first started recording (on audio-tape) the hundreds of speeches that eventually formed the basis of my book Our Masters Voices (1984).

When it came to the 1983 election, the programme was dropped and, by 1997 (and all subsequent UK elections), viewers were much more likely to see shots of politicians speaking in the background, with the all important foreground being dominated by a TV reporter summarising what the speaker was saying -- as also happened in BBC TV news reports of the Obama-McCain debates during the 2008 US presidential election (see 'Mediated speeches - whom do we really want to hear?').

So what?

My worry isn't just that it's not as easy to collect recordings of political speeches as it was when I first got interested in the subject (irritating enough though that is), but that the replacement of speeches by interviews as the main vehicle of political communication
  1. lacks liveliness and is fundamentally boring to viewers,
  2. makes for tedious television that, in the age of remote control, is all too easy to escape from by pressing a button, and
  3. has contributed towards the increasingly dim view that the decreasing number of people who bother to vote have of politicians - who are most commonly seen evading the questions put to them.
But what baffles me above all is that British politicians themselves seem to have gone along with the media in downgrading the importance of speech-making - given that interviews hardly ever generate anything but negative news stories about the interviewees and/or the parties they represent.

That's why I began the 2010 by posting a summary of 'the Snakes & Ladders Theory of Political Communication', an argument that first saw the light of day after the 1987 general election.

As the election is getting nearer and nearer, it's worth repeating the question with which that post ended, namely:

Will 2010 be the first general election with no speeches, no rallies and no excitement?

Given the benefits that can come from making speeches to enthusiastic crowds (look no further than the success of Barack Obama's journey from nowhere), I remain completely baffled by the logic of our politicians’ apparent preference for doing endless interviews rather than letting us judge what they want to say and how they want to say it to audience at lively rallies.

After all, if you're going to play Snakes and Ladders, why on earth would you chose to spend all your time landing on Snakes and avoiding the Ladders altogether?

The answer, I fear, is that our politicians have fallen into a bigger trap set for them by a mass media that's more obsessed with increasing their control and decreasing their costs than they are with what audiences find boring or interesting about politics and politicians. Otherwise, how could anyone get so excited about the dreary prospect of lengthy televised election 'debates' between party leaders?

But accountants at the BBC, ITV and Sky News, of course, have every reason to get excited by the hustings being transferred to television studios. The fewer reporters and camera crews they have to send to film speeches at rallies around the country, the lower their costs will be - the net result of which looks like being the most tedious and boring election on record.

Fewer snakes and more ladders, please!

If I were still active in advising a political leader, I'd be urging him to ignore the new rules set by a misguided media and to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement and building some momentum.

The media would have no choice but to cover them, and the wider public would surely find them a bit more lively than more and more interviews in which we have to wait longer and longer, on the off-chance that someone will slip up and make it interesting enough to become news.


Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are bad television?

‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place

Is the media no longer interested in what goes on in parliament?

Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory


Brian Jenner said...

Never underestimate the ability of a politician to turn a ladder into a snake.

Cameron is making loads of speeches, but because of the influence of 'branding' he always says the same things about creating a greener, fairer Britain (yawn) and 'fixing the broken society'.

He churns out the same stuff about 'post-bureaucratic' world.

This is clearly a strategy. If you say the same thing often enough, it supposedly gets home and you don't risk saying something stupid. (Despite the fact that Cameron is always dropping clangers - Gordon Brown did a great demolition job on him yesterday by quoting Ken Clarke (a genuinely spontaneous politician!))

They won't change it, despite the fact that it's boring and out of kilter with what actually people feel.

I finished David Hare's play 'Absence of War' last week, and he identified this trend in the early 1990s. Rather than being themselves, politicians become enslaved to advisors and focus groups. They don't want politicians going off message - the problem is that they don't really know what their message is!

A good speechwriter could help them come up with many ways of saying the same things, but with interesting angles and stories.

Anonymous said...

@BrianJenner - those Cameron "speeches" are really just press conferences without questions. They're like Movie Remakes of books, except Spoken-word remakes of policy papers. They're given inside Westminster, and in front of an audience of journalists and political hacks.

@Max - I think you should see a piece from Guido Fawkes today -


which notes that the Westminster Lobby seemed upset at the prospect of having to listen to one of these so-called speeches at the BRITISH MUSEUM, for goodness sakes. It's ten minutes away from Westminster. But the bubble doesn't like to travel.

I would suggest that politicians need to stand up to this media intransigence by severely limiting the number of sit-down interviews, and by giving rallies - not speeches - in locations outside London in order to deliver their remarks and comments of the day. In other words, FORCE the media to cover the speaking.

Of course, that would require willingness on the part of politicians. And they're far too comfortable in their own little bubble in SW1A to want to break the code of practise.