11 February 2010

Snakes, ladders & the folly of Q-A campaigning

I began the year by raising the question of whether interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences, since when I've posted some illustrative videos, like yesterday's example of a gaffe from Mrs Thatcher in her final interview during the 1987 general election.

My concerns arise from what John Heritage and I dubbed the snakes and ladders theory of political communication, which proposes that speeches are like the ladders in the board-game with the potential for generating positive sound bites and news that take you up the board - whereas interviews and other Q-A formats are like the snakes that at worst trip you up, and at best leave audiences with an unmemorable sense of blandness and/or boredom.

As we move towards a general election that promises little in the way of speeches, rallies or excitement, here's a reminder of just how tedious Q-A campaigning can be.

Ask the Alliance rallies
Although Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock made some pretty impressive speeches during the 1987 general election (e.g. HERE), the SDP-Liberal Alliance thought they knew better than to hold traditional campaign rallies, opting instead for Q-A sessions with the two Davids (Owen & Steel).

As far as I remember, these generated no quotable quotes from either of the leaders - but the format itself became the news story, resembling as it did:

Gardeners' Question Time on a bad day


NEWS: Is the format working?
So, about half way through the campaign, and in the absence of much to report, the mass television audience is being told that the Q-A format has itself became the main news story.

And here, from the same programme as the one above, we're taken to a park bench, where two Alliance MPs (John Cartwright, SDP, and David Alton, Liberal) are earnestly discussing the problem and what to do about it:


Rochdale to the rescue
Two MPs would hardly have agreed to be filmed worrying about campaign had the Alliance parties themselves not been having second thoughts about the Ask the Alliance rallies.

And sure enough, the next clip showed that another Liberal MP, Cyril Smith, was doing something about it and had invited Liberal leader David Steel to make a speech from a trailer at an open-air rally in Rochdale.

But, as the reporter implies in winding up the story, by then it was too little and too late:


Lessons for 2010?
Nearly a quarter of a century later, the current Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has been touring the country to speak at Meet the People meetings that have a remarkably similar format to those of the ill-fated Ask the Alliance rallies.

Meanwhile, the political parties are locked in continuing discussions with the BBC, ITV and Sky about exactly what form the Q-A sessions with party leaders will take in the televised 'debates'.

My hope is that those who are cooking up the rules - as well as the parties' campaign strategists - are old enough and wise enough to have learnt something from the tedium generated by the Ask the Alliance rallies.

My fear is that the TV debates - and much of the rest of the campaign - will do little more than make Gardeners' Question Time on a bad day the daily norm, rather than the dreary exception that it was in 1987.

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