31 May 2011

'The art of oratory is fast on the way out': at last, some support from a top journalist

At last, a top political journalist, Steve Richards (@steverichards14), has come out with an article in today's Independent making a point that I've been writing and blogging about for years.

As no one in the media or politics has taken much notice of the argument so far, I was delighted to see it coming from so distinguished a source - and very much hope that it might mark the beginning of a concerted reaction against the depressing way in which politics has become more and more mediated by journalists and editors.

Under the headline In the age of Twitter, the art of oratory is fast on the way out - The interview on the 'Today' programme matters more than giving a speech. Politicians thrive by being dull and cautious, he starts off by saying:

'In the UK an important political art is no longer practised, even though the skill brings politics to life in an era of determined apathy. The demise is neither mourned nor noticed and yet the absence makes for duller politics – politics at a distance. We make do with a cabinet minister's parking ticket and the alleged redistribution of penalty points to make up for the lack of excitement.

'This is the first generation of national politicians without a single orator, a single mesmerising speaker. There is not one who can cast a spell. Tony Blair was the last great speaker, an underestimated orator who never delivered a dull speech. Blair could make a lacklustre text and sometimes a silly one come to inspiring life. Even when making a complex argument, he was worth seeing live, transfixing an audience.

'The decline is sudden and marked. Not so long ago Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Michael Heseltine, and Neil Kinnock could fill halls around the country, and when they spoke in the Commons MPs would leave their offices to attend. Last week's brilliant BBC4 documentary on the rivalry between Harold Wilson and Ted Heath showed how important it was for both of them to find ways of engaging directly with voters. Neither were natural orators, and yet both, especially Wilson, became at least interesting public performers....'

Richards then poses the key question: Does it matter that such characters or characteristics no longer play a part in British politics?

He thinks that it does - which is why I strongly recommend you to read the whole of his article.

And so do I - for reasons outlined in some of the posts below - which is why I've started work on updating my book Our Masters' Voices: the language and body language of politics.

Originally written in 1984, the data, mainly recorded from televised speeches, could not have been collected during any British general election since 1987 for the simple reason that so few excerpts from speeches were ever broadcast on television after that.

So the only (minor) point where I disagree with Steve Richards is that, if by 'The decline is sudden and marked' he means that it's only just happened, it hasn't. The rot actually set in more than a quarter of a century ago. There were already signs of it in title of the paper I gave at the Essex conference after the 1983 general election, namely 'The 1983 elecion and the demise of live oratory' (in Ivor Crewe and Martin Harrop (eds.), Political Communications: the General Election Campaign of 1983, Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-55).

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4 comments:

Hadleigh Roberts said...

Delighted to see you're going to be updating OMV!

outsider said...

Alex Salmond? Richard Shepherd? Perhaps the flame still flickers, if not on the national stage. What is the minimum length of speech, do you think, tht an orator needs to make an impact? The Gettysburg address was very short.

domnul said...

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/nigelfarndale/8570112/The-research-that-proves-Enoch-Powell-right.html

An interesting piece of advice!

ed hardy said...

I really, really enjoyed this. The humor works brilliantly, and the animation is much better than I had imagined. The way you have “blended” (hehe) it all together makes this look like a solid, whole product, as good as any Pixar short. Probably better. But then again: That’s my opinion.
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