6 June 2011

Why has British political oratory been banished to the sidelines?

My recent blogpost on the decline of oratory prompted an open letter from David Murray, Editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, with three questions that I ought to have a go at answering:

An Open Letter to Max Atkinson
Dear Mr. Atkinson,

In the latest post on your excellent blog plainly-enough named Max Atkinson’s Blog, you applaud a writer from
The Independent, for echoing your long held view that, in England anyway, the once-celebrated art of oratory is going to hell in a hand basket.

Scribbled Steve Richards, to your standing ovation:

'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. …

'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.'

Your only quibble with Richards’ piece is your disagreement with its claim that the decline in oratory was sudden. “There were already signs of it in the title of the paper I gave at the Essex conference after the 1983 general election, namely ‘The 1983 election and the demise of live oratory.’”

Max, I have three questions: First, why do you think oratory is declining so? Second: Do you see this decline as a British thing, or do you see this in the States too? Finally: Doesn’t it give you the least bit of pause (as it does me) when you see the world declining at the same steady rate as you?

I’ll look forward to hearing from you, Sir.


David Murray, Editor
Vital Speeches of the Day

I found it easier to respond to these in reverse order:

3. Doesn’t it give you the least bit of pause (as it does me) when you see the world declining at the same steady rate as you?
Who says I'm 'declining'? If so, I haven't noticed (yet).

2. Do you see this decline as a British thing, or do you see this in the States too?
A similar trend has been evident in the USA where, as I note HERE, 'between 1968 and 1988, the length of excerpts from speeches shown on American television news programmes during presidential campaigns fell from an average of 42 seconds in 1968 to 9 seconds in 1988'.

(a) These days, we're lucky if we get to see even as much as 9 seconds from political speeches on British television news programmes.

(b) Don't forget that candidates in US presidential elections do still give speeches at large rallies around the country - extracts from which still reach a mass audience via the broadcast media.

In the UK, however, leading politicians have more or less given up on speaking at such events - which is hardly surprising given that the best they can hope for is to be faded into the background while a commentator tells us what they're saying (e.g. HERE) or treats the speech as background wallpaper while talking about something else (e.g. HERE).

(c) The fact that Obama (like Reagan before him) could emerge from nowhere on the back of one speech at a party convention to become president suggests that the speeches still matter far more in the USA than in the UK. Interestingly, however, it was a single ten minute speech in a 'beauty parade' of candidates at a Conservative party conference that enabled a rank outsider (David Cameron) to become the front-runner in the most recent Tory leadership stakes, a fact that our media commentators curiously seem to have forgotten about.

But Cameron's success may just have been a rare exception that proved the rule. From the little we see of US politics over here, my impression is that the importance of live oratory over there hasn't declined to anything like the same extent as it has done here in the UK.

1 . Why do you think oratory is declining so?
A fuller answer will have to wait until I've updated Our Masters' Voices (1984), but the shortest answer I can come up at the moment is that it probably results from a tacit agreement (or perhaps even a conspiracy) between British politicians and the media that suits both of them just fine.

(a) Not my fault!
In my less modest moments, I used to think that it might have had something to do with me. In the last chapter of Our Masters' Voices, I'd speculated about the impact of 'televisuality' on political communication, suggesting that Ronald Reagan had become known as 'the great communicator' because he understood that a chatty conversational style of delivery works better with television audiences than more traditional theatrical oratory (he had, after all, been a movie rather than a theatre actor).

But I never suggested that the effectiveness of a conversational delivery on television pointed towards the greater effectiveness of televised interviews. In any case, although it sold quite well for a book on politics, sales were never enough to justify such a megalomanic fantasy.

(b) An edict from television editors?
At some stage, probably during the late 1980s/early 1990s, television editors and producers must have decided that speeches made bad television, whereas interviews made good television. For any politician who might have doubted this, the tipping point probably came with the Labour Party's disastrous Sheffield rally in 1992, after which being interviewed by a journalist, regardless which one it happened to be, must have seemed a much safer and softer option.

(c) Supported by print media editors?
Last year, Michael Crick, political editor of BBC Newsnight, made the interesting point that British newspapers had also more or less given up on publishing extended reports on speeches:

‘Your concern about us using real-life speeches less and less is a very valid one. It applies to Parliament too, when we ignore debates in favour of interviews outside. I try and resist producers on this when I can … and of course none of the newspapers run extracts from Parliament any more either, though all the qualities did up until about 15 years ago(HERE).

(d) What's in it for the media?
Replacing speeches with interviews as the main form of televised political communication had the advantage of being convenient and cheap for the television companies. Bringing politicians into a London studio saved all the hassle and expense of having to send outside broadcast crews to distant corners of the country to fit in with inconvenient schedules and locations that had been determned by the different political parties.

The change also gave the broadcasting media more control of other things as well. They could now mediate the news far more than they had ever been able to do in the past. In effect, they acquired the power to decide what counted as political news and how to report it.

Meanwhile, some of the leading television journalists had become highly paid celebrities in their own right, endowed with so much 'authority' that programmes could be organised around a Paxman or a Dimbleby - leaving any politician wanting to be seen and heard by a wider audience with little choice but to fit in with schedules and formats dictated by the media .

This takeover of political coverage by television journalists is arguably getting worse and becoming institutionalised within some of the broadcasting organisations. For example, during President Obama's recent visit to London, a Labour MP told me that one young (and very up-and-coming) BBC television reporter had explained to him that her job wasn't to report what politicians said but to interpret what they had meant 'for the benefit of the viewers'.

(e) What's in it for politicians?
One of the problems politicians faced with the advent of television was much the same as that faced by comedians who tried to make the transition from music hall to the small screen. Before television, you could tell the same jokes to different audiences in different places every night of the week. But once your act was broadcast to a mass audience, you needed new material every week for every show you did.

So for politicians, agreeing to subject themselves to endless television and radio interviews must have seemed a small price to pay for being let off the hook of having to prepare new speeches day after day during a 3-4 week general election campaign.

(f) What's in it for the public?
In short: boredom, waffle, evasiveness and the removal of any sense of enthusiasm and excitement from politics (for more on which, see some of the links listed below).

I've often asked, but never found out, what evidence the media has for believing that interviews make better television than speeches.

Ten years ago, I was asked to write an introductory chapter in a collection of Great Liberal Speeches - in which I touched on where I think the problem (or at least part of it) lies:

'.. it is perhaps time that the broadcasters themselves gave some thought to the impact on audiences of their preference for showing countless extended interviews with politicians during elections, rather than more or longer excerpts from speeches. These quasi-conversational confrontations between top politicians and top interviewers may be easy to organise and convenient to schedule. However, whether they make better television than excerpts from speeches is debatable. Their quasi-conversational nature limits the time available to develop any particular point to seconds rather than minutes. Like the conversationally worded speech, memorable lines or displays of passion or enthusiasm from the speaker are few and far between.

'Once in this conversational cockpit, many politicians proceed, with breathtaking regularity, to flout one of the most basic conversational rules of all, namely that questions should be followed by answers. Treating questions as prompts to say anything they like, or opportunities for yet another evasion of an issue, have become part of the routine repertoire that is inflicted daily on viewers and listeners. If politicians seriously believe that viewers and listeners lack the intelligence to see at a glance when they are being evasive, they can hardly complain when people conclude that they are patronising or arrogant. If they think that audiences will be impressed or inspired by the tortuous circumlocutions in which so much of their evasiveness is expressed, they should not be surprised when people conclude that they are out of touch with the way real people tick. We hear that politicians are becoming worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public, and about growing voter apathy. Perhaps they should consider whether one factor might be that the way they speak in interviews is at best bland or boring, and at worst evasive and downright irritating.

'Yet the broadcasting establishment still seems to be committed to the view that interviews, however sterile and tedious they may be, make better television than excerpts from well crafted passionately delivered speeches. If they ever get round to reassessing their policy, one piece of evidence to which their attention should be drawn is the fact that editors and publishers of books do not seem to find televised interviews interesting, inspiring or provocative enough to merit the publication of collections of
Great Interviews, whether Liberal or of any other kind. Rhetoric and oratory may well have had a bad press in recent years, but readers of this book will surely be thankful that it consists of speeches rather than transcripts of interviews. They can therefore look forward to reading carefully developed arguments in language robust enough to have survived the immediate moment of delivery to become a form of historical literature.'

Until compiling the following list, I hadn't realised how much blogging I'd done on this particular theme over the past couple of years. If nothing else, it's more or less convinced me that it really is time that I go down to updating my book Our Masters' Voices.

But, whereas in 1984 the phrase 'Our Masters' was intended to refer to our politicians, in the updated version it will, I fear, refer to the unelected controllers, editors and journalists of our media.


Speeches & oratory
Broadcast interviews with politicians
See also Alan Finlayson on Why can't the British do rhetoric? (which only came to my notice (via @dralanfinlayson on Twitter) after I'd finished writing this post.


Simon said...

I wonder if the issue about speeches being abandoned by politicians is to do with the fact that a good speech is a 'hostage to fortune' in terms of how it can be edited, cut, hacked and diseected.

Live speeches can be made to look very silly if they're played around with; ironically, the better the live speech, the easier it is to make it look silly if you want to when you edit it!

Dan said...

Perhaps something of the Atlantic divide in the perception of public speaking may extend from the way in which it seems to be more broadly encouraged in American culture, if my reading of the culture from movies and books is at accurate that is. From a fairly young age, young people are given the tools with which to appreciate good oratory, in the same way that an education in classical literature makes classics spring to life instead of being turgid, slow snoozefests. I certainly don't ever recall, in my fairly typical UK comprehensive education ever really witnessing anyone be encouraged to develop their skills as a public speaker.

Since you are not far from us, perhaps you might like to come and check out Ignite Bristol, where we get inexperienced public speakers on stage alongside old hands for an evening of ideas and socialising. Some of the results can be quite surprising, but an evening with 12 speakers is always entertaining.

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.
we offer cheap ed hardy up to 35%-65% off, ed hardy ed hardy is a kind of street style clothing online store, they are all the newest and cheap ed hardy.
ed hardy jeans
ed hardy jeans sale