19 September 2011

Politicians and broadcasters in the UK: collaboration or capitulation?

Now that the rights to my book Our Masters' Voices: the Language and Body Language of Politics (1984) have reverted to me, I'm planning to republish it with additional material on, among other things, how British political communication and media coverage of politics has changed during the past quarter of a century.

As a trailer to one of my main themes, I gave a presentation at this year's annual EPOP (Elections, Public Opinion & Parties) conference at Exeter University earlier this month, entitled Our Masters' Voices Then and Now.

The start of the party conference season seems a good time to post the notes used in the presentation along with the video clips illustrating the main points - not least because party conferences (and media coverage of them) have changed in similar ways (on which, see also recent comments by John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday and Michael Crick on working for BBC's Newsnight).

This post is quite a bit longer than my usual ones - so take your time and/or read it in bits...


It is obviously for readers to judge whether this is an objective analysis of how political communication in Britain has changed during the last thirty years or a complaint about the fact that it's changed in the way that it has..

And there are other questions on which I’d welcome the opinion of others, and especially those of you working in politics, the media and academic political science: does it matter and is it a trend that we should welcome or worry about?

For reasons outlined towards the end, I do think it matters and that it is something that we should be worrying about.

To start with, here's a summary of the paper that John Heritage and I presented at a conference at Essex Univerity after the 1987 general election. As it was just before he joined the brain-drain for a chair in sociology at UCLA, we never got round to writing it up (except in various posts on this blog).

Its main theme has been nagging away at me ever since - as regular readers of the blog will know already.


Our argument was a simple one. If you think about the children’s board game, speeches work like ladders for politicians and interviews work like snakes for them.

In a speech, politicians and/or their speechwriters have complete control over what they say and, just as importantly, how they say it.

If they prompt cheers and applause, scenes of audience enthusiasm and approval are transmitted to a wider audience via television and radio.

General elections – as seen on TV – came across as lively contests between politicians who were doing their best to persuade us with passion and conviction.

So speeches worked like ladders in the game that could move a politician upwards on the board towards the coveted prize of positive news headlines.

Speeches = Ladders
In this clip from the 1987 general election, Margaret Thatcher wins applause by posing a puzzling metaphor (what does she mean by an 'iceberg manifesto'?) solved by a neat contrast that continues the metaphor):


The line was singled out from the speech and quoted verbatim as the lead item at the top of the Nine o'clock News on BBC 1:


Now it was in the wider public domain, Mrs Thatcher's attack must have annoyed the Labour party enough for their leader to include a direct rebuttal in another speech a few nights later, using a puzzle (how on earth could she possibly be right in calling it 'an iceberg manifesto' ?) that he solved with a three-part list:


After the first gong from Big Ben on ITN's News at Ten that night, the news reader quotes a slightly enhanced version of the line (it's now Labour, not just their party manifesto, that's "cool, tough and unsinkable") as the lead headline:


Nor was it just the broadcasters who routinely featured such excerpts from speeches on news bulletins. The parties themselves also had no qualms about using them in their own party election broadcasts.

In Hugh Hudson's famous Kinnock: the movie, a clip from a speech by the party leader was set to music from Brahms, followed by a panning shot across the (then) new red rose logo, a standing ovation and scenes of adulation from an excited audience:


The Conservatives were so impressed by this particular broadcast that it caused the only minor wobble in their campaign. They responded by producing one of their own that included a sequence from a speech from Margaret Thatcher which was almost a carbon copy, except that Brahms was replaced by patriotic music from Holst ("I vow to thee my country..."), followed by similar panning shots of a standing ovation rounded off with the leader and her spouse.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is surely the closest the Conservatives ever came to flattering their opponents in 1987:


In those days, then, political speeches were still an integral part of British electioneering and of the way in which political communication was covered by our media. But I still often use the first four of these clips on my courses - for the simple reason that I haven't been able to find any comparable examples from any general election since 1987.

This is because, over the years, the UK media have broadcast fewer and fewer excerpts from speeches by leading politicians, both during general elections and at other times (e.g. the party conference season).

For their part, politicians have either accepted or encouraged this shift in emphasis by making fewer and fewer set-speech speeches at large-scale rallies during election campaigns - and subjecting themselves to more and more interviews and other Q-A based programmes like BBC's Question Time - culminating in 2010 with the first ever TV debates between party leaders.

In other words, broadcast interviews and Q-A sessions, presided over by the media and conducted by their army of 'celebrity' journalists, have progressively pushed speeches to the sidelines and replaced them as the main form of political communication with the British public.

Interviews = Snakes
Yet politicians still don't seem to have realised that interviews work like snakes for them in the board-game of political discourse and debate.

Interviews are lengthy, discursive and seriously short on the kinds of well-crafted quotable quotes that can be written into a speech.

They feature politicians regularly breaking one of the most basic conversational rules of all, namely that questions should be followed by answers.

Media training and regular opportunities for practice have produced a generation of politicians who have become so skilled at avoiding giving straight answers to questions that interviews are arguably at best boring and at worst extremely irritating to the voting public.

Although there are plenty of books of 'great speeches', it can surely be no coincidence that there are very few (if any) books made up of transcripts from 'great interviews'.

To the extent that interviews do occasionally hit the headlines, they hardly ever bring anything but bad news for politicians, as when Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question twelve times to no avail in 1997 (HERE).

Nor, during the strikes in June this year, did it do Ed Miliband much good when he was seen repeatedly giving the same more or less verbatim answer to a series of different questions - a sequence that went 'viral' and, at the time of writing this, has been seen by about 400,000YouTube viewers.

As the news from interviews almost aways come from blunders, slip-ups and mistakes, they are the snakes in the game that take politicians downwards on the board towards negative news headlines about them.

Leaders landing on snakes in a general election
In 1987, one of the most damaging example came when Neil Kinnock, still leading a party with unilateral nuclear disarmament in its manifesto, had tried to explain in an interview how the Britain would respond in the event of an invasion (i.e. by taking to the hills to fight a guerilla war).

This immediately made it on to the BBC's Nine o'clock News, which started by telling us what he'd said in an interview:


For Mrs Thatcher, it was a gift that enabled her to jump on to a ladder during a walkabout speech somewhere in the Midlands:


But Mrs Thatcher was by no means immune from landing on snakes, as happened in an interview when John Cole asked her whether this would be her last election:


Her answer to the question quickly became a news story:


Once the line had become news, Neil Kinnock used it to jump on to a ladder in a speech. Expanding "on and on" to "on and on and on", he was able to produce a neat contrast between two three-part lists:


Just before polling day, Mrs Thatcher landed on a potentially very damaging snake in her final interview with David Dimbleby, in which she referred to people who "drool and drivel that they care". When pressed on her choice of words, she apologised (twice), which suggests that she'd instantly realised how dreadful the headlines would be if she made no attempt to retract them:


Although this did prompt some negative reports, it had come so late in the campaign (barely 48 hours before polling day) that it did her little or no harm:

So the general argument in our original paper on the snakes and ladders theory of political communication was that speeches have great potential for generating good news for politicians, whereas interviews are more likely to generate bad news about them.

5 general elections later
And this is why I’ve been mystified by the willingness of British politicians to collaborate with the media by making fewer and fewer speeches during elections and by submitting themselves to more and more interviews. After all, when playing snakes and ladders, why would anyone in their right mind voluntarily opt for a set of rules with an in-built bias towards landing you on a snake?

Yet we’ve now reached a point where excerpts from speeches are not only rarely shown, but have become little more than a silent backdrop to the media coverage of general elections. For example, here's a BBC Newsnight report from last year, in which Michael Crick tells us what Messrs Clegg and Cameron have been up to during the day. We know that they're speaking because we can see them opening and closing their mouths - but we don't get to hear a single word of what either of them is actually saying:


In this next one, from the BBC's 1o o'clock News, political editor Nick Robinson is standing on a balcony telling us what Gordon Brown (below with his back to us) is telling his audience:


There was, however, one notable exception during the 2010 campaign. Three days before the country went to the polls, there was a large rally in Westminster, where all three party leaders actually did make speeches.

It included a barnstorming performance from Gordon Brown that prompted a number of journalists, including former Labour Party deputy leader Roy Hattersley, to write articles asking why on earth he hadn’t done more of it sooner.

On BBC's 10 o'clock News, Nick Robinson was there again, telling us that Brown had "come alive as never before in this campaign", while showing us film footage of him 'coming alive' in silence:


This clip was part of a 4 ½ minute report on the rally that included excerpts of 20 seconds each from the speeches by Brown, Cameron and Clegg (equal shares to conform with the Representation of the People Act) and 120 seconds of Nick Robinson speaking - i.e. for 6 times longer than we were allowed to hear from each of the party leaders.

Nor is this kind of coverage confined to coverage of our own general elections. In a 3 ½ minute report on one of the McCain-Obama TV debates in 2008, we saw 30 seconds from each of the presidential candidates and 2 ½ minutes from the BBC's Washington correspondent - i.e. more than twice as much as we'd heard from McCain and Obama - at which point, he rounded it off by informing us that the result was "a draw".

On my blog, I complained at the time that it would have been nice if we'd been been allowed to see enough of what they said to be able to draw our own conclusions, rather than being forced to rely on the mediated assessments of television journalists.

And this is why I think that the relegation of speeches to the bottom of our media’s priorities really does matter.


British broadcasters have the capacity, which they once exercised, to let viewers hear arguments coming directly from the mouths of politicians, delivered in their own words and in their own style of delivery - from which we were then free to reach our own conclusions about what we thought of our masters' voices for ourselves - w

hich does strike me as rather important in a democracy.

But today, the main choice we’re offered is between being told by journalists what our politicians are saying in their speeches

and having to listen to other journalists conducting interminable interviews with them on the off-chance – or perhaps in the hopes - that one or other of them will hit the headlines by landing on a snake (

which, in this age of carefully honed evasiveness, they hardly ever do).

Was it really the Sheffield rally what did it?

A few months ago, the political editor of one of our leading networks told me that the decision to downgrade speeches and rallies in favour of televised interviews had come from politicians, not the media. According to him, the disaster of the Labour Party's Sheffield rally in 1992 had scared the main parties away from holding any more mass rallies during election campaigns.

But I'm by no means convinced that this is the whole story.

For news broadcasters, it's obviously

much cheaper and more convenient

to wheel politicians into a studio than it is to send outside broadcast units around the country to cover election rallies (though, curiously, they don't seem to mind sending them out to film pointless walkabouts in schools, hospitals and shopping centres).

Interviews and other Q-A based shows presumably also appeal to media corporations because it puts them in control by requiring politicians to play by the rules set by a programme's editors and producers.

What's in it for politicians?

But I really don’t see what’s in it for politicians to subject themselves so willingly and continuously to the risk of landing on snakes in interviews - when they could be climbing up ladders that they've designed and produced for themselves in speeches.

I even suspect that the tedium of watching and listening to yet another politician evading yet another questions in yet another interview has contributed to the low esteem in which our politicians are now held. Whatever the politicians and their spin-doctors might think, any competent speaker of English - like most viewers, listeners and voters - can (a) tell at a glance when someone's dodging a question and (b) will draw negative conclusions about anyone who comes across as evasive.

Collaboration or capitulation?

I have no idea whether or not our

politicians have consciously collaborated with or have merely capitulated to broadcasters in relegating speeches to an ever-decreasing role in political communication.

Nor do I know if the broadcasting companies have any empirical evidence that viewers and listeners would rather watch interviews,

silent movies with journalists doing the voiceover, random walkabouts in shopping centres, etc. than excerpts from speeches at lively rallies - though I very much doubt it.

What I do know is that, whatever the impact of the current conventional wisdom on media coverage has on the reputations of our politicians, we can at least vote them out of power.

That is something we cannot do with the executives, producers, editors and journalists who control and determine what we're allowed to see of political debate. Although we like to think we live in a democracy, when it comes to hearing about how it's working, we're at the mercy of an unelected and unaccountable band of professional broadcasters and journalists.

And that's why I think that the current situation not only does matter, but is also something that we should be worrying about - and why I also think that it's high time for a serious debate between everyone involved, including and especially us, the general public.

Related posts on televised interviews

Related posts on media coverage of speeches


James said...

I think that politicians think that many people today seem to have short attention spans, and would not be interested in a long speech. They think that answering questions shows that they are accountable; in fact, as you say, it shows them to be evasive at best, dishonest at the worst. Maybe the problem with the media is that the journos see their opinion on a subject as more important than the subject itself, and therefore deny the public the chance to form their own opinion.
I think that interviews, if conducted properly, are an essential tool of democracy. A politician can win votes with a powerful speech, containing the devices detailed in your excellent book. It is in interviews, however, that important questions can (and should) be answered. That the politicians fail to answer them is an indictment of their integrity.

Roger said...


What does interest me is how radically the US and UK media have diverged.

Old style political oratory and its reporting seems far less dead in the US than in the UK.

At least in presidential campaigns speeches get broadcast either in full or in substantial chunks.

And not just the President but lower level politicians as well are regularly allowed direct un-mediated access to the public.

For me this reflects the more ideological nature of US politics and of politicians whose prime audience is a highly committed partisan base whose support they cannot take for granted but must constantly woo.

For me the death of oratory is the product of the de-ideologised managerialist politics that triumphed here in the 1990s.

For a managerialist politician the objective is not to be an inspirational firebrand beloved by activists but to simply be a safe pair of hands able to attract dithering centrist floating voters.

Good political speeches have to express fundamental beliefs and make sweeping promises that it can be very inconvenient to be held to.

Interviews on the other hand present the politician as competent, reassuring and focused not on grand issues but on solving whatever specific problems of the day the interviewer raises - showcasing the perfect manager rather than the perfect politician.

(BTW I'd highly recommend Chris Dillow's book he End of Politics on the Blairist form of managerialism)

And Gordon Brown of course while an able party politician (although no great orator) was a truly terrible manager - but so entrenched and inflexible had the managerialist mode of discourse created by media and politicians in the Major-Blair era become that he was unable to break out of it even when his own future and that the country utterly depended upon doing so - with that clip of Nick Robinson mediating away above him and describing how passionately he orating was being down below being an almost perfect symbol of how far we have now gone.

Alan Leaman said...


There is, of course, a parallel in newspaper reporting of politics. I can just about remember when the broadsheets would carry reports of the debates at party conferences and include significant chunks of the main speeches. Parliamentary proceedings got similar treatment. All these have disappeared (for a variety of good and bad reasons, no doubt) and replaced with other styles and types of reporting. The explosion of the net means that a lot of the material can be accessed in other ways. And the coverage of the fringe is now much more extensive than it was. But a bit of me weeps for the old days. And there's no doubt that the parties have had to re-structure and re-focus their events in response.

Alan Leaman

Obama London said...

Interesting piece. And you mention my all time biggest media pet peeve - the moment when the news commentator stands in front of someone giving a speech and literally explains what they're saying instead of letting us actually hear the words currently being spoken. Diabolical and pointless. Let politicians explain themselves - how else can we decide whether to vote for them? So absurd...

cbwoolley said...

You make some good points, but have ignored the fact of the televised debates, which surely play a huge part in any analysis?
Factor that in, and most of the posts are negated too.

Roger said...

The TV debates are indeed a big departure for the UK.

But I would argue that they are actually an attempt at compromise between managerialist politicians and an equally managerialist media which has however cottoned on to the fact that the now way they present political campaigns is BORING and thus an unprofitable use of broadcast time.

And the received wisdom in the media is that conflict is what the viewers want.

But returning to the previous paradigm of actually letting politicians speak for themselves doesn't deliver that.

As the clips here show very well even during an election campaign it may take several days for an attack in a speech to be responded to properly and received media wisdom also seems to be that we know longer have the attention span to remember events from several days ago (and that exposition bores us almost as much as waiting).

So the TV debate addresses those problems through a highly ritualised competitive meta-interview - the media inquisitor is still there asking the same sort of questions but to three candidates rather than one.

But the fundamental dynamic remains that of the managerialist interview as closely controlled by media and politicians as feasible, rather than that of traditional political rhetoric - but the politicians now have to work vastly harder to prepare for it than for any ordinary TV interview or platform speech.

In fact I suspect that they must all look back with some longing to the days when you had a stump speech you wandered around the country giving just adding and subtracting the odd paragraph according to events.

But having made a Faustian bargain of sorts with the media in order to inaugurate this new managerialist style of politics, they are now hopelessly trapped within it - even though they must realise that it is no longer appropriate to a world in perpetual crisis where what Enoch Powell threateningly called the great simplicities are re-asserting themselves more violently every day.

Again I'd argue that because rather than despite of their political system being so profoundly dysfunctional the Americans handle these things better.

priggy said...

I think in part the Q&A or the town hall meeting allows politicians to seem open, willing to answer questions etc. but its an art form that none have managed to master.

I do find it seriously annoying when journalists talk over politicians.

In Scotland we have FMQs but there is no journalistic analysis either side like PMQs does