30 June 2011

Strike News: speeches inside, cameras outside and a reporter gives us a lecture...

video

There was time when you could expect to see some rather good speeches from trades union leaders, especially when speaking to supporters during industrial action. And, for all I know, there may well have been some rather good ones at the meeting in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster earlier today when demonstrators assembled after their march through London.

Given my blogging about the reluctance of British television news companies to broadcast anything much from speeches (e.g. HERE), you'd think that I'd know better than to start switching between Sky News and BBC News 24 at around the time the teachers' and lecturers' union leaders were speaking - on the off-chance of seeing, and perhaps even recording, some of them in action.

But old habits die hard and it was not to be: all we got to see was exactly what I should have expected to see if I only I had enough sense to take notice of my own blog posts.

Both our 24 hour news channels had positioned their cameras on some sort of platform outside Central Hall, from where we could see lots of people milling about and, crucially, listen to one of their reporters who had just been inside giving us a two and a half minute lecture on what some of the speakers had been saying - even though other speeches were apparently still going on.

It may be, of course, that they did have a camera or two inside. Maybe, by the time we get to the prime-time news programmes later this evening, they'll have singled out a few sound bites for us. But I'm not banking on it.

28 June 2011

The Chinese people's premier: Wen Jiabato speaks

video

Back in February, I made the point that you don't need to speak Arabic to tell that Mubarak isn't much of an orator - which has been illustrated by several more video clips from speeches in Arabic since then.

The recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabato the UK has now given us a few rare glimpses of a top Chinese politician speaking and, though I understand not a word of the language, his delivery is a reminder of much the same point.

In a caption to a picture of the young Fidel Castro in my book Our Masters' Voices (1984, p. 4), I'd written: '
Skillful public speaking can be readily recognized even in those whose politics we may disagree with, and whose languages we do not understand.'

The earlier
blogpost on Mubarak continued as follows - but could just as well have been prompted by this speech from Mr Wen:

What fascinated me then - and still does - is the fact that we don't have to be able to understand Spanish or German to be able to recognise that Castro and Hitler were highly effective orators.

The opposite is also the case: you don't have to be able to understand Arabic to be able to tell at a glance that Egyptian President Mubarak is a long way from the Premier League when it comes to public speaking ...

The rise of the ineffective orator
Much the same can be said of other second and third generation revolutionary leaders. Compared with Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki was a bit short in the communication skills department. So too were Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev in comparison with Lenin (and I don't speak Russian, either).

The point is that, once a new order is established, behind the scenes committee work, plotting, befriending the right people, bumping off or otherwise disposing of rivals, winning support of the right factions and organisations , etc. become far more important than being able to appeal to a mass audience of people whose votes will determine your rise or fall.

Nor, if you can get to the top job - like so many leaders of Arab nations outside Egypt - by being the favoured relation of the previous head of a ruling family, do you have to worry about anything so tiresome as being able to move, persuade and inspire mass audiences.

The quietly spoken people's premier?
Having watched Mr Wen in action, I was intrigued to see that the
Wikipedia entry on him actually singles out the way he speaks as worth a mention:

"Soft-spoken and known for his strong work ethic, Wen has been one of the most visible members of the incumbent Chinese administration, and has been dubbed 'the people's premier' by both domestic and foreign media."

Soft-spoken, yes - but as for whether he deserves the title 'people's premier', I confess to having a few doubts.

23 June 2011

Mrs Obama's (borrowed) Soweto message



I was quite impressed by Michelle Obama's speech in Soweto - until she invited the audience to recycle the famous chant from her husband's presidential election campaign.

I've suggested before that lifting words from someone else is a risky business, whether you're a presidential candidate borrowing from a British party leader (Joe Biden/Neil Kinnock) or a British prime minister borrowing from an American president (Gordon Brown/Bill Clinton) -see video clip under tip 3 HERE).

But is it OK if the words are well-known ones borrowed from your husband?

"Yes we can" was certainly appropriate enough in the context of what she was saying. But did it really work?

I wasn't entirely convinced that it it did, and would be interested to know what others think.

22 June 2011

Ashdown on House of Lords reform: fine speech, but...

Regular readers will know that I take a very dim view of how seats in the House of Lords are allocated and the half-hearted approach to reform taken by Labour during its 13 years in power, not to mention the way some peers behave (for more on which, see links below).

Followers of Twitter may also have noticed that I'm also rather suspicious about how genuine some of those peers who say they favour reform really are about the prospect of losing their privileged places in such a cosy club.

As the media reports so little from speeches made in parliament (and elsewhere) these days, I'd probably never have noticed this one were I not a follower of someone else on Twitter who also used to write speeches for Paddy Ashdown, namely Olly Grender (@OllyGrender), to whom thanks for drawing my attention to it.

Like her, I was impressed by what he had to say in the Lords debate - so impressed, in fact, that I thought it worth reproducing below in full.

My main reservation is that he doesn't have much to say about the big question of exactly how Lords should be elected - and I still think that the fairest proposal I've heard so far is my daughter-in-law's plan to allocate seats on much the same basis as we select jurors.


Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon:
I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that in a democracy the minority is always right. That thought has given me much comfort over the years as a Liberal, and it appears that it will have to give me comfort in this debate as well. I spent an engaging hour and a half yesterday in the House of Lords Library, looking through opposition speeches made in December 1831 to the Great Reform Act 1832 and to the Reform Act 1867. Five arguments were put forward. The first was: there is no public call for such reform beyond those mad radicals of Manchester. The second was: we should not be wasting our time and money on these matters; there are more important things to discuss such as the Schleswig-Holstein problem, the repeal of the corn laws or the crisis in the City that caused Anthony Trollope to write his wonderful novel.

A noble Lord: Not in 1832.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: No, but in 1867.

The third argument, which was put so powerfully—indeed, in bloodcurdling terms—by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was that if we were to embark on this constitutional terra incognita, the delicate balance of the constitution would collapse around us; mere anarchy would rule upon the world.

The fourth argument put forward in those debates was, “No, no, let us not disturb the quiet groves of wisdom within which we decide the future of the nation by letting in the rude representatives of an even ruder republic. God knows what damage we shall do if such a thing should happen”. The last and fifth argument was the argument actually used by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, just a moment ago: “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it”.

Those are the arguments that were put forward against the 1832 Act, the 1867 Act, the 1911 Act—every single reform that we have ever had—and they are the arguments that are being put forward now. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. Perhaps I might explain before I come to the substance of the argument.

The first argument is that there is no public interest in this matter. Of course there is not; it is our business, not the public’s. The public have made it very clear that they do not trust our electoral system in its present form. Is there anyone in this Chamber who does not realise that the dangerous and growing gap between government and governed that is undermining the confidence in our democracy must be bridged? It must be bridged by the reform and modernisation of our democratic institutions, and we have a part to play in that too. This is not about what the public want, it is about us putting our House in order.

The second issue is that there are more important things to discuss. I do not think so. Frankly, we have been very fortunate to have lived through the period of the politics of contentment. The fragility of our democratic system has not been challenged because the business of government and democracy has been to redistribute increasing wealth. If we now come to the point at which we must redistribute retrenchment, difficult decisions, hard choices, I suspect it will come to something rather different, as we see on the streets of Greece today and as we saw on the streets of London not very long ago. This is very important.

The third is that we are embarking on a constitutional journey into terra incognita. Of course we are. We do not have a written constitution in this country. I wish we did, but we are told that the genius of our constitution is that it is unwritten, that it responds to events, that it develops, that it takes its challenges and moves forward. Oliver Cromwell did not have to say, “We will delay the Civil War until we have worked out the proper constitutional relationship between Parliament and the King”. In 1832 they did not say, “Let us hold this up until we have decided what proper constitutional balances would be achieved”. If you believe in the miracle of the unwritten constitution, you must believe that our constitution will adapt. You cannot argue that that is a good thing and then say that we cannot move forward unless we know precisely and in exact detail what will happen next. Of course this will change the balance between us and the other Chamber. It will not challenge the primacy of the other Chamber, but it will challenge the absolute supremacy of the other Chamber—that is called check and balance.

The fourth argument is that this will disturb the gentle climate of wisdom in this place. I have no doubt that there is unique wisdom here, although I have to say that I do not believe it is necessarily evenly distributed—maybe in some places it is, but not everywhere. However, I am not persuaded that there is less wisdom in the 61 second chambers that are elected, that there is less wisdom in the Senate of the United States, or the Sénat in France or the Bundesrat in Germany. I do not believe that the business of election will produce less wisdom than we have here now—rather the contrary. It is not wisdom that we lack; it is legitimacy. My old friend, Lord Conrad Russell—much missed—used to say, “I would happily exchange wisdom for legitimacy”, and I will tell your Lordships why.

This is where we come to the final point—the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd: “If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it”. It is broke; it is broke in two fashions. First, our democracy now and our institutions of democracy in this country do not enjoy the confidence of our people in the way they did. That confidence is declining. We have to be part of the reform that reconnects politics with people in this country. If we do not, our democratic institutions will fall into atrophy and may suffer further in the decline of the confidence of the people of this country. If noble Lords do not realise that, they do not realise just how difficult the current situation is in Britain.

We in this Chamber cannot leave this to others to do. We must be part of that reform, modernisation, reconnection and democracy. It is said that this House does its job as a revising Chamber well. So it does. It is allowed to revise, change, amend legislation, but is it allowed to deal with the really big things? It does the small things well, but is it constructed in a way that would prevent a Government with an overwhelming majority in the other place taking this country to an unwise and, as we now know, probably illegal war? No, it would not because it did not. I cannot imagine that the decision to introduce the poll tax and the decision to take this country to war would have got through a Chamber elected on a different mandate and in a different period, or if there had been a different set of political weights in this Chamber from the one down the other end.

The truth of the matter is that we perform the function of a revising Chamber well, but that is not our only function. We are also part of the checks and balances in this country. The fact that we do not have democratic legitimacy undermines our capacity to act as a check and balance on the excessive power of the Executive backed by an excessive majority in the House of Commons. That is where we are deficient and what must be mended.

The case is very simple to argue. In a democracy, power should derive from the ballot box and nowhere else. Our democracy is diminished because this place does not derive its power from democracy and the ballot box but from political patronage—the patronage of the powerful. Is it acceptable in a democracy that the membership of this place depends on the patronage of the powerful at the time? We are diminished in two ways. We are diminished because we do not perform the function that we need to perform of acting as a check and a balance on the Government, and we do not do so because we are a creature of the Government’s patronage. I cannot believe that noble Lords find that acceptable in this Chamber
.

A noble Lord: Time.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me, I will finish now. I have already strained my time but I ask for patience. The Leader of the House is right. We have spent 100 years addressing reform in this House. It is time to understand why that is necessary—both to make our place in modern democracy and to fulfil our proper function to provide a check and balance on an Executive who may get too powerful. We turned our hand to this 100 years ago; it is time to finish it now.

20 June 2011

Another King's Speech: "Syrian soldiers & security personnel are innocent"



A couple of days after the Moroccan King's speech (HERE), President Assad of Syria has taken to the stage in another attempt to assure his people and the world what a reasonable chap he is.

Difficult though it is to compare two speakers of a language I don't understand, I can't help being rather more impressed by what the hereditary King Mohammed VI of Morocco had to say than by what the latest self-appointed member of the Assad family says in this clip.

If Syrian soldiers and security personnel are as innocent as he claims, do we take it that he's generously invoking the Eichmann defence on their behalf? "Only obeying orders" may be all that they're doing, but presumably they are orders that were issued by the genial Mr Assad and his henchmen.

P.S. a few months later:
Access to the above video has apparently been withdrawn - but you can watch an excerpt from another speech by the doomed dicatator here:

18 June 2011

The King's Speech - Moroccan style


Over the last few months, I've found Al Jazeera to be a great resource for keeping up with what's going on in the Middle East.

And here, thanks to them, is a version of the King's Speech you may not have heard - by King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Interestingly, when it comes to delivery, he seems to have learnt a thing or two from King George VI's daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

As regular readers will know, I've long been fascinated by the way she delivers the annual Queen's Speech, in which she sets out her government's legislative plans for the forthcoming parliamentary year (for more on which, see The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler).

In discussing the importance for a constitutional monarch to display political neutrality, I noted:

'When it comes to sounding unenthusiastic and uninterested in inspiring an audience, the Queen’s Speech is an example with few serious competitors. She has no qualms about being seen to be wearing spectacles, which underline the fact that she is reading carefully from the script she holds so obviously in front of her. Nor is she in the least bit inhibited about fixing her eyes on the text rather than the audience. Then, as she enunciates the sentences, her tone is so disinterested as to make it abundantly clear that she is merely reciting words written by someone else and about which she has no personal feelings or opinions whatsoever.'

As you'll see from the above, King Mohammed VI doesn't have any qualms about wearing his specs or about keeping his eyes glued to the text either. But having to rely on his translator makes it difficult for a non-speaker of Arabic like me to assess the tone of his speech.

But the context is, of course very different, because here is a king announcing some important-sounding steps along the road towards the establishment of a more constitutional monarchy - which is something about which he should presumably sound much more enthusiastic than the Queen ever does when she reads out words written by her government - providing, that is, that he really believes in the reforms he is proposing.

Related posts
Compared with certain other speeches in Arabic during the past six months, this is rather an impressive effort. Nor, interestingly, did any of the entrants in the doomed dictator speechwriting competition select the King of Morocco as someone in need of help - perhaps because they didn't consider him dictatorial or doomed enough.

16 June 2011

How many numbers can you get into 20 seconds & has Balls exposed Brown as an amateur?

However reluctant ITN may be to show clips from speeches on News at 10 (see previous post), it only took them a few minutes to get an excerpt from this morning's speech by shadow chancellor Ed Balls posted on YouTube - for which thanks.

In the first clip below, you'll hear Mr Balls packing six numbers into 20 seconds.

At a rate of one every 3.33 seconds, he made his mentor seem a bit of an amateur: in a speech two years ago, Gordon Brown only managed to get nine numbers into 59 seconds at the much slower rate of one every 6.55 seconds.

You can compare their efforts in the following clips, where you'll see that both of them illustrate a rather important point about presentation. What intrigued me was just how much of what I'd written about Brown (HERE) could just have well been written about Balls:

'A few months ago, I made the point that Gordon Brown tends to pack far too much information into his speeches and still has to take notice of a crucial tip from Winston Churchill about simplicity.

'In his final press conference before the Summer recess, he was at it again. At one stage, as you can see below, he managed to mention nine numbers in less than a minute.

'The trouble is that a lot of people glaze over when numbers come at them so thick and fast – a problem that’s even worse if, as in this case, they’re delivered in a flat monotonous tone of voice.

'And the importance of speakers conveying enthusiasm for their subjects cannot be overestimated – for the very obvious reason that, if a speaker sounds bored by his or her subject matter, why should the audience feel any less bored, let alone be inspired by it?

'Add to this Mr Brown’s earnest facial expression and it's hardly surprising that he’s so often referred to dour’.'

Son of Brown?
Six months ago, David Cameron accused Ed Miliband of being the "son of Brown" (HERE). On this evidence, it's a title to which Ed Balls has a rather stronger claim.

Balls: 6 numbers in 20 seconds:

video

Brown: 9 numbers in 59 seconds:

video

Why do our politicians bother to speak when a press release will do the job?

A few days ago, I had a go at answering the question of why British political oratory has been banished to the sidelines (HERE) - on which, here are a couple of observations and another question.

The script of yesterday's annual Mansion House speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been trailed, blogged about, tweeted about and discussed and analysed on radio and television news programmes for at least 24 hours before Mr Osborne got up to speak last night.

ITN's News at Ten showed film of the banquet and of the Chancellor opening and closing his mouth while standing at a lectern - as a silent background to a report about what he was saying. The number of words ITN allowed us to hear him actually saying came to a grand total of 0.

Today, the same is happening to the 'first major policy speech since becoming shadow chancellor earlier this year' by Ed Balls (BBC website) - and it's unlikely that we'll get to hear much more coming out of his mouth on prime-time television news programmes tonight than than we did from George Osborne's last night.

Question
If all the media need to cover a speech is a press release of the script, why don't our politicians save a bit of time, money and effort by not bothering to make the speech at all?

The television companies could then also save a bit of time, money and effort by not bothering to send out camera crews to film background footage for their journalists' reports on the speeches. After all, cutting away to the other side of the studio for a PowerPoint-style presentation from one of their reporters is not only much cheaper than going on location, but has also become standard practice on the main news channels, for more on which, see:

14 June 2011

Cameron on the NHS: 3 priorities (2006) mutate into 5 big things (2011)

At the 2006 Conservative Party conference, David Cameron sought to go one better than Tony Blair by summing up his three priorities in 3 letters:

video

Not surprisingly, I had no trouble at all in remembering these three letters and confidently predict that you won't either.

However, having watched his announcement of today's five big things about the government's proposed NHS changes to the government's proposed NHS changes quite a few times, I'm still hard put to list or summarise them all with any degree of precision:

See if you can do any better:


Related posts:

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.

Sincerely,

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'.

But
(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.

RELATED POSTS

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.

5 June 2011

Prime-time television news reading: double act or solo performance?

When it come to watching news programmes that compete directly with each other, like the BBC and ITN bulletins at 10 o'clock on weekday nights, I've long thought that ITN's deloyment of two news readers works better than the BBC's preference for leaving the whole thing in the hands of a solo performer - for two main reasons:

1. It dilutes any dislike of a particular performer
If you're not too impressed by the BBC's Huw Edwards, it's tough luck: like him or hate him, that's who'll be reading the news for the next 25 minutes - so your only available escape is to switch over to ITN, where the likelihood of two news readers both turning you off is obviously considerably less than when there's only one of them.

You might be a fan of Julie Etchingham but not particularly like Mark Austin (or vice versa). But at least you know that, for about 50% of the time, you'll get relief from whichever one of them you don't particularly like.

2. It helps to keeps viewers on track
People don't watch news programmes so closely that they always know when one story has ended and another one has started. Nor is every story of equal interest to all of us.

When there are two readers taking it in turns to deliver different news items, you can tell at a glance when something new is coming up. If your concentration has lapsed, the other face and/or voice alerts you to become more attentive again, if only to check on whether the next story sounds any more interesting than the last one.