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).
A SNAKES & LADDERS THEORY OF POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
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
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.
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:
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:
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
- Do interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences?
- Snakes, ladders and the folly of Q-A campaigning
- Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them
- Ed Miliband lands on a snake
- Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it
- Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg
- 'The lost Art of Oratory' by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place
- 'The art of oratory is fast on its way out': at last, some support from a top journalist
- Will the 2010 UK general election be the first one to leave us speechless?
- Political speeches can still make a big difference - like changing the date of an election
- Blair speaks and the BBC tells you what he said
- Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory
- Is the media no longer interested in what goes on in parliament?
- Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are bad television?
- Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule
- A Labour leader with no interest in spin!
- A Tory leader's three evasive answers to the same question
- The day Mrs Thatcher apologised (twice) for what she'd said in an interview
- A prime minister who openly refused to answer Robin Day's questions
- 'Here today, gone tomorrow' politician walks out of interview with Robin Day
- The day Mandelson walked out of an interview rather than answer a question about Gordon Brown
- Mandelson gives two straight answers to tow of Paxman's questions
- Two more straight answers from Mandelson - about failed coups and the PM's rages
- Rare video clip of a politician giving 5 straight answers to 5 consecutive questions
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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