by Adam Boulton

Arrow points to defective part, we name the guilty men, information which someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know – of the many definitions of journalism I have heard over the past decades these are the ones that have stuck with me.

Journalism is essentially a diagnostic rather than a prescriptive occupation, stronger looking back on what has gone wrong, rather than to the future as to how it might be put right.

In my view this is healthy since analysis of what has happened or is happening is based not on conjecture but on facts. Those facts are seldom freely available – which is where those other vital components of journalism, investigation and analysis, come in.

Mark Thompson is a brilliant journalist. Indeed that was one of the greatest concerns of editorial staff when he was appointed CEO at the New York Times – that an executive had the ability potentially to shatter the Chinese wall protecting them from him, to make valid criticisms of the newsroom’s output.

Given at the behest of his longtime friend and BBC colleague Mark Damazer, now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, Thompson’s three ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ lectures, the first of which is revisited and published in Demos Quarterly, proved his professional skills were unblunted by his years as the BBC’s top bureaucrat.

His diagnosis of the malaise troubling western democracy is sharp:

‘A pervasive climate of suspicion of all traditional forms of purported authority – church, state, class and so on – a contrary suspicion of everything which is proposed should take their place.’

Thompson’s culprit is not a guilty man or a defective part but an abstract entity ‘public language … is changing in ways which make it more effective as an instrument of public persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation’.

Nostalgic twinges seem built into the human condition. Thompson’s claim that things are getting worse and that we are on the brink of ‘decadence’ is challenged by the breadth of reference of his own work – from classical antiquity to Mrs Thatcher’s views on society in the 1980s.

But he is right that in the English-speaking world at least we seem to be going through a particularly vicious linguistic phase. Labour’s proleptic and metonymic misrepresentation ‘bedroom tax’ has been as effective against welfare reform as Sarah Palin’s ‘death tax’ was against Obamacare.

It is true too that in Britain ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. Why else would the notion of Coalition government, popular at the time of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat pact, now be anathema to Conservatives, Labour and the general public in opinion polls?

Refreshingly for a journalist, Thompson declines to blame individual politicians for the slide into shrill rhetoric. However his two subsequent lectures suggest policy areas where he thinks things have gone wrong – the second lecture ‘Confine it to the Flames’ dwells on the populist attack on scientific authority over climate change, while the third, ‘Not in My Name’, decries the absolutist positions taken on the post-9/11 conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The BBC was beaten with many sticks on both these questions during Thompson’s time as Director General. What people wanted to believe outweighed their respect for an honest journalistic effort to give them information.

Social media have made this worse. Any journalist trying to perform a straight forward task of reporting and commenting can now expect to be attacked on Twitter and to be accused of partisanship for simply raising an issue. Many trolls even think that the alleged prejudice of the messenger somehow invalidates the facts which they are reporting. Tweet the latest opinion poll and someone is bound to tweet back ‘you’ll be pleased by that’.

None of this should matter to a journalist doing their job honestly: comment is free and usually not representative. Difficulties clearly arise when reporting shifts into advocacy whether on left or right. Thompson is brave to call out Polly Toynbee for her claims about ‘49%’ privatisation of the NHS, and I am sorry to have missed the symposium at the end of his lectures which she attended.

It didn’t plunge Western democracy into Platonic terminal decline but the era of ‘triangulation’ under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair certainly contributed to the decline in public discourse. Saying one thing to achieve another, was never going to reinforce the credibility of public debate, especially when backed up with bogus reassurances such as pledge cards.

Likewise the ‘followership’ of holding referendums on key questions is only going to further undermine confidence in political leadership. Is the nature of the United Kingdom really something for Scottish voters to decide alone? Is the pro-EU case really just about ‘jobs’ as Clegg told Farage? Perhaps broader principles of co-operation are in question, though no politician dares speak their name?

The problem is not the language used by demagogues but that mainstream politicians are scared to reply to it. Journalists are less shy of airing controversial arguments than today’s politicians – and the infinite capacity of digital technology means that there is always room for the long-form explanation and deliberation which Thompson desires.

Getting the wider public to consume it is the difficult part. As Thompson’s successor at the BBC remarked some years ago: infinite media choice means that not even the BBC and the NYT can force the public ‘to eat their greens’ of improving information.

Yet, it seems to me that Plato is losing the argument, because for all the people’s apathy and grumbling, democracy doesn’t do such a bad job. The sassy Sarah Palin was not elected VPILF, death panels did not stop the implementation of Obamacare or the re-election of Barack Obama. A much-revised version of Andrew Lansley’s incomprehensible NHS reform bill is now being implemented.

We may hate compromises and coalitions, yet no party has managed to break from the scrimmage and a messy hung parliament remains the most likely outcome for the 2015 General Election. Either way, I look forward to more journalism from the visiting professor in rhetoric and public persuasion.

Adam Boulton is a journalist and the former Political Editor of Sky News

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by John Lloyd

Between ending his eight-year shift as Director General of the BBC in September 2012 and taking up the post as CEO of the New York Times, Mark Thompson gave three lectures, and responded to a panel discussion on them, at St Peter’s College in Oxford, now headed by his former colleague, the former head of BBC Radio Four, Mark Damazer.

He warned that words were losing their democratic heft.

The lectures, two of which I chaired, were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal to the reporters who came to the lectures, and would not comment: so no articles – as far as I have seen – were written, except one by me, for Reuters, from which this is adapted.

Yet Thompson’s remarks, revisited and published in this issue of Demos Quarterly, are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They express a deep worry ‑ at times, a real pessimism ‑ about the health of democratic debate because of the abuse of words, by the media and by politicians.

Part of Thompson’s theme is that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible ‑ ‘might as well be in Sanskrit.’ That is especially the case with news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions. How many people understood, not the recent Budget, but the media’s explanations of it?

Deeper than that, though, is another concern: that the rhetoric employed by politicians, commentators and other public figures is destructive of trust and of real engagement. ‘The public language that most people actually hear and are influenced by,’ Thompson says, ‘is changing in ways that make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation’ (his emphasis).

One example he gave was the phrase ‘death panel,’ used by Sarah Palin, to describe the – wholly voluntary – medical interview that, under Obamacare, would be offered to senior citizens about their present and likely future health. The claim was immensely powerful, and was probably, for most people, the most memorable thing about the complex legislation.

In that case, Thompson says, ‘explanatory power has been wholly sacrificed in the interests of rhetorical impact.’ Because this kind of language works so well, it eats away at the more cautious, often ambiguous and provisional language that surrounds the crafting of compromise. Public language, says the man who commanded the broadcaster that carries most of it in the UK, ‘is entering a decadent phase ‑ less able to explain, less able to engage except in the purely political, more prone to exaggeration and paranoia.’

Thompson, probably to maintain balance, also takes an excerpt from a column by a journalist of the left, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. In writing that the government was ‘fencing off 49 per cent of NHS facilities to private practice’ in a way that ‘risks denying NHS patients their scans, services and beds’, she was, said Thompson, ‘collapsing a possible future into a certain present’. In fact, neither Obama’s ‘death panels’ were real – nor did any hospital approach anywhere near a figure of 49 per cent for private patients.

Thompson’s essay, the lectures that precede it, and the book to come constitute an important pointer to the nature of the modern public sphere in the West, where intelligible and truthful speech is supposed to stimulate understanding. He chooses to issue a veiled, but harshly pessimistic, warning that the changing nature and intent of public language is alienating men and women from politics and the public sphere.
In doing so, he casts doubt on the ability of the media ‑ even of the BBC, which is charged to act in the public interest ‑ to stop a crucial civic rot. The creeping decadence of public language is threatening the mutual comprehension and ability to compromise in pursuit of agreement.

There was another backdrop to Thompson’s lectures, beyond the Savile scandal. That was the then imminent publication of the report by Justice Sir Brian Leveson on the behaviour of the British tabloids, following the discovery of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Leveson called for a statutory-backed regulatory system aimed at raising standards. The Government has welcomed tougher regulation but doesn’t want it to be legislated for, citing worries about press freedom. The Labour opposition has no such fears, and cites the victims of hacking as justification for a statutory body, backed by state sanctions if regulation fails.

On the one hand, the general secretary of Liberty says that Leveson’s recommended system may be illegal. On the other, Article 19, a free-speech advocate, calls for its implementation. The debate was fierce for a while but has now all but disappeared, as government and press disagree over the form of regulation – the latter leisurely setting about erecting their own model for a reconstructed press council, the former having apparently lost interest.

My Reuters commentating colleague Jack Shafer argued at the time that the fault lies above all with British newspaper readers, writing:

‘the excesses of filth and fury thrive in Britain but falter in the United States tells you a lot about how publishers differ, but it tells you more about the difference in readers. … Perhaps the biggest problem in the UK is not unethical publishers and unethical reporters but contemptible readers who sanction criminality and privacy invasion every other time they buy a disreputable copy at the newsstand … maybe they don’t deserve a free press.’

In spite of the sweeping dismissal of the taste and morals of my fellow Britons, I think Shafer has a point. There is a great deal of reliable information available, free, to every citizen with access to the internet (which is most of us). If we do not think through the consequences of the purchase of illegally acquired stories; if we do not exert ourselves to seek to understand something of the nature of our society and politics; if we cap that by dismissing politics and politicians whom we have not taken the trouble to understand as ‘all the same … out for themselves,’ we may soon not deserve a free society, let alone a free press. Thompson’s parting gift to Britain was a bitter one.

John Lloyd is contributing editor to the Financial Times, and author of What the Media are Doing to our Politics.

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by Sam Leith

Mark Thompson’s essay on modern political language seems to me admirably lucid and well argued – and to benefit especially from taking the long view. I would like to develop one or two of his hints with regard to classical rhetoric. What he points to, I would suggest, is a damaging distortion of the relationship between Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals: ethos, pathos and logos.

All rhetoric is, fundamentally, identity-speech. Even the most fastidious evidence-based argument will rest on shared and usually unspoken assumptions about what constitutes the good. Here is where logos differs from logic. And here is why, of the Aristotelian triad of persuasive appeals ethos has always led the pack.

In modern political discourse (at least as regards public engagement), however, the importance of logos – argument and evidence – has so withered as to become politically nugatory. In its place are telegraphic assertions of ethos, delivered in unarguable abstractions and given oomph by (as often as not) emotionally-laden trigger-words that serve as shortcuts to anger, fear or defiance.

Why? What Mr Thompson describes is a situation in which we have a) representative rather than direct democracy so we’re picking a team rather than deciding an issue and b) a presumption that the challenges of policy are technocratic ones, too complex for us to understand, so we have to just trust the team we’re picking to know what they are doing. The perversity, as Mr Thompson hints, of an evidence-based approach to policy in such circumstances is that the evidence becomes almost completely unimportant politically.

The other point, I think, has to do with compression or, its much-attended-to counterpart in audience terms, attention span. The internet has been described as ‘an ecosystem of interruption technologies’. The amount of rhetoric competing for our attention is vastly greater than ever before – not only because every fool now has a blog, but because it’s an inevitable concomitant of the spread of democracy and the spread of the franchise and the spread of education (all good things, right?) that more people have voices.

Media are more plural. News cycles are shorter. And the means of transmission – to which rhetoric adapts as unceasingly as it does to the constituency of its audience, because they add up to damn near the same thing – is faster, shorter-burning and bittier.

If something really gets momentum these days – a tweet, a phrase, an image – it’s usually not because it’s a big something but because it is an enormous snowballing agglomeration of identical small somethings. Ethos – as branding consultants know – can be transmitted by something as simple as a slogan or a trademark. Logos (despite what it looks like on the page) cannot. So if, as Mr Thompson says, a rebuttal is complex or a proposal to do anything is complex, it is vulnerable. ‘TL; DR,’ as the electorate says.

Mr Thompson’s remarks about the convergence of the data-driven soft sciences of marketing and branding with political rhetoric, in the form of ‘nudge’ politics, seem to me therefore spot on. I’d suggest an analogy with fast food. I’ve seen it written that we evolved to crave fat, sugar and salt; which seems plausible. All three – in a pre-industrial, Flintstones kind of diet – are scarce and nutritionally valuable: if Ug the caveman finds a bees’ nest full of honey, he scarfs the lot because there may not be another one along for a while.

What evolution never anticipated (because it doesn’t, as a rule, anticipate) was KFC: that we’d reach a point where fat, sugar and salt were superabundant and we could design foods that hit all three pleasure centres with a giant big bang and, what’s more, didn’t run out. Evolution didn’t design the craving with an off switch. So we dive headfirst into the bargain bucket and, so to speak, get wedged there like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s burrow.

I would say we’ve reached a similar point with the mechanisms for transmitting and targeting identity speech. We can scientifically game the yum-yum parts of our brain. And we can scientifically game our rhetorical responses. We can abstract essence of pure ethos in a killer phrase, split-test it and allow viral transmission to do the work of a focus group for us. The lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on – because the lie has a jet-pack.

Sam Leith is a journalist and author of You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama He is on Twitter @questingvole

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by Jean Seaton

Have words become the enemies of reason? Mark Thompson’s acute piece identifies the awesome, crushing, power of the great ‘encapsulators’ of our times. They are now harder than ever to struggle against. The problem with modern politics—the disillusion and falling away seen all over the democracies—he argues, is a shift in language itself.

What used to be called sound-bites or even slogans have evolved: cooked by technology and circumstances they have taken over language. The crystallisations that become believed, have become immoveable verities that are frequently impermeable to facts. Television, the press, politicians, agitators, and the short punchy form of Twitter have produced a new populist argot and we should be frightened of it. Twitter is a place to flounce, a place for touché, not a place for an organic reflective argument in the manner of John Stuart Mill. People, institutions, policies literally battle for political and personal survival against these new blunt mobilisers of opinion. Once established, dismantling such contemporary shibboleths is almost impossible.

The outcome of such contests is rarely the victory of the most accurate view; rather the strongest, loudest and—this is Thompson’s real perception—the most grippingly appealing and condensed ‘advert’ always wins. This important argument locates the great tectonic shift in modern communication not in ‘the media’ or indeed in the gullibility of the public, nor in the mendacity of politicians, but in a great corruption in language. He might have added that the capacity to listen and reflect, absorb and respond, has been displaced by the need to broadcast, assert and speak.

He points out that ‘evidence-based policy making’ (what we now have as a substitute for political ideology) baffles the public. Yet we need governments to do unpalatable things for us in our collective self-interest. How will they do so unless they lie?

He might have added that there is an opposite corruption to the crunching of language—loggorhea, the endless, communist regime like managerialism of policy delivery, accountability-speak, the fabulous proliferation of forms that everybody has to fill in that nobody ever reads. We are judged by our ‘paper trails’ not by our performance, quantitative measures drive out the texture of quality.

In Frank Dikotter’s book on the horror of the Chinese Revolution—The Tragedy of Liberation, he points out that faced with the demand to eradicate rats and offer up their tails as evidence (and the dire punishments of failing to do so) that the Chinese (entirely sensibly ) began to farm rats to meet the rat tail quotas. Nowadays we all ‘farm’ our management quotas.

Indeed, the battle for hearts and minds is far wider than Thompson’s piece identifies. The world is awash with utterly wrong, passionately believed ‘truths’. In the past, during the Cold War, institutions like the BBC World Service strained every fibre to understand the societies into which they communicated and so, were hugely influential. People then were hungry for truth. People still are, but, says Thompson, we are all obstructed by the very language we resort to. I think we have given up attending to anything foreign or genuinely other, we are deaf to difference.

In his information dystopia 1984 George Orwell said ‘There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.’ Clinging onto the truth is perhaps even harder than in the past.

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, and the official historian of the BBC.

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