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Mark Thompson is shouting in a hurricane

A plea for more moderate political language is admirable but doomed to fail
October 11, 2016
Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? by Mark Thompson (Bodley Head, £25)

“Libtard.” “Racist.” “Cry-bully.” “Denier.” “Zionist.” “Fascist.” “Trot.” “Terrorist sympathiser.” “Cuck.” “Loony.” “Blairite.” The vocabulary of political insult has reached a glorious apogee in our age. In most if not all advanced democracies, now, we contemplate a dynamited centre ground, the rise of populists of left and right alike, and—at least among political and media elites—a sense that public trust in establishment politics is at an all time low. Evidence-based argument has given way to ideological dog-whistling, listening has given way to shouting, and truth has given way to (in US comedian Stephen Colbert’s excellent formulation) “truthiness.” We live in an age of “post-factual politics.” To quote Donald Trump (as Mark Thompson does in his first chapter): “There is great anger. Believe me, there is great anger.”

Even if you regard the above as an overstatement—as, perhaps, the received wisdom of legacy media types and complacent old-school politicians disturbed by the democratic freedoms of the digital age—you would struggle to make the case that it’s business as usual. For better or worse, something is going on in our politics. Mark Thompson, President and CEO of the New York Times, former Channel 4 CEO, former Director-General of the BBC, and sometime Humanitas Visiting Professor of Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion at the University of Oxford, attempts in this book to describe what it is.

Thompson’s concern is not so much with the polarisation of politics itself as with the changes in public language that have gone along with it and—in large part—made it possible. His concern is with rhetoric: with the place of argument in public life. He surveys, chapter by chapter, a political and media scene, and a public, geared to a rhetoric of maximal impact, minimal nuance, nugatory analysis and a positive flight from the attempt to explain or compromise. This is a world in which the lie is all over Twitter by the time the truth has got its boots on.
"This is a world in which the lie is all over Twitter by the time the truth has got its boots on"
Like the scrupulous old BBC hand that he is, Thompson makes a point of taking his examples of populist excess and demagoguery from politicians of both left and right alike. So, for instance, he opens the book by talking about the way that the phrase “death panels” was weaponised against Obama- care by Sarah Palin; but then goes on to discuss how, in the UK, the Conservative Party’s plans for the reform of the NHS were torpedoed by an equally dishonest and knowingly contextless use of words and statistics by their ideological opponents on the left.

Thompson’s great virtue in this book is his steady and cool-headed historicism: he’s not interested in the smoke that drifts across the Atlantic from Trump’s blazing pants, so much as in the Promethean genealogy of the flames. He grounds his analysis of public language, originally, in the Aristotelian canons of rhetoric, and then brings it up to date through the 20th-century’s language wars (and actual wars).

Our present predicament, as Thompson sees it, started to take shape as long ago as the early 1980s. Stark ideological differences began to surface in western politics and Thompson sees that shift, in the UK, as taking place over the course of the Margaret Thatcher years. Thatcher was at heart still a technocratic politician—seeking to make detailed evidence-based arguments about policy—but she was also starting to lean more heavily, at least in terms of public presentation, towards the arts of the spin doctor and the PR man. He lights on the “Lady’s Not For Turning” speech. We now remember it for that (awkward) soundbite—which seems to belong to our own age—but as Thompson points out that is only part of the story: she was certainly capable of memorable outbursts and, as we shall see, deliberate phrase-making, but what is most striking about the speeches when one reads them today is their seriousness and willingness to delve deep into the detail of the underlying policies themselves.

What’s more, that detail stood in some prospect of being reported. But in the years that followed, the balance of the Aristotelian triad tipped away from logos and towards ethos and pathos: from a rhetoric of rationality to one of emotion, or personality cult, and of “authenticity.” The technocratic ideal, Thompson argues, had the perverse effect of helping to weaken trust in politics: “In many countries, voters—especially younger voters—came to see the politicians of the era of compromise not as high-minded and patriotic pragmatists, but as members of a corrupt and unaccountable elite. Unaccountable because, when political parties agree about most things, elections do not bring real change…”

Thompson describes what he sees as a widening gulf between the language of policy-making and that of retail politics. Here is the school of thought that the electorate are safest being treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and occasionally nourished with shit. As he puts it, the arts of the ad-man and the branding consultant—initially retained to sell policies to the public—moved upstream: they started to become involved in the formulation of policy in the first place. And at the same time those arts became more effective: pollsters such as Frank Luntz are able to test the efficacy of political language with something close to scientific accuracy.

This process was turbo-charged by the rise first of 24-hour news cycles, then of digital media, and the collapse of the economic models that sustained print and a good deal of broadcast journalism. Having worked for most of his career in the news department of the BBC, Thompson was well placed to watch all this happen. He was on the ground in Moscow in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev gave his perestroika-auguring speech to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. He ran the coverage of Tiananmen Square from Beijing. And he was the Director-General who put BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time—the subject of a righteously well-argued passage of self-justification. He also mounts a gentle and rather impressive defence of the much-vilified John Birt in his efforts to add gravitas to the Beeb’s news coverage.

A pleasure of the book is that you feel in safe hands: Thompson is lucid, well read, level-headed and thoughtful. His range of reference is wide and his erudition usually, though not always, lightly worn. He has a robust familiarity with the history of scholarship on rhetoric, and scatters his text with easeful and on-point references to Max Weber, Martin Heidegger and Marshall McLuhan. “Atheist public intellectuals,” he sniffs at one point, “discuss the language of religion as if AJ Ayer still ruled the roost and Ludwig Wittgenstein had never been born.” At the same time, he’s not above mashing up ideas of quantum superposition with a citation from Urban Dictionary to identify the former Chancellor George Osborne as a “Schrödinger’s douchebag.”

Thompson also looks beyond the Anglo-American superhighway down which these discussions tend to roar when making his case. He’s well informed about the nuance of political positioning in Nicolas Sarkozy’s France and Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, for instance, and confident enough in his Russian to discuss how Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has changed since his 1999 declaration of Chechen terrorists that “my ikh I v sortire zomochim” (“we’ll ‘wet’ them even in the shithouse”) a phrase he discusses with reference to the way (za)mochit (wet) and its cognates have been used to allude to bloodletting since tsarist times.

That said, here’s a book that meanders about a lot and that tells us—albeit with more care and thoughtfulness than others—a good deal we already know. He devotes one chapter to a robust but pretty boilerplate defence of freedom of expression against the safe-spacers and no-platformers of generation snowflake. His description of the hollowing-out of serious newspapers into the impact-hungry clickbait factories of today is a familiar tale. Likewise his discussion of the difficulties of reporting science properly—though it is given torque by his particular agony over how climate sceptics run rings round the BBC’s maddening mandate for “balance.” He finds room for a sceptical and nuanced excursus on George Orwell’s famous “rules of writing” as set out in “Politics and the English Language” (concluding, quite correctly, that they are nothing of the sort). There’s a decent but slightly off-topic chapter on the rhetoric of war. And so on.

But if the shape of the arguments is familiar enough, the detail is excellent. Enough Said’s particular glories, to this reader, are Thompson’s frequent and sensitive close readings of particular instances of public language. He picks up, for instance, on the way that quotation marks can be used to impute a phrase of the speaker’s invention (such as “death panels” or, in headline usage, “Crisis? What Crisis?”) to the speaker’s target. He deftly skewers Richard Nixon’s inept “the lift of a driving dream” and praises by contrast Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical grace and shrewdness. He talks about how “Trump’s style of parataxis is almost infinitely compressible,” or admiringly identifies—in the manner of a gymnastics judge at the Olympics—Thatcher essaying “a kind of converse procatalepsis with an apophatic flavour.”

But when it comes to what exactly can be done to reverse all these trends, this perfect storm (to use an apt cliché) of resurgent populism, underfunded and attention-denuded journalism, public disenchantment and filter-bubble howl-rounds of anger and mendacity, Thompson falters a little.

“Between us,” he insists, “we need to find a way of demilitarising.” How? Here’s where it gets sticky. To follow his metaphor, Thompson is a Corbynite unilateralist. He wants us all to be good chaps, lay down our weapons and cross our fingers.

“Given the character of contemporary politics and the media,” he admits, “it requires almost superhuman self-control to refuse to give in to indiscriminate exaggeration—especially if your opponents have already abandoned all restraint—but it’s still the wisest course.” You may say so. Still, I found myself thinking of the apocryphal exchange between duellists. “Choose your weapons, sir!” “Bare hands!” “Excellent. I’ll take the pistols.”

He has similar counsel of perfection for those of us on the media side. “Investigative journalism,” he writes, “breaks most of the rules of modern media economics. It is expensive and time-consuming, has a high failure rate and often involves the kind of intricate detail which contemporary readers are said to have no time for. Do it anyway.” It is, you might think, easy to issue such advice from the upper slopes of the Grey Lady or the DG’s office at the publicly-funded BBC. I can’t see it catching on at the management floor of most newspapers in the current climate—still less in digital start-ups scrapping for pageviews.

Overall you sense that as a good, civic-minded liberal in a humanistic tradition Thompson has Marcus Quintilian’s optimism that the ideal orator is vir bonus dicendi peritus—a good man speaking well. He doesn’t want Thomas Hobbes or Plato to have been right. He can’t quite bring himself to believe in the sheer instrumentality of rhetoric; in the idea that it will always and only do what works. So when he calls for restraint—doing politics decently and trusting to the prudentia of the public, or doing journalism decently in the hopes that you’ll thereby shame others into a higher standard—I fear that he’s shouting into a hurricane. The damage is done.