In April this year Kevin Spacey said that he was worried that his political drama series House of Cards, with its internecine warfare and sexual shenanigans, wasn’t as extreme as real-life American politics has become: “I turn on the TV and watch the news . . . then I think we haven’t gone far enough.” There might be something similar in the mind of Mark Thompson, now the chief executive of the New York Times and formerly the director general of the BBC.
When Thompson conceived his book, there were signs of a breakdown in politics across the Western world – but that was before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was nominated to run for the presidency of the United States. Attempting to unpick what is happening to the rhetoric and the substance of politics in late 2016 is like trying to direct traffic in the fast lane of the M1, with Ukippers and Corbynites hurtling towards you from opposite directions and the risk of a Trump-launched US missile screeching overhead.
This is an ambitious book. It seeks to analyse a crisis in the language of politics: the failure of mainstream politicians to communicate with their electorates, and the upheaval created by digital media, which has further disrupted rational policymaking. The sections about the modern world have a refreshing vigour and Thompson’s passions drive him to conclusions that most of us would agree with; he is steadfast about the right to freedom of expression, the importance of investigative journalism and the need for an informed citizenry. However, he views much of this through the prism of history, and his readers experience the shaping of political philosophy through Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes, as well as Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Orwell. He is also uncompromising in his choice of language. One sentence consists of just three words: “Metonymy, prolepsis, maximality.”
Thompson is right to dismiss the myth of a golden age and his delving into the past shows that few things are new in political discourse – though he risks overstating the effects of rhetoric in comparison with the great tides of history. He writes approvingly of the view that it is “when public language fails and collective deliberation is no longer possible that the wider culture goes south and the institutions of politics and the state begin to spiral down”. But this leads him to recount an anecdote from the English Civil War about a seditious pamphlet being thrown at the king – exemplifying innovation in media – yet not consider Oliver Cromwell’s words and deeds. The broader question is which came first: the economic and social context of the conflict, or the polarisation and debasement of language?
The book is at its most persuasive when it grapples with the dilemmas of our time. There is a sparkling passage on the impact of digital technology, which has promoted “the language of unbridled hatred”, and Thompson skilfully uses health policy from the right and left – Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill in the UK and Barack Obama’s changes to the US health-care system – to show how the language of opposition can hinder attempts at reform. Privatisation and “death panels” were part of neither plan but those were the ideas that gained traction with the public, and the detail was irretrievably lost. Generally, he observes, “It is less that the policy centre ground has disappeared than that the zone of ambiguity and flexibility – that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically insupportable.”
Thompson diagnoses the problems provocatively and well, but his solutions are less clear. Partly this is because, for all the interesting theory, he remains a journalist who is uncomfortable with conformity. So, for instance, he won’t quite hook himself to the argument that “settled” science should never be challenged and opponents denied airtime, and he is aware that expert opinion can clash with politics in a way that is tricky for a public broadcaster: “In the real world of quotidian live media, the challenge of segregating science and policy debate is borderline impossible.”
I suspect that he is hampered by two more things. His current job would make it seem self-serving to promote his newspaper too much, even though the New York Times is one of the beacons of world journalism and we need more of its spirit to infuse the media of the future as it has done in print. And because of his former role at the BBC, he has to avoid trying to tell the bosses in Broadcasting House what to do, which prevents him from offering certain prescriptions for a better public discourse.
The need for this is brought most sharply into focus by Brexit, which is reflected in the book in late amendments. If staying in the EU was the rational thing to do in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of experts and our elected representatives, how was it that the public took such a different view? It may merely prove that the author’s instincts were correct when he set out on this project, and demonstrate that the collapse of trust has become even more acute. But we contribute billions of pounds a year to the BBC as a public-service broadcaster, one that Thompson describes as a “bulwark of modern civilisation”, and it remains dominant in the broadcast news market.
As Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote recently in the Times, there is an urgency to resolving how much the responsible media should drive home the facts – even if these facts are in opposition to a political platform. Thompson writes proudly of his role in rebooting the BBC’s journalism in the 1980s under John Birt, and it is impossible to avoid wondering whether there should not be a similar reappraisal now, after the corporation’s curiously robotic EU referendum coverage.
And that is the itch left by this book. Thompson argues, “We are living through a long war for freedom of expression and it is going badly,” and he questions whether “old-fashioned journalism” can survive or, indeed, if it deserves to do so. Yet, having found the language to describe the intensity of the crisis, what is he going to do about it – and how can we collectively take action – before it’s too late?
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive
Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? by Mark Thompson is published by Bodley Head (384pp, £17)
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers