A soundbite obsessed political class and the sharing culture of social media have increased public suspicions that news is simply a manufactured PR process.
Those who think the mainstream media is becoming increasingly devoid of spontaneity or genuine engagement only have to point to Ed Miliband’s ‘These Strikes Are Wrong’ interview as evidence that our news culture has mutated into a platform where people deliver one way PR
messages and ignore difficult questions.
Throw in a few high profile media scandals and satirical TV shows such as The Thick of It and 2012 and everyone could be forgiven for thinking that there is no genuine authenticity to be found in our news media.
As media trainers, we are often challenged by people who think we spend our days teaching people how to be slick (at best), or worse to lie and dodge difficult questions. For me, this recently came to a head when I sat next to a moral philosopher at a wedding who asked me how I felt teaching people to lie, obfuscate and avoid engaging on the substance of an issue.
Most media trainers I know would laugh at the idea that this is what we spend our days doing. If anything, we spend our time trying to get clients to be more concrete and colloquial about their work and why it matters. When we start working with new clients they usually hit us with a barrage of technical language (jargon), abstractions and assertions, most of which we have to spend the session unpicking and making meaningful and trustworthy for a non-expert audience (i.e. most of the rest of the world).
Moans about the corrosive effect of imprecise language are nothing new. In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell complained that:
‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
Arguably, Orwell was writing at at a time when more was at stake politically than it is now. But his words have lost none of their appeal for those of us who care about the function and importance of clear communication in modern society.
As I write, Gus O’Donnell, formerly Britain’s most senior civil servant, has just commented that Mark Carney, the newly appointed Bank of England Governor, will make an excellent chief because he is an unusual economist who ‘can speak in plain English’. Carney’s job will be hard enough without having to explain the Bank’s message to the wider public. He – and we – will be fortunate if he manages to do both in a way that are clear, credible and comprehensible to all.