Do you catch my meaning?

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Victorian Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
Victorian Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone

This is an article by Paula Keaveney

When the great Victorian Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone spoke to crowds, there were no sound systems.

If you were at the back, behind a great mass of people, you couldn’t catch the words from the platform.

Keen to make sure people did get the message though, the Victorians used “shouters”.

Someone with a loud voice would stand near enough to hear and then turn round and shout the message, possibly abbreviated, to those behind.

Political speeches in those days could go on for hours. And people would want to hear them.

But it’s not the length of the speech or the interest of the crowd that surprises in this example. It is the trust placed in the “shouters” to get it right.

Imagine a high profile politician today trusting just anyone to relay her words without any checking of tone, or content, or accuracy. It just wouldn’t happen.

The politician would certainly want to check over what is passed on. Could the message be misunderstood (deliberately or otherwise)? Could it offend a particular group who will then object? Could it be used for mischief making? Could it be taken out of context?

Risk reduces substance

There is so much risk in political communication now that despite the acres of print and the hours of broadcast, not a lot is being said.

Or rather, not a lot of substance is being said.

And that’s a pity because the key political issues are complex and solutions can only really be explored through complex discussion and explanation.

The problem is that complexity and nuance doesn’t lend itself to the 20 second soundbite or the 140 character Tweet.

And even in longer articles, a politician has to be constantly aware of the sentence that could be taken out of context.

And all this risk avoidance can make political communications both dull and meaningless.

To see how difficult it is to do complicated politics in sound bite fashion, let’s take the knotty issue of immigration.

It’s clearly hugely complicated. There is asylum policy (partly governed by an international definition), immigration in general (partly affected by a raft of EU rules and by Britain’s colonial past), immigration to study (affected by another set of circumstances).

There is the need of employers for workers who sometimes come from overseas. There are the opinions of residents who may distrust or actively dislike incomers. There are the public services that can only cope with a certain number of people. There are churches which welcome new worshippers.

Discussing immigration properly involves acknowledging all the various needs, fears, desires and so on.

It involves understanding and acknowledging history as well as understanding the international situation. It involves taking care not to stray into unsupported sweeping statements about any or all groups.

During the last few elections, it was highly unlikely that a voter would ask a question on this topic. I was a candidate at each of the General Elections from 1997 onwards and I can honestly say the only contact I had on this was from an asylum charity asking policy questions. Now however, politicians expect this to come up.

So the sound bites emerge.

We are told there is a need for a “firm but fair immigration policy”. As a statement this is spectacularly meaningless. What does “firm” mean? What exactly does “fair” mean. Given that this particular sentence could be uttered by a politician from just about any political party, it tells us nothing.

William Ewart Gladstone would have explained what he meant. He may well have taken a good hour or so do make that explanation, but he would have done it.

We tend to think that the Victorians, not having computers, or the internet, or Twitter, or TV and radio, were slow. But at least they were clear.

Today we are fast, but opaque.

I would like to believe that our political culture will mature enough so that lengthy, nuanced, difficult explanations are met with real questions. Here’s hoping!

Paula Keaveney is a Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics at Edge Hill University. She is a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate.