15th April 2010
The main three political party leaders in Britain did the first televised debate here on Thursday 15th April, standing behind lecterns. It was dull fare, but something you felt you should watch as a civic duty. To keep interest, I decided to focus on their presentation skills rather than content. In Handshake, we did a unit on the 1960 Kennedy / Nixon TV debates in America which created the politicians’ handbook. They adhered to it, all wearing similar dark suits and plain white shirts. I thought for a moment they had been dressed by ITV to help us distinguish them. Nick Clegg wore a tie in Liberal-Democrat yellow, David Cameron wore a blue tie, just on the lighter side of medium-blue for the Conservatives. Gordon Brown represented (New?) Labour with a deep rose pink rather than red. Even the variation from base party colours was significant.
The polls after the debate put Nick Clegg first, David Cameron second and Gordon Brown third. What they said hadn’t differed much, but both Cameron and Brown had grimaced when the other one was talking. Neither of them are particularly good-looking guys (well, they’re no Kennedy or Clinton or Obama), and facial contortion doesn’t help. There was also an interesting use of names.
In Britain in the last two decades a doctor, dentist, bank manager or lawyer will address you by your first name. My current doctor, lawyer and bank manager all addressed me as “Peter” at the initial meeting.
I find Americans prefer “Mr Viney” until it is made clear that we’re on first name terms, and will still then refer to me as “Mr Viney” to third parties. In a British office the host might ask someone to “Bring Peter a coffee” while in US offices it’s “Bring Mr Viney a coffee.” On the net (as an enthusiastic user of music sites) I find British correspondents refer to “Peter’s last posting” while Americans often refer to “Viney’s last posting” which I think is an academic influence, as in a scholarly article. In British English in a non academic situation it sounds very abrupt (= bloody rude). Recently there were letters to newspapers complaining about hospital informality to elderly patients in Britain, who felt uncomfortable with doctors and nurses automatically addressing them by their first names. If you’re eighty, having a twenty year old saying, “Now, Doris, have you had a bowel movement, luv?” makes you feel ninety by infantilizing you.
It also removes some of the necessary medical mystique. British surgeons still like to wear dark blue pinstriped suits, unlike American surgeons who prefer green “scrubs” (as in the TV series ER). The British preference for pinstriped suits is said to be a factor in spreading MRSA in hospital, as surgeons’ ties were found to be full of nasty bugs. But, they say, formality gives patients confidence.
So what happened in our British TV debate? Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown referred to each other constantly as “David” and “Gordon.” This subliminally reinforced the public perception that all politicians are much the same, and that they’re members of a club we’re not admitted to. Public regard for politicians is at an all-time low following the expenses scandals of the last year.
On names, Nick Clegg did the first name too, but he also used “Mr Brown” and “Gordon Brown” and “David Cameron” rather than just “David” or “Gordon”. This distanced him from the “club” which was a sensible move. Had I been either Brown or Cameron, in such an adversarial situation, I would have used “Mr” too. It’s not a question of respect (though both hold high office) but a question of not appearing to be all pals together. In retrospect, “Gordon Brown” is the best one to use, as it lacks the forelock-tugging deference of “Mr Brown” but also avoids the “we’re all good pals outside of work” of “Gordon.”
The second debate, 22nd April 2010
“The three leaders began by calling each other by their first names, but as the debate developed Mr Clegg in particular started calling his rivals by their full names when he addressed them.” (BBC online news)
The debate was scored immediately afterwards by SKY NEWS (who hosted it) as Cameron – 36 / Clegg-32 / Brown – 29 . Twenty minutes later the BBC were scoring it as 30 / 30 / 30. One could add that SKY is part pf the Murdoch Empire who are supporting Cameron. On the other hand, none of the people in the room with me saw it the BBC’s way, and I wouldn’t argue the gaps but suspect that in communication skills terms, SKY got it about right. I’m not commenting on content at all. I thought Brown was trailing all the way through, but bounced back somewhat with a strong closing statement.
This is what the morning newspapers thought:
1) The Sun, (tabloid, Murdoch-owned, Conservative supporter):
They celebrated by having their page 3 topless model wear a bikini bottom with a sequined St George’s English flag. April 23rd is St. George’s Day.
2) The Times (Murdoch-owned but more serious)
When I picked it up I glanced at the back page first and saw the headline City warned off bid for Torres, and misread it. I thought the City of London was making a bid for the Tories (Conservatives), but in fact it was Manchester City FC attempting to buy the Spanish striker Torres from Liverpool FC.
Anyway, The Times scored it differently to their tabloid stablemate, though the plus and minus comparisons to the week before certainly favour Cameron.
2) The Daily Mirror (tabloid, fervent Labour supporter)
The Daily Mirror saw it completely differently to the other papers. Under the headline ONE FOOT IN THE DAVE (based on the expression and popular TV comedy “One Foot In The Grave”), no, it’s not funny, but the Daily Mirror only deals in awful punning headlines.
So they placed Cameron (or “Cam”) third and thought that “Gord” (the prime minister) had won. But with their running header “Don’t get Conned” on every page of news coverage, with Cameron’s face replacing the O, they are sloganeering, not reporting. They did a seperate sartorial chart “How They Looked” which at least put Cameron first, Clegg second and Brown third. The “RATING” beside is the Mirror’s overall view.
4) The Daily Express (fervent Conservative)
The Daily Express quoted the same poll by YouGov as The Sun (36 / 32 / 29) and had the headline:
I’m not alone in following the communication skills. The Daily Express had Jo Hemmings, a body language expert, noting the eye contact, gestures and voice control of all three candidates.
To my eyes, Brown has unfortunate grimaces when he thinks he’s smiling, which come over badly when the floor producer cuts the camera to him while someone else is talking. The others try to watch the speaker with a serious look on their faces. Brown tends to look down, shake his head or grimace and the producer had realized that and let us see it.
John Humphries on BBC Radio Four in the morning did his full rottweiler on the Lib Dem’s Chris Huhne which was entertaining, even if Huhne fended him off better than most politicians do. The communications skill of reiteration was extended beyond any sensible place by both of them. The Lib Dems love of people with weird name spellings extends from previous leader Menzies Campbell, who pronounced his first name “Mingus” to Mr Huhne. I don’t believe that Mr Campbell’s choice was a tribute to the great American jazz bass player, Charles Mingus. That’s a shame.
On the names, which is the point here, Clegg was consistent in using the full names David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Brown was consistent in using Nick and David, and also used them a little too often. Cameron seemed as if he’d been told to use Gordon Brown rather than Gordon, and largely did, in spite of his surprised “I agree with Gordon” over nuclear weapons. Noticeably, Cameron used “Gordon Brown” but then “Nick”. I wondered if that was deliberate. It gives the impression of patronizing rather than friendship when used that way round. I thought Brown’s constant use of Nick and David made him look like a headmaster talking about bright but errant sixth formers, and reinforced the fact that he’s older than the other two. The possible plus for him is playing on his “experience”, the negative is that it reinforces the “old politician / time for a change” feeling.
Clothes? Clegg stuck to the yellow / gold tie. Cameron had switched from blue to a royal purple (and kept reinforcing If I was your Prime Minister … I didn’t transcribe it and that’s how BBC Radio Four reported it the next day. I couldn’t watch it again even if you paid me, but maybe someone could check whether it was “If I was …” or “If I were …” . Language has shifted towards “If I was “ and it had not struck me before that “If I was …” sounds less “conditional” and therefore tentative than “If I were …”.
Brown had switched to red with appropriate spots (moving left).
The Third Debate, 29th April 2010
As ever, this is on communication skills, NOT political comment.
The final debate was much sparkier, the first real “debate”. The names issue first. All three are now thinking about it and coming to different conclusions.
Clothes showed a slight change. Cameron in dark suit and blue tie, Brown trying to gain the middle ground perhaps by combining red and blue and sporting a purple tie. Clegg reverting to the orange of the traditional Liberals rather than the more recent yellow. Clegg was wearing a mid-grey suit, lighter than the others.
Nick Clegg stuck resolutely to David Cameron and Gordon Brown. I ticked off ten ‘David Cameron’ and nine ‘Gordon Brown.’ He also, cleverly, almost always mentioned them in pairs ‘Gordon Brown and David Cameron’, reinforcing his references to ‘the old parties’ by lumping them together.
Gordon Brown never deviated from first names, and tried to ignore Nick Clegg as much as possible. At a rough count he used David 23 times and Nick 8 times. Three things were going on; he was drawing them into his circle of professional politicians, talking down to them and marginalising Clegg.
Cameron had, I think, been told to drop the ‘Gordon.’ He still used it 5 times, but he used Gordon Brown 5 times too. He used ‘The Prime Minister’ seven times, which reinforced his economic point that the economy was in a mess. Brown had been in charge when it became a mess. I only counted a single reference to ‘Nick Clegg.’ Like Brown, Cameron was trying to marginalise him, in spite of having some of the fieriest interchanges with him.
Sticking to communication skills, what else? Brown’s raised shoulders at several points betrayed stress. As in other debates, the BBC were running a select panel who showed their approval or disapproval electronically.There were red, blue and yellow lines which went up or down depending on reaction. Whenever Brown gives that truly horrible smirking smile, the red line dives. If I were his advisor, I don’t know what I’d do to stop him, but like ITV and Sky, the floor producer couldn’t stop themself from cutting to it whenever that dragon’s leer emerges. (Language aside, because Microsoft Word had crashed it had reset itself to autochange grammar. It refused to let me type themself, an inclusive singular used by both Shakespeare and Chaucer!)
Clegg has decided that agreeing with the questioner by name is a good move. He overdid it and virtually wrote a section for our next textbook on agreeing expressions:
Medina, I think you’re absolutely right.
Medina, you are right.
I strongly agree with you, Jean.
I’m totally with you, Randall.
Where’s Randall? Of course you’re right.
We really all must agree with that.
As happens with language, Cameron caught the language virus towards the end and added:
Ian is absolutely right.
I think Jean is absolutely right.
Then Brown caught it too:
Anna’s absolutely right.
In political-speak it seems a modifier should always go with agreement. Absolutely is the favourite, with strongly and totally following on.
The other language virus was Clegg’s almost absurd overuse of the word create. As he can’t pronounce it, it was better avoided. Cameron and Brown started out saying create with two syllables. Clegg sayscrate and crated. Again, by the end, Brown had caught the virus and was saying crate too. Bad move, don’t copy your opponent’s body language or verbal ticks in these debates.
I was pretty busy noting communication skills, but bits of the content did find its way through. They all had a trick which they repeated.
Brown’s was to keep using Same old Conservative / Tory party hoping to revive spectres of the 1980s. He must have used same old half a dozen times. On unemployment Brown talked about people beingforced to and compelled to work. Not a pleasant vision, conjuring up Siberian salt mines, and one which neither Clegg nor Cameron noted.
Clegg’s was the two old parties as well as saying after Brown / Cameron interchanges, Let’s avoid the political point scoring and There they go again.
the right thing
Cameron’s was a reliance, as in the previous two debates, on references to People who do the right thing / People who’ve done the right thing / People who obey the rules / People who play by the rules / People who’ve worked hard all their lives. This was used to refer to savers, immigrants, workers, pensioners. It came across as a smug People like us, but watching analysis of those moving red, blue and yellow approval graphs, it struck a chord.
A further aspect (and I stray dangerously close to content here) was Brown’s constant references to tax credits and inheritance tax. In BBC’s Question Time afterwards Janet Street Porter said she thought she couldn’t take Brown saying ‘tax credits’ ever again. She also said the whole debate was a middle-aged white male event of no appeal to the majority of voters: women.
Inheritance tax was an interesting one because Brown kept saying that the Conservatives planned to scrap (or reduce it) giving huge sums to the richest 300 families in the land. He did it seven times. Cameron plain refused to engage. He made a point about people wanting to pass on their houses to their children (having done the right thing, obeyed the rules, worked hard all their lives) and the subsequent viewing of the “approval graph” showed the blue line shooting up. Then he refused to address it again. I thought at the time that this avoidance was a poor move, but the comments on the graph showed afterwards that the audience didn’t like repetition or fierce interchanges, and someone commented that his refusal to engage was wise.
The YouGov poll for The Sun conducted a snap poll straight after the debate and scored it:
Cameron 41% Clegg 32% Brown 25%
This was the front page on 30th April, continuing the tabloid love affair with jokey (unfunny) headlines. This came under the heading” BREAKFAST ELECTION SPECIAL.”
The pro-Labour Daily Mirror had a front page with “New Improved SPIN More Fibs and Froth Than Ever Guaranteed” showing Cameron with a detergent packet. But even they admitted a lead:
More amusingly the Daily Mirror finally found Gordon Brown’s excuse for calling a pensioner a “bigot”, the day before the debate, an act which had commentators attacking him. On Question Time, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond amusingly described how Brown managed to meet a woman who said she had voted Labour all her life, speak to her for a minute and totally alienate her. Apparently, The woman had said of immigrants, “Where are they flocking from?” and Brown misheard the word “flocking” as a well-known swearword. It took 48 hours to think of that one!
The Daily Mail repeated The Sun’s statistics, then listed the eight questions. They gave Cameron a “win” on five, Clegg a “win” on two, and put one as a “draw.”
On the other hand BBC commentators the next morning called it a close thing with no clear winner. Vested interests are at play. The Sun (aka Murdoch / Sky media empire) are supporting the Conservatives and their poll, to my eyes, somewhat exaggerates Cameron’s advantage. The BBC, as public employees, no doubt fear the repayment of favours the Conservatives will owe Sky, to the disadvantage of the BBC, and to my eye are not coming across as totally impartial, but are downplaying Cameron’s advantage. The Sun appear to have the order right in terms of public perception, but I thought the gaps on the night, in straight communication skills terms, were narrower.
The Kennedy / Nixon “rules”
The 1960 first debate between two US Presidential candidates created a precedent for future US elections, although it took half a century for the United Kingdom to follow. The debates in 1960 were studied by communication skills specialists. Interestingly, the TV audience thought Kennedy was better. The radio audience thought either they were equal, or that Nixon had won. Body language and visual appearance was the difference. The rules have been followed ever since. Check them out with the picture of Clegg, Cameron and Brown.
• Kennedy wore a darker suit. Nixon’s suit was light grey.
• Kennedy’s suit was two button. Nixon’s was three button, making him look uptight.
• Nixon looked at Kennedy when he was speaking to him. Kennedy looked straight into the camera, so spoke directly to the TV audience. He appeared to have eye contact with the viewer.
• Nixon sat with his legs straight, arms on the arms of his chair. Kennedy crossed his leg, and held his hands together in a relaxed manner.
• Nixon gestured when he was speaking. Kennedy used far fewer gestures.
• When he was asked a question, Nixon moved his eyes from side to side. He looked dishonest.
• Kennedy looked younger, but also more serious.
Information taken from Handshake, Unit Three, pages 50-51