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Blockbuster Bill: Clinton's speech to the Democratic Convention was watched by more people than the NFL's season kick-off game

 

Our politicians have stopped talking to us. They talk instead among themselves. Words are the most powerful weapon at their disposal, yet they employ them so evasively that no normal person could wish to listen to what they have to say. Our political class conducts its disputes like the worst kind of academic: the sort who uses the English language in such an opaque, tedious and self-regarding manner that only those whose careers depend on it can be bothered to follow what is being said.

A case can be made for allowing parliamentarians to address other parliamentarians without having to worry how their words will sound to the man or woman in the Dog and Duck. William Windham made it in 1798, when Britain was at war with France. According to Windham, Secretary at War, parliamentary reporting was "an evil in its nature" and was to blame for the naval mutiny in 1797. He contended that "newspaper writers were not the best judges of political affairs" and observed that newspapers "were carried everywhere, read everywhere, by persons of very inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least of all accustomed to reflection, to any great mental efforts".

Windham warned that if parliamentary reporting were allowed, it would have the effect "of changing the present form of government, and of making it democratical". This is what happened: the story is well told by Andrew Sparrow in Obscure Scribblers, his history of parliamentary journalism (2003). As early as 1828, Macaulay noted that "the gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm."

But in the 1990s, Sparrow relates, "newspapers abandoned the custom of employing gallery reporters to provide a straightforward record of what was said in the House, a form of journalism that had survived more or less unchanged since the 1770s." People of a conservative disposition were distressed by this change, but few of them imagined there was anything to be done about it. Nor was there much discussion of why a straightforward record of what our politicians said was no longer of interest.

The gallery still contains five sketchwriters (of whom I was until recently one): parliamentary proceedings are considered just about tolerable if leavened by the laboured witticisms of irreverent observers. But editors no longer detect an appetite among their readers for the quotation of more than a few words of what a politician has actually said. Nor do the politicians think, when composing an extended text, of how to engage the interest of the widest possible audience. After all, a mass of unreadable verbiage can still gain wide coverage if it contains a single phrase, or soundbite, which is considered new.

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