Thursday, 28 August 2008

Wot not to say

Brian Cathcart continues to write a brilliant column on the media for the New Statesman. This week he analyses the so-called codes used by politicians and the proclaimed ability of political journalists to decode them, including drawing inferences from what politicians don't say:

The theory is that, because political correspondents know what politicians should say in any given circumstance, they are instantly alert when one fails to do so. And having identified a point of deviance, these correspondents are able to construe, from unnamed sources or circumstantial evidence, the true intention behind it - a signal or manoeuvre the ordinary reader would otherwise miss.

In short, these people know the meanings of the things that politicians don't say. So, for example, when David Miliband did not mention Gordon Brown in his Guardian article a few weeks ago, and went on not to swear undying loyalty to Brown in a subsequent press conference, he was obviously launching a leadership bid.

And his intentions were all the more transparent, we are told, because Miliband also knows the codes. Since he knew that reporters would construe what he didn't say in the way they did, it follows that he must have not said it deliberately because he wanted it construed that way. QED.

Of course, politicians and their spin doctors also tell journalists how to interpret what they do or don't say - like when Tony Blair didn't have the guts to tell the Labour conference that he would re-write Clause 4 but Alastair Campbell told the media that this was what he meant.

In the same column, Cathcart takes issue with Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph, on Gary Glitter: "Most rational people would find it quite acceptable if he were to be taken out and shot in the back of the head."

Cathcart observes:
no matter how much the Telegraph comment pages try to be modern or intellectual - and there have been heroic strivings down the years - somehow they can't quite shake off the attitudes and tone of the officer's mess, circa 1937.
This puts into a nutshell what I have been trying to say about the Telegraph lately. Shame about the misplaced apostrophe.

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