by Mark Thompson, Bodley Head, £25
Mark Thompson, former director-general of the BBC and now CEO of the New York Times, has written a scholarly and thoughtful enquiry into, as the subtitle puts it, “What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics”. It is a critical subject and a question that involves us all. Listening to and observing political discourse today, we uneasily sense the truth of the question raised, even if we don’t know the cause.
Thompson, a Catholic educated at Stonyhurst and Oxford, explains that his book arose out of three lectures he gave at St Peter’s College, Oxford, in 2012 on rhetoric, which he defines as “the study of the theory and practice of public language”. Referring to the huge gap between the general public and the “elite” shown by the passionate divide on the EU referendum and the rise of extreme left and right-wing parties in Britain and Europe, Thompson wonders who is to blame for the cacophony of voices we hear all around us. Is it politicians, who surround themselves with spin doctors; the media with its relentless 24-hour coverage and commentary; or the public, mistrustful of what it is told and with its own instant expertise garnered from the internet?
Thompson’s Jesuit education, with its traditional classroom divisions of “grammar”, “syntax” and “rhetoric”, naturally leads him to study Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric. Analysing the classical elements of rhetoric, such as ethos, pathos and exaggeration, he demonstrates how little its fundamentals “have changed over the years”.
He looks at some great public speeches, such as Margaret Thatcher’s “The lady’s not for turning” and Ronald Reagan addressing Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, as well as Churchill’s magnificent wartime rhetoric and Hitler’s own brand of effective but baleful communication. He also discusses Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, reminding us that even then, according to Orwell, public language had become stale, pretentious, confusing and vague. Clearly there is nothing new under the sun.
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