Mark Thompson (Merton, 1976), former director general of the BBC, was elected as the University’s first Professor in Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion earlier this year, a position created in honour of the late Philip Gould. The post saw Thompson deliver a series of lectures in the first week of November which analysed the language of political debate, just days before he assumed his new role as Chief Executive of the New York Times — and you can listen to his views here.
His inaugural lecture set the tone of the series perfectly, kicking off as it did with an incendiary example of the way media coverage can change both the course of politics and law — and not necessarily for the better. In this case it was the brutal one-two of Betsy McCaughey and Sarah Palin in the US, who together shot down aspects of the Obamacare health legislation despite their claims and reasoning being false, but similar stories pervade our society.
Of course, such effects aren’t random. Far from it, in fact: they’re carefully choreographed rhetorical battles, fought with finely crafted sentences, faultless timing and more than a little recourse to generating sound bites over substantive argument.
Which is why Mark Thompson set off in search of a culprit. In this series of lectures, then, you can hear him develop a fine argument, based around the fact that our changing language is to blame. As he explained in his first lecture:
“I’m going to argue that the public language which most people actually hear and are influenced by, is changing in ways which make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation. Far from diminishing incomprehension and distrust, it often increases them.
What followed was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a finely crafted and compelling argument. For the most part his thesis was nothing short of watertight, though it did on occasion appear overly simplistic — especially when he ventured into the digital realm. That said, the series touches on many of the fundamental questions the media and greater public must face up to, which makes it a worthwhile listen regardless of whether you buy Thompson’s take.