Literature News

Things we learned about politics from an hour with New York Times CEO Mark Thompson

Malaysian publishing house FIXI sent The Daily Seni over to Scotland to scope out the Edinburgh International Book Festival and other happenings which have traditionally taken place throughout August in the capital city. This is part of a series of reports on arts and culture in Edinburgh.

CLOSING day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is business as usual. Aside from a special four-hour finale from Unbound (the festival’s performing arts program complete with fireworks) and the absence of Amnesty International‘s Imprisoned Writers session, people in folding chairs continue to lie in the sun and the queues still snake around.

But the festival might have quietly saved best for last: it is also the day Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times and former Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), shows up to talk about his latest publication.

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Released today, Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics? takes a look at how political, social and technological changes have altered politics.

During an hour-long session titled Political Bad Language at the Studio Theatre, Thompson’s wealth of experience in news and media saw him successfully tackling questions from moderator Sarfraz Manzoor and a room full of attendees. His findings — accessible despite their complexity — encompasses how politicians have adjusted their gameplay in an age of quick and easy news. They also reveal why many are cynical over Western politics.

Enough Said is a fascinating read with stunning examples of public language and rhetoric from the likes of Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan, written in an engaging and personal manner by one of the world’s most important men. It’s smart, shocking, and full of valuable information about the way the political elite utilise information throughout history.

Although essentially dedicated to Western politics, here are observations gleaned from the talk and Thompson’s new book. As a bonus, we’ve also tacked on several proleptic Malaysian scenarios for your consideration. Enjoy!

There’s a lot of marketing going on

Due to the proliferation of social media in today’s political landscape, there is rapid adaptation of marketing knowledge in political campaigning. Note the shift of focus towards using zingy public language, but have politicians lost track in an effort to get in with the masses? In a world of audience testing and behavioural economics, are we approached with choices for a government the way mobile providers push out their latest services?

Hot now in the United Kingdom is one campaign aimed at pushing a candidate as a “class warrior”: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn took a train and even sat on the floor to prove he’s “one of us” but everything went wrong when the train company released CCTV footage indicating it was a stunt. It seemed that Corbyn deliberately chose to sit on the floor for a photo-op as it wasn’t as “ram-packed” as he made it out to be.


This is an example of authenticism, a phenomenon currently sweeping Western nations in which politicians try their darndest to appear authentic and trustworthy.

Along the way, these authenticists also grow into public speakers or orators, recognised mostly for their rhetoric and personal charm. These fellows cut corners when it comes to policy. They’ve got compressed arguments, terrific soundbites and “phrases to post on Twitter”, displaying a savviness with data and technology.

blog_death_panelsThompson brings up Sarah Palin’s now-discredited term “death panel”, which was used to counter a federal heathcare proposal in the United States.

Evoking vibrantly morbid imagery which put people off her opponent, “death panel” became one of the most popular terms used by the opposition and their supporters in their rejection of Barack Obama‘s America.

Obama had only wanted to insure end-of-life counselling and advance directives (information provided by the patient on what to do with his or her life should he or she no longer be able to make decisions). The opposition and various parts of the media however went on insisting that Obamacare will result in a panel of experts determining whether one’s healthcare support should be called off.

Palin’s term couldn’t have been further from the truth, but people didn’t care: they made such a fuss the idea was scrapped. To this day people still associate the “death panel” with Obamacare.


The downside to these approaches? Expect a lot more ubiquity and rhetoric in the air over coming months as politicians continue copywriting their way into your hearts.

Information keeps you safe and happy

When it comes to national policies, people often only hear of projected gains. Where’s the catch? Leaving out talk of costs or trade-offs puts the nation at risk of instability. Already slapped with unexpected pitfalls, people grow weary and dispirited when they find out they’ve been misled. How often have we heard promises of economic boosts and increased funding without knowing what’s going to be sacrificed for the feast?

A nationwide referendum was held last month to find out if the people thought the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union (EU). The results shocked the world: 51.9% of the 33 million who voted wanted the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (“Brexit”).

There are quarters who believe that those who voted to leave the United Kingdom (“Brexiteers”) did not have complete information about the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. As a result of Brexist, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party resigned (he did not expect people to vote “leave”) and was duly replaced by Theresa May, who also became the first woman to lead the House of Commons since Margaret Thatcher.

Immediately after, voting patterns established a divide between England and Scotland, the economy slumped, research funding was affected, and there were talks about independence for Scotland and the city of London — two regions where large majorities voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. None of these were promised to the Brexiteers.

Thompson also brings to attention the necessity of presenting varying perspectives in news and information media. The people should not be persuaded, but be given the information necessary to strum up their own ideas and conclusions. This can be achieved through exposure to differing opinions, arguments and facts in a case. Everything you should be able to find on the BBC.

As the BBC is aired on every television in the United Kingdom, it has a very wide reach and strong influence. But for this very reason, it is important that the BBC has a civic responsibility in providing unbiased reports from every part of the federation whether Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland or England. The people must know what’s happening across the nation, because it gives them perspective, or a “sense of how everyone else lives”, explains Thompson.

Exercise I

It’s five years in the future and Johor votes for independence. By this point of time the impact has lessened because the Sultan of Johor already sold large chunks of the state’s prime spots to China for whopping sums of money over the years. But you soon find out that if Johor leaves, it would complicate trade with Malaysia and take along a portion of Khazanah Nasional and some of Malaysia’s national debt. Johor votes to leave, and Malaysians across the country are now asked to vote on whether Malaysia should remain in ASEAN. Do you know enough about Malaysia’s ASEAN membership in order to make an informed vote about the matter? Do you recall any point in time hearing about the trade-offs if such a deal should occur? How did Johor’s secession make people weary about ASEAN?

Would we be worse off if Malaysia left ASEAN?
I don’t know

friendship quotes


Can the public handle the truth?

According to Thompson, mistrust in current politics also develop when decisions are made without the public in the loop, or when there’s no “honest grown-up conversation” between policymakers and the masses. Often, politicians fear the talk could lead to negative public reaction or even mass panic. They don’t believe the masses need to hear the full story so they skip the explanation.

But are they ready? Thompson thinks so, recalling a televised announcement in the United Kingdom of the BBC breaking the news on mad cow disease to the people.

During early stages of the epidemic, there was fear that the announcement would lead the public into panic and chaos. In the end, the government chose to be honest with how little information they had on the disease, putting on a “dull-looking scientist” to share the news. “We don’t know,” the scientist began, before going over various possible scenarios involving the outbreak. But nobody panicked, and people went on with their lives.

However in order for more information to appear in the public sphere, the people need to participate. According to Thompson, if the public clarifies what they want, the government will have to follow suit. As explored in our Amnesty International piece, the public plays a pivotal role in making things happen.

A perk of a successful democracy is that the public is empowered enough to organise itself into taking action. In the United Kingdom, a post-Brexit petition for a second referendum collected over four million signatures which meant the issue was brought to parliamentary consideration once again. Though the attempt did not manifest in another referendum (“the public have voted,” insist the Conservative Party), it garnered media attention and was spoken about by Britain’s political elite.

Exercise II

The immigration department are telling us why they’ve decided to ban non-Muslim maids from working in Muslim homes. They also tell us what sort of difficulties to expect from this new change but make sure to emphasise the benefits. Months pass and its election day. Malaysians have grown to understand the stances taken by all parties contesting leadership when it comes to immigration, so now they can vote for how they want their maid agencies to function, among other things. Should it be done any other way? What right does a people-appointed administration have over the lives of the people without any public consultation or even advance information on the matter?

Do you want to be consulted on policy changes affecting immigration?

Survey Maker


Do the public even want the truth?

While politicians are easy to blame, the public cannot be singled out from this breakdown. Thompson argues that the public’s unparalleled access to entertainment in the present era may have something to do with shrinking awareness for current issues. People are increasingly dropping out of the loop. Being informed means reading and seeking credible information and opinions, which frankly seems like a lot of trouble when Youtube is just several taps away on your smart phone.

Take for instance reports of deliberate misrepresentation of facts and figures from the Brexiteer’s Vote Leave campaign. The Conservative Party‘s Boris Johnson went as far as to claim that leaving the European Union would save the British over £350 million each week, a sum which can be reinvested in the National Health Service instead. The false assertion spread far and wide — there were buses with the slogan and everything — and was only debunked weeks before the referendum.

The politicians dropped the claim once people start to realise the figures were misrepresented, but was it too late to sway people into voting leave?


Now that it’s all gone wrong, there’s still hope: building upon dissatisfaction for the current regime is an effective way to unite and mobilise people into taking action, notes Thompson. But there’s a limit. “If you’re constantly injecting dispassion into the room, you might not end up with passionate audiences,” he tells the crowd.

Now there’s such a thing as “post-truth”

We giggled when we first heard it, but post-truth politics is a real thing and it’s happening right now across the United States and the United Kingdom. Defining characteristics include pandering to feelings rather than policy detail and making use of repetition to assert talking points. Post-truth politicians are less interested in factual arguments or evidences against them; they’re orators seeking a well-received performance. Thompson offers a prime example: Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Trump’s ability to secure a loyal base of supporters — there’s still a healthy chance he could be the next president of the United States — stems from his ability to secure those who have grown weary of the “elites”, or the ruling class. He does this not by painting himself as an intelligent administrator, but through button-pushing rhetoric.


Know how Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton prepares for debates? According to NY Magazine, she is working with a team of psychologists and the ghostwriter of Trump’s own autobiography to identify Trump’s weak points forensic-style. Once she’s put together her master plan, she will practice debating with some illustrious friends including billionaire Mark Cuban and New York congressman Joseph Crowley. Trump meanwhile meets up with good pals Rudy Giuliani and Laura Ingraham on Sundays at his own New Jersey golf course to discuss zingers over a round of “cheeseburgers, hot dogs and glasses of Coca-Cola”.

Not saying any one of them is doing better than the other but Trump clearly isn’t a fan of facts and debates. This reality-television star turned presidential nominee doesn’t think those are going to help convince people he should be president, which might say more about the times we live in than his intelligence. After all, opinion polls show that Trump has narrowed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton‘s lead.

Exercise III

It’s election year again. There’s a very outdated ruling party which has grown stagnant and out of touch, and a clutter of dissenters whose only merit is to offer an alternative to the only thing you’ve ever had. But suddenly, there’s another option. Young people start getting together. They elect Sharifah Amani as their representative. She gets on every paper and becomes a candidate. Who do you vote for?

Who will you trust to lead the nation?
Ruling coalition
Sharifah Amani

Poll Maker


But hey, there are countries with real repression

Towards the end of his session, Thompson brings up how the rest of the world perceives the Western political situation. Painted by the media to seem worse than countries without basic understanding of freedom and human rights such as Russia and China, influential nations like the United States, France and Italy have often been ridiculed by “observer” nations. He defines these observers as countries lying on the middle of the spectrum of democracy and repression.

The distaste could stem from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led by the United States, based on the notion that President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction lying about. Saddam was deposed but the sudden loss of his oppressive dictatorship freed various minorities within the country to pursue war with one another. In fact, many believe the horrors of today is a result of the invasion. With that kind of poor judgement from presidents of worldwide superpowers namely George Bush and Tony Blair, down the drain went the Western world’s reputation.

But at the end of the day, isn’t it still better to be able to have all the opportunities in a free country? After all, you’re not permitted to have more than two kids in China, and it is illegal to share faith anywhere outside a registered church in Russia.

Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics? is out now via The Bodley Head. But for more information on the Edinburgh Book Festival, make sure to head to the official site and Facebook! Featured image via DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

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