Clockwise from top left: Tony Blair, Theresa May, George HW Bush, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
Clockwise from top left: Tony Blair, Theresa May, George HW Bush, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama © Getty Images; Bloomberg

Mark Thompson is a man of many parts: for eight years director-general of the BBC, now chief executive of the New York Times Company and, on the evidence of his new book, a great essayist lost to media management. In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? he writes restlessly and compellingly, shaking arguments free of the established wisdom until they reveal their hidden flaws or virtues, and can thus be judged for their fitness to be part of the public debate whose decline he laments.

Among the conclusions Thompson has drawn is that “rhetorical rationalism”, his phrase for the discourse of scientists and officials, is now under sustained attack and is failing, in crucial instances, to convince a public no longer prepared to grant it automatic respect. On the other hand, speech considered “authentic” — by contemporary definition, not that of politicians, journalists and various lobbyists and public relations people — is increasingly scornful of conclusions reached by the scientific-bureaucratic-governing classes.

Looming in the background, inevitably, is “Politics and the English Language”, the influential 1946 essay in which George Orwell made the case for a straightforward public speech purged of Latinate pomposity, academic obscurantism, and half-digested phrases and concepts borrowed from foreign Marxists. It was admirable but only up to a point, Thompson suggests — the caveat pricking a bubble of automatic Orwell reverence that is today one of the few bridges between the British left and right. All that nativist prescription and celebration of plain speaking, in particular, can feel “unexpectedly close to the authenticist agenda of Donald Trump and the other anti-politicians”.

Authenticity, too, is a linguistic construction and, in the hands of populists such as the Republican presidential candidate, a way of obscuring issues that must be clarified in an election campaign. The language of authenticity, as we now hear it every day, is a means of allying with part of the electorate through their grievances, sometimes well founded, and their prejudices; it is a form of language that privileges emotion, claims primacy for personal experience and is deeply dismissive of those in power. Few democratic politicians are entirely free of it: in one sense, it is where the practice of electoral politics inexorably leads. Now, however, in many more hands and mouths than Trump’s, it is a major force.

For an eloquent defence of rational discourse we might look to the American writer and surgeon Atul Gawande, who in a June commencement address at the California Institute of Technology described science as a “commitment to a systematic way of thinking” that “stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense”. The remark echoes Thompson’s central point: what we “know” can be based on a variety of non-rational beliefs. The sun appears to revolve around the earth; a child’s illness can follow an injection; winters are still cold, so what’s with global warming? Thompson’s contention is that the searching, reflection and challenge necessary to get closer to the true nature of things requires a much more demanding public discourse than we have at present.

Yet Galileo was right about the earth and the sun, and the Vatican was wrong. The recoil from injections, especially the MMR vaccine, caused the deaths of children denied them by distrustful mothers. Global warming is measurably happening. Rhetorical rationalists such as Gawande tend to see rejection of scientific evidence as a kind of collective madness, or blame the dysfunctional media. Thompson largely shares that view: he is as much a rhetorical rationalist as any. But in running the world’s leading public service network, he had to grapple — and grapples still in New York while running the business side of the world’s leading general newspaper — with the daily effort of conveying complexity, nuance, doubt and contested facts in ways that inform but do not preach, assert but leave space for revision. He cannot take refuge in a posture that simply says: “These are the proven facts, like them or leave them.” He has to struggle with a world apt to see him as just another brick in a wall of official obscurantism.

The media’s dysfunctionality is structural. They must get audiences — public service broadcasters are increasingly exposed to that imperative — and they seek them, like politicians, in the privileging of emotion and personal experience. During the MMR vaccine debate, in which one rogue and inaccurate article on the dangers of the vaccine led to an insistent press campaign, interventions of “I’m just a mom and I want to keep my baby safe” could have more force than the arguments of the scientific establishment, especially if the latter were obscurely framed or contemptuously delivered.

In one of his many dissections of an anti-scientific consensus position, Thompson takes a statement from the social anthropologist Benny Peiser, director of Global Warming Policy Foundation, a sceptical climate change think-tank. In 2011 Peiser had argued: “Fundamentally these are social, ethical and economic questions that cannot be answered by science alone but require careful consideration by economists and social commentators.” It sounds broad-minded until you realise what the word “fundamentally” implies: as Thompson puts it, “that the layer of policy consideration which addresses social, ethical and economical questions is somehow weightier or more critical than the scientific layer”.

Yet the veracity of the scientific consensus is the determinant of the whole issue: everything else, including the ethical dimension, hinges entirely on it. You either believe that the scientific community, for all its neglect of comprehensible speech, has evolved a trustworthy discipline of verification through robust challenge — or you do not, in which case you must take some time to advance a reasonable case as to why. “I’m just a mom” doesn’t make the cut.

The former director-general criticises those of his former BBC colleagues who insist on absolute balance, even if it goes to the point where a sage must be countered by an idiot. The issue has moved some of those who voted Remain in the June referendum on the UK’s European Union membership, who argue that distinguished economists were given equal time with undistinguished shopkeepers: a complaint that might not have surfaced had the close result been reversed. Thompson wrote too early for that debate, but does argue that once a solid consensus has been reached through thorough testing, this must take precedence in responsible media discussion: as he says, “it would not be impartial, but irresponsible to give a smoking enthusiast equal time with the Chief Medical Officer or Surgeon General”.

He praises the rhetoric used by Tony Blair in the House of Commons to secure the vote on the invasion of Iraq for its generosity in recognising the good intentions of those for and against the ill-fated project. But Thompson notes that the prime minister was sly as well as passionate, shifting to the first-person plural in “we must hold firm”, and points out that, “One way of persuading a reluctant audience to make a painful decision is to convince them that they have essentially already made it . . . The blurring we-government and we-people helps Tony Blair establish this implicit context.”

This is parsing of a high order. Even so, Thompson doesn’t follow through on his consensus point: successive inquiries in the US and the UK, including the sharply critical Chilcot inquiry in July, agree that the two leaders of these states sincerely believed in Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Thompson, silkily, leaves the question open. The many in the UK and the US who insist that the two leaders knew the truth and lied can, as far as he is concerned, still claim equal time.

The continuing demonisation of both George W Bush and Blair for the Iraq debacle is, in large part, the product of another shift: from the view of war as a field of honour and duty to one of futility; from the hymn that proclaims a “love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice” to Wilfred Owen’s “The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” In another limpid passage, Thompson writes: “The grip of this narrative — of lions led by donkeys, of a country betrayed by its political and military elites — only grew with time . . . by the last third of the twentieth century [it] had become normative.”

For the present, idiots can have their day, and their say. The celebs get to be foolish, and to be applauded. In the way of the BBC Nine O’Clock News, which he edited on his way up, Thompson’s “and finally” is upbeat, if a little flat. “Sooner or later a new language of reasonable persuasion should emerge,” he writes. “We just don’t know when. So what can you do in this long uncertain interim? Open your ears. Use your own good judgment.” Readers of this intricately but also urgently argued book will find that judgment improved by its reflections.

Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?, by Mark Thompson, Bodley Head, RRP£25 / St Martin’s Press, RRP$27.95, 384 pages

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and a co-founder of Oxford university’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

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