Our politicians still haven’t got the message about their use of jargon

Nobody outside of politics talks about policies. It’s an insider term. It makes viewers switch off, writes Terry Prone

Our politicians still haven’t got the message about their use of jargon

Nobody outside of politics talks about policies. It’s an insider term. It makes viewers switch off, writes Terry Prone

COMING up to the 1977 general election, things were a bit ropey in Fianna Fáil. Charlie Haughey had been brought back into the fold as the arms trial scandal faded a bit and was now in charge of the health portfolio, which wasn’t a bad gig, back in the day before the Department of Health became Angola. But many within Fianna Fáil were furious at leader Jack Lynch for bringing him back and felt (rightly) threatened by the appalling vista it opened up.

In the middle of all this, a phone call came to our house for Tom Savage, a journalist and communications lecturer, and my husband. Would he go in to Fianna Fáil HQ pronto to discuss the party political broadcast?

Savage went in to Mount St and was handed a draft script which was due to be spoken by Lynch. It was a policy statement constructed in such conceptual, abstract, and public-administration terms that even he — and he was clever — had to read it three times before he fully grasped it. At which point Lynch arrived and they shook hands.

“What the hell does this mean?” Savage asked, reading aloud one of the denser sentences in the script. The Fianna Fáil leader explained the problem the script related to. Described the misery the problem inflicted on a typical family. Outlined what his party was going to do to solve it. And stopped.

Savage looked at him in silence for a minute, then quietly tore up the script.

“What you’ve just said is what you’re going to say in the party political,” he told Lynch.

“And we’ll have no mention of policies. Nobody outside of politics talks about policies. It’s an insider term. It makes viewers switch off.”

Someone at the table indicated that filming would happen in an RTÉ studio at a particular time, and Savage said no it wouldn’t — that a cameraman (they were all male at the time) could film Lynch talking out the window of his shiny black car in the RTÉ car park and that the car could drive off when he hit the last full stop. RTÉ raised no problems, perhaps because nobody had ever done a party political broadcast with movement in it before and, even if clunky, it would be a quantum leap forward, in TV terms.

Lynch nailed it without a script on the first take. The car drove off and everybody signalled keep going, keep going. The one oddity in that party political broadcast was Haughey, who, at that time, was just about talking to those at the top of Fianna Fáil but trusted them not at all. So when someone told him an outside expert had said CJ’s bit of the party political broadcast shouldn’t be filmed in an RTÉ studio and shouldn’t have him reading off the teleprompter, he balked. He believed he was good at the teleprompter. (He wasn’t.) He believed the script was perfect. (It wasn’t, for the reasons already outlined.) He thought the late-proposed changes were a conspiracy to do him down. (They weren’t. Rather, they were an effort to improve his performance.) The rest of the crew shrugged. If CJ wanted to look ridiculous in a two-minute slot right in the middle of a five-minute broadcast, so be it. If he opted to be a talking head listing off policies in a droning monologue in the middle of an otherwise slick, modern piece of TV, that was his problem. It would have the unsought end result of making Lynch look better. And that’s what happened.

The question has to be asked why, more than 40 years later, despite decades of media training and the proliferation of media platforms, politicians still revert, in general elections, to talking about policies in conceptual and statistical terms. It’s OK for back-room boys to develop policies. That’s what the constituency experts and legal eagles of every political party do. But nobody ever got elected on policies, because nobody other than politicians, lobbyists, and journalists read policy manifestos in bed at night.

I have a personal punctuality policy. It works like this. When I’m meeting a client, I aim to get to the meeting place at least 15 minutes beforehand. But I don’t tell my clients I have a robust punctuality policy, mainly because my clients would head for the hills if I did. Why should they care? And what consolation would my policy be to them the day I get a puncture and turn up 20 minutes late?

Policies are the detailed plans for what you’re going to do. No more, no less than that. They’re the under-the-bonnet stuff. They should stay under the bonnet, because when they come into public discourse, they distance the voter from the truth. “Our policy is better articulated/costed than their policy,” is a statement that makes its owner feel good and conveys nothing to non-politicians. This isn’t a college debate, lads and lassies. This is a job interview. A multiple job interview, in which you have to prove you understand where we’re at, “we” being your potential employer. That tends to get lost when canvassing majors on proving points and making spiels. Just listening and feeding back your comprehension of the issue is seen by the human in front of you as amazingly good communication. And rare. So rare.

Talking about stuff like “policy development”, on the other hand, is just jargon, says Dr Inez Bailey, chief executive of the National Adult Literacy Agency (Nala), and “while political jargon allows politicians to talk about issues in a quicker, coded way, it can also act as a real barrier for people accessing information”.

NALA last week actually produced a guide to help voters understand what their politicians are saying. Nala believes politics is awash with terms and phrases that are beloved of commentators and politicians alike, while effectively excluding the citizen. They’re right. Politicians, in this election, aren’t just talking boringly about policies. They’re using jargon when what they should be doing is painting pictures, offering illustrative examples and explaining what’s going to be different and better if they get elected. They should, in short, talk like the people of Ireland talk: Vividly, memorably, and understandably. The politicians who do that greatly improve their chances of election. Even if they haven’t a ghostly guardian angel working them from behind.

I’m sorry if that last sentence confused you, but I can’t find a better way to describe the posters in my local constituency, which show a candidate — male — in front of a ghostly guardian angel-like figure. The ghost is Clare Daly. She was the one who got a better-paying gig out in Europe and buzzed off with herself. All that’s left of her is a spectral presence on yer man’s poster. It’s not clear why she’s there. Perhaps he thinks we’ll vote for him out of grief over losing her.

Or, who knows, maybe she whispers policies to him…

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