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Friday, July 10, 2009

Politicians and twitter

I have been asked to go on 'Good Morning Wales' tomorrow to talk about the use politicians make of twitter following an item in the Western Mail in which a senior academic suggested that keeping our remarks to 140 characters or less would be a good discipline and help us cut back on waffle and jargon.

David Crystal, professor of linguistics at Bangor University, was giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee, which is investigating the spread of jargon into political discourse. They have cited numerous examples of largely meaningless phrases commonly used by politicians, including “best practice”, “stakeholder engagement” and “core values”.

Prof Crystal added: “All groups have their jargon. It’s when that jargon becomes opaque to the outsider, when the people say it isn’t enough just to talk to each other, you have to talk to the outside world and they forget the demands of the audience, that’s when it becomes tricky.”

The committee’s inquiry was prompted after one of its members, Newport West MP Paul Flynn, was confronted by a sentence in an official document consisting entirely of acronyms.

As part of its investigation the committee is looking at an apparent paradox – official forms and letters to the public have become better and clearer over the decades, while the language used by politicians and civil servants has become more oblique.

Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP turned parliamentary sketch-writer and broadcaster, told the MPs: “The public are not fooled by this sort of thing. The new vice is the attempt to talk in a kind of falsely simple language – ‘vision’ and ‘passion’ and ‘core values’ and ‘level playing fields’ and the rest, which the public instantly recognise as public service-speak.

“I don’t think the public are fooled.”

What to say? Twitter is just a tool and no matter how many words you restrict a politician too they will use appropriate phrases to get their point across. That is because communication is the essence of politics and if it involves creating new word combinations to get a particular message across then that is what will be done.

Thus the decade-long emphasis on 'working families' to imply that the Labour Government is on the side of 'ordinary decent folk' presumably at the cost of the unemployed, the disabled and anybody else who does not have work, is a good example of a simple phrase designed to spin a myth or a story and generate support.

This is not 'public service speak' as Matthew Parris states, it is part of our political discourse and it can all be contained in a Twitter message. Politicians already have the discipline that Twitter allegedly offers. Irrespective of the medium neither they or government will give up the jargon, because it is intricately linked to their work.

The value that the social networking site offers is not the ability to be succinct but the opportunity to communicate with a different constituency. As ever the language used will be adapted to meet the needs of those who will read our messages. That is the nature of the business.
Sorry Peter - have to disagree. I thought the same as you when I was part of the elected member arena. Since leaving and returning to 'normal' life I have realised just how the language used is really inward looking and in many ways opaque to the man on the Clapham omnibus - or the man on the Swansea bendy bus. I now wince whenever I hear the term 'engage' - it has become over-used, tired and anyone who uses it is already out of touch. As for politicians already having the dsicipline that twitter puts on you - it brought the first smile to my face today.
I am no disputing that the language is inward looking Sam, in fact from the example I gave I was trying to acknowledge that this was the case. However, there are two different forms of language, that used by politicians to communicate with the electorate and that used in the act of governance. There is clearly a case to reform both especially the latter which is divisive and exclusive, however all politicians are communicators or they would be no good at their job. That means that in theory they can use all media including Twitter. Twitter is not a discipline as suggested by David Crystal is is a means of communication. There is a difference.
Limiting your waffle is good practice, but never underestimate the ability of the politician or civil-servant to descend into PR-speak regardless of space constraints ;)
Many want to be politically engaged beyond a superficial level, but don't feel comfortable joining a party. If you are not a party member you are treated as 2nd class. Twitter just makes it easier to be engage in superficial communication. The intent behind the communication is the really important factor. The enforced distance is why many of us don't become party aligned in the 1st place.
Perhaps the fact that I did not understand the point you were making is a communications issue :-)
I am all for effective communication - and it is a noble goal. However, the internet itself started off that way and has now got sunk in a deluge of trivia and junk. I think the goal should therefore be 'effective' communication. If twitter helps with that - I am all for it. But just look at the rubbish that turns up on Facebook and you can see that people use it as an alternative to really communicating with fellow human beings. It is incredibely superficial - and people really think that they are communicating! OK - rant over - back to Facebook :-)
"Governance"! There's a good example of the sort of BS we're taliking about. What the f*ck is "governance"? How is it different from government or administration? It's a word designed to make those who say they're doing it feel more important and to obscure by those who use it.
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