Saying nothing in so many ways

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Sometime yesterday morning between 7 and 8, while I was still half-awake, I heard Peter Lilley in my bedroom. He was on the radio, being interviewed about the Child Support Agency and various changes to it which he might or might not announce thatafternoon. (Why, incidentally, do news programmes ask politicians to do this? To talk in advance about things they can't talk about? "Tell us, Minister, what are you going to say this afternoon?" "Well, I suggest you wait till this afternoon to find out." Thank you, Minister, for telling us that.")

I was halfway across the floor to the radio, finger poised to ban Peter Lilley from my house, when somebody asked him what he would do about some specific divorce problem, and Peter Lilley (after having said that the interviewer should wait till the afternoon to find out) then said more or less as follows: "I hope we will be seen to have responded positively to this, which is a genuine focus of concern."

"By crikey!" I said as I removed all electrical supplies from the radio. "Another pupil of the Wardour-Street School of Non-Communication!"

My friend Adrian Wardour-Street, doyen of public relations, runs a language instruction class for politicians and communicators. (He once defined "communicator" as someone who uses advanced communication skills to conceal his true thoughts from the listener.) I have sat in on his classes and found his teaching boils down to one burning thought: say nothing, but say it in as many ways as possible.

I went there for a refresher course myself just before Christmas, and found him addressing a class of junior ministers and top backbenchers.

"Always remember that the Government can do very little to change things," said Adrian. "However, it cannot afford to admit that it can do very little. If it did, it would make it look as though it can do very little. The only time the Government does this is when it blames external factors for its failure. Norman Lamont was always going on about a world recession, which he blamed for our recession."

"Was Norman Lamont one of your pupils?" asked someone in the class.

"I am not in the habit of having my pupils removed from office," said Adrian. "Now, the Government can do only three or four things. One, it can say it is worried about something. Two, it can then say it is working out what to do. Three, it can then say it will do something. Finally, it can say it has done something. At no point need it actually do anything, of course. But it cannot go on saying those things over and over again without varying the phrasing."

"How do you mean?" asked one junior minister, thicker than most.

"Well," said Adrian, "try to think of other ways of saying `We are worried about something'. Anyone?"

"This is a subject of concern to us!" shouted someone.

"Excellent", said Adrian. "Anyone else?"

"This is a subject of grave concern!"

"We have identified this as a subject of grave concern!"

"The public is quite rightly concerned about this, and so are we!"

"This is a subject of legitimate concern and we intend to respond positively to the groundswell of public opinion!"

"Who said that?" asked Adrian. A meek hand went up. It belonged to someone from Education.

"Wrong," said Adrian. "You have just promised to do something about it."

The class sniggered.

"That's stage three," said Adrian. "We are working out what to do next. Any ideas for rephrasing that?"

"What about, we are keeping our options open!"

"We are monitoring the situation carefully!"

"We are listening carefully to what you are saying!"

"Very good," said Adrian. "`Listen' is a good word and so is `carefully'. Always get those in if you can. It suggests you are listening carefully. You aren't, of course. You haven't got time to listen carefully. You're too busy talking carefully. Remember what they said in the war: `Careless talk costs jobs'."

"I think it was, `Careless talk costs lives', Adrian," said someone in the front row.

"When I want your shade of opinion," said Adrian, "I'll canvas it."

Full prospectus of the Wardour-Street School of Non-Communication on request.