- What happened? A car crash.
- Why did it happen? Because one of the drivers was drunk.
- How did it happen? One of the cars drove through a red light.
- Where was the accident? Just down the road.
- When did it happen? Just a few minutes ago.
- Who was involved? Two young drivers.
- Did you see it? No, I didn't.
If the same was applied to British politics nowadays, most politicians would walk away having flunked this most elementary of tests. How many times have I been listening to or watching those two Cancerberi of British radio and television, John Humphreys and Jeremy Paxman respectively asking a politician a 'yes' or 'no' question only for the latter to begin his/her answer with the words: 'The issue, John/Jeremy, is...'. Or how about the old well-worn phrase: 'With all due respect, I think that we're missing the wider picture here...'?
Jeremy Paxman famously asked the then Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question fourteen times on Newsnight back in the nineties without the Tory politician providing a straight and satisfactory answer in any way. It's one of those youtube moments that you have to watch to believe.
Nowadays, interviewees eschew the responsibility of answering questions by not answering them at all. A few days ago Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, turned up on Radio Four to discuss the current economic situation in the UK. He might as well have discussed the recent dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari from Chelsea for all I cared. One by one, the questions Darling was being asked by John Humphreys fell into a void into which we, listeners, were imaginarily sucked as the government representative's perennial patronising and condescending tone reminded us that in its almost twelve years in power New Labour had a splendid track record in social, economic and political issues. OK, Al, mate, just don't mention Iraq.
There are three elements I blame for this reticence in linguistics when it comes to politics. The first one is the art of spin. Spin doctors have become skillful masters of deceit and deception. For a classic example, look at Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former advisor, number 10's number 2 and one of the main architects of the ill-fated invasion to Iraq in 2003. The second factor is a cynical public. We are discontent with the status quo but even when a politician steps forward and gives us a straight answer (a very rare phenomenon these days as I explained before) we still pillory them. Question Time has become a Roman arena where the audience's thumbs remain pointing to the ground no matter whether the member of parliament addressing the question/issue provides a viable offer or not. The what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg predicament (are we cynical because politicians are a bunch of demagogues or are politicians so passive because we're never satisfied?) is another subject into which I will stray another time, but it's worth mentioning that this dilemma cuts both ways. The third element is a media desperate to satisty its audience's short attention span. I think that the UK has some of the better newspapers, radio stations and television channels in the world. Despite the many scandals that have besieged it recently, the BBC is still good value for money and I pay my TV licence with gusto. But when the media pummel politician after politician unfairly for raising serious issues it is doing us neither a service nor justice to those who represent the government. When snarling at politicians masquerades as earnest commentary then we need to call the media's bluff.
This is not to excuse politicians' laissez-faire attitude when it comes to reporting to the people who matter: us, the electorare. And of course, it is not a phenomenon that occurs only in the British Isles. Last year when Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, president of Cuba's National Assembly, was challenged by a university student as to why he was not allowed to visit Che's memorial in Bolivia, the spot where he was killed, with his family, the Cuban dignitary huffed and puffed through the answer but did not begin his reply with the most important word: 'Because...'
In the commercial world, meanwhile, the correct use of the adverbs and pronouns mentioned at the beginning of this feature has served companies like L'Oreal very well. The French cosmetics giant struck lucky with its 'Because you're worth it' campaign a few years back despite the fact that, on second thoughts, it might not have suited everyone. Can you imagine if the question had been: 'Why am I all wrinkled up like a prune, abandoned by my partner, left with four mouths to feed and unemployed'? Yes, you 're right, sometimes a 'With all due respect...' reply is a much better option.