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Avoiding the Question



        Of course, I may be wrong. 
            It may be that politicians have always side-stepped the question.
            It may be that when the first Saxons turned up on the shores of Britain and the first Briton brave enough to talk to them said:  ‘Have you come in peace or, er, have you come in the other thing, and if so, should we prepare to take arms and do battle with you, or shall we just toss for it?’ that the Saxon leader replied: ‘Fighting is definitely not on the agenda, for we are a trading mission and wish only to do business with you, and the fact that there are five thousand of us, all armed to the teeth, shows how very, very seriously we take you as a trading nation...’
            But it does seem to me that in my lifetime politicians have become increasingly evasive and more prone to steer the talk round to their prepared answer rather than answer the question directly. It is now commonplace for interviewers to ask increasingly searching questions and for politicians to respond with increasingly evasive answers.
            So what the interviewers have done is to incorporate the desired answer in the question. Despairing of ever getting the politicians to give the required answer, they give it themselves, disguised as the question. 
            This is how it works. Let us say, for example, that we had a Home Secretary who was convinced that putting more people in prison would get more votes from the members of the population who have not yet been put inside. Let us say that all responsible bodies from the Police Federation to the Penal Reform people thought that he was bonkers, and that in a country like Britain, which already has just about the highest per capita prison population in Europe, putting more people in prison was not going to produce any result except possibly more prison riots and more burnt out jails.
            Let us suppose that such a Home Secretary were to appear on Newsnight to justify his policy.
            Let us suppose that the interviewer said: ‘Home Secretary, how do you justify this policy?’ 
Now, what the interviewer is hoping the Home Secretary will say is,
‘Well, I can't. I have just learnt to my horror that everyone with an ounce of sense is against me, so I have decided to abandon my ideas, and in fact I intend to make a call to my office as soon as I get out of the studio to reverse this policy - could I perhaps borrow that phone on your desk, to save time, or is it just a dummy one which doesn't really work and is only there to look impressive?’
            But this is not what the Home Secretary says. What he says is this.
            ‘I simply will not have a situation in which ordinary citizens are afraid to go out on the street in their own home town for fear of violence. We have got to show that we mean business over the rising crime figures. I am not afraid to show these thugs that we are not afraid of them. The ordinary man and the woman in the street wants action, and I intend to give it to them!’
            And so on, and so on. They can do it in their sleep. So, despairing of ever getting the Home Secretary to admit what an ass he is, the interviewer would have to do it for him, and this is the question he is more likely to ask nowadays. 
            ‘Home Secretary, your new policy of building new prisons to house ever more prisoners has had the almost unique effect of uniting against you such traditionalists as the Police Federation and such liberals as the Howard League for Penal Reform, all of whom think your announced methods are retrograde, barbarian and ineffective, and will make us the laughing stock of Europe. In the face of the fact that everyone thinks you are bonkers, how do you justify this policy?’
            The interviewer then leans back with a slight smile, not for the Home Secretary's benefit, but for ours. He is saying, in effect, that that is what the Home Secretary should have said but isn't going to. 
            Meanwhile the Home Secretary is uttering some familiar words.
            ‘Look, I simply will not have a situation in which ordinary citizens are afraid to go out on the street in their own home town for fear of violence. We have got to show that...’
            So we now have a situation in which the interviewer asks a question which incorporates the answer he wants but won't get, and the politician spouts the answer he wants to give to a question he won't be asked. 
            And the question we all want to ask is, what is the point of anyone listening to either of them? Why should we switch on the TV for yet another boring no-score draw?
            I can't think of an answer to that one.


The Independent WEDNESDAY FEB 23 1994


© Caroline Kington
© Caroline Kington