Performing Prime Ministers: How did leaders do at Leveson?

Britain's four most recent prime ministers took turns appearing before Leveson. How did they do?

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10 out of 10 for Dave
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Peter Botting
On 19 June 2012 15:57

Sometimes when things get tricky professionally, even the most honest of us have been known to tell a little white lie. But politicians are perceived to be default liars. That is allegedly Jeremy Paxman’s position and the public seems to share that perception.

We only appreciate when someone is lying when their words are in conflict with what we believe or when what they say is directly contradicted by what other people say. Or when we don’t believe them because their body language is screaming that they are lying. Then we have to make a judgment. Are our perceptions really wrong? That is a big step for even the biggest amongst us to make. When we see two people, especially two politicians, disagreeing with what is or was the truth then we must rely not on what they say, but how they say it. 

Of course, we have to insert the usual caveat here. The police often say that multiple witnesses with no malice and no agenda often describe the same traffic accident quite differently and that police have to use the evidence as well as the statements made.

Politicians are very similar to all of us. They rewrite history - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, we have to judge politicians on the evidence, what people say and, the most emotive and powerful measure of all, how they say it - their body language. Without TV we would not have this third judgment criteria.

If all politicians told the truth and all recalled history perfectly, there would no dissonance and professional body language experts would not exist. 

But back to politicians and back to the subject which seems to have been filling our newspapers recently, the Leveson Enquiry. We have been “treated” to performances by four recent residents of Downing Street - Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, David Cameron and John Major. All would have been prepped. All would have had access to extensive levels of professional training before, during and, with the obvious exception of David Cameron, after they were in office. All would have rewritten history - consciously or unconsciously. All were under oath. Revising history for others has been limited because of that. So the majority of historical revision is of the worst kind - the kind that has no regard for the truth and that is totally focused on protecting themselves - either from prosecution or to preserve their reputations. 

Of course, the performances are never stand-alone events. They are a vignette within our personal movies of the politicians - so their back story, their reputations and achievements and our perceptions of them is the ruling impression. If the vignette is in sync with our perceptions of the ”film” we believe it - if it isn’t we have to make a call and we usually go with the film. Positive or negative.

I have different perceptions and opinions of these four politicians. So maybe it is fairest for me to assume that all four were coached and prepped and to then give marks out of 10 as students - how well they listened to their coaches and trainers and how well they performed on the day or days.

Some would have been good at presentations and public speaking all their political lives. Some could even be genuine. They would all have been told the following:- 

1.    Be moderate.

2.    Sound moderate.

3.    Appear measured.

4.    Be polite about others including colleagues and opposition. Being bitter isn’t cool.

5.    Be self-deprecating.

6.    Admit to your imperfections and possible failures from within the heat of battle, now regretted.

7.    Smile - but not inanely.

8.    Tell the truth as much as possible. All the time preferably. Please!

9.    Practice the bits when you feel unable to tell the truth.

10. If there is trouble - say you can’t remember, recollect, recall.

11. Take your time - speak slowly, sip water and play with your glasses or your pen to give you time to think.

12. Keep your hands on the table. Hiding your hand or hands under the table is a bad sign. Use open hand gestures. Don’t wave them around too much. Use them to show that you being open and unarmed and candid.

13. If you have something “difficult” to say, having your hand or hands near your mouth or any similar and quasi-disguised hand covering your mouth movements will give you away.

14. If you are saying “no, never, not aware, not authorised by me” or anything in the negative - shake your head in sync with your words. Of course, this is easy to say - but even the best-coached and most willing political student cannot do this well. Only actors do this well.

15. Choose your words very, very carefully. Some are inflammatory. Some are designed to calm. Some may have legal implications. Some may be the headlines of tomorrow.

16. Sound thoughtful, even if you have the answer prepped and ready to deliver.

17. Use the word “we” where possible - sound cooperative and helpful and friendly, ask which page “we are now on?”

18. Use active eye contact. Look up all the time. Talk to the person asking the questions. Keep your head up. If you haven’t watched the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate and you are Prime Minister then you deserve anything you get.

So how did they score? You can all review the performances using the criteria I have listed above, but I will you give my verdict.

John Major

For me John Major was the clear winner. Measured, friendly, frank, objective and self-deprecating. He used his hands well and sounded like a grown up all the way through. He didn’t visibly have any “difficulties”.  It was of course helpful that he had been more of a victim of the press than the others, that he is genuinely likeable and the perception of him being a decent man is in sync with his performance. I would almost say that it was not a performance. It was John Major. Human; decent man; controlled and composed, but unedited. Was he even coached? If so, it wasn’t visible apart from a tiny wobble at the very start when his hands headed under the table and he quickly brought them back on to the table and kept them there. Was that coaching or just years of experience? In any case, if it was a performance, it definitely didn’t feel like one. I would give him 10/10.

David Cameron

The Prime Minister had many more tricky areas to navigate but he did a good job and skillfully navigated through the questioning. He avoided being too clever, sounded grown up, chose his arguments and words carefully and had great clarity of thought and delivery at times - most notably in his comments about how the lines between pure reporting of news and the associated comment are often blurred or even invisible. He sounded moderate and measured. He doesn’t have the assets and the human warmth that John Major has but he played a good hand with what he has and with the navigation he had to make and I think he can be quite satisfied with his performance. It was technically very good. I would give him 8 or 9 out of 10. 

Tony Blair

A polished performer. Even his adversaries admit that. Others have called him an actor. Any coach would have been proud of his performance and I think he would be happy with it too. He used his eyes, his hands, his body well. He used humour, props, eye contact and was self-deprecating. His widely reported dispute with Gordon Brown was a comparative asset. He is so smooth and practiced and controlled that you have to ask yourself who is speaking: actor, politician or person? I would say that this did count as a performer. It was formidable. If it was Hollywood, he would get 12 out of 10. But he was my Prime Minister and I like my Prime Ministers imperfect, real and human - so I am going to give him 10 out of 10 for the performance. I would love to downgrade him but technically I cannot. A Labour friend and ex-Downing Street staffer, who I respect immensely, says that Blair the politician is - in fact - Blair the human. I am not convinced. My verdict: Magic - but manufactured.

Gordon Brown

He had some good bits. When talking about his family he was and sounded real. But there were bad bits too. Technically, any coach he could have hired would say - “Could do better.” His eye contact, the hidden and silenced right hand, the hand to face gestures, the lack of head shaking when verbalising a negative all let him down. The discussion about political advisors, explicit and implicit permissions, instructions and general behaviour was generally derided by the media and by some Labour insiders that I know. They quote personal experience, often first hand. His body language (and it is not a science and despite some claiming it, no-one is expert at reading body language) would make me side with them. Brown is not a great performer. We did see Gordon the human on quasi-best behaviour. But it wasn’t attractive and in a league of four that includes Cameron, Blair and Major, he was never going to come anything else than last. When he was talking about his family, he did well and gets 8 or 9 out of 10 from me. His defensive handling of the rest of the evidence and his general ignoring of almost all my points above mean that he gets an averaged out 4 or 5 out of 10 in total.

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to theNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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