As speeches go, the prime minister struck all the right chords last week at the National Press Club awards night. It would have been a cracker of a speech — had it come from someone else or made in another setting. A cracker of a speech to eager-beaver young cadet reporters, a valedictory speech to journalism graduates, or even as a half-time dressing-room pep talk.
Sadly it was not a championship coach speaking, but a prime minister being undercut even as he spoke by those ostensibly on his watch. It could have been worse: it might have been made by that oaf, his deputy, or that motor-trade Johnny waiting stage right.
Sadly, too, it was aimed mainly at online irregulars whose loyalty is projected at a price, and to a working press who toil quite comfortably in newsrooms owned and operated by various limbs of the corporatist-state that the prime minister attempts vainly to steer.
But the ship of state is a ponderous rotting hulk, not a nimble kayak.
And so, as speeches go, it just…went.
I don’t know if anyone listening to his speech that night felt a sudden onset of vertigo, such are the giddy heights of the prime minister’s annual recital of the free-press creed.
Reading the NST’s abridged version the next morning, though, brought to mind my old Sixth Form English Lit master explaining what Coleridge meant by a willing “suspension of disbelief” — that state of mind required when reading poetry or fiction, of Xanadu or the second-hand thoughts of Reichstag Putrajaya.
As with Najib’s grand declarations of intent in 2009, over-reaching ambition was quite apparent in a speech that was excellent in parts, as the curate once said; therein the problem: those are the very parts that others don’t reach and won’t.
Too often the prime minister’s speeches have had the ring of being pitched both for the files of the National Archives and well as for the ears of Wall Street, Fleet Street, Whitehall, the Executive Building, the Champs Elysees, the Kohlesseum and other such fine hostelries for the transient and the sometimes sentient.
Real-life audiences at press nights are not composed of those driven by ambition to plant a footprint in the alley of stars; rather more mundanely, they comprise those enveloped in the machinations of petty flunkies and petty flacks whose eyes are firmly set on the next project, the next contract, and the next election. The nomenclitura, as Dato Sak AK47 calls them.
Noble thoughts and noble aims litter the prime minister’s press awards speeches: they are meant to inspire but ring hollow when delivered to a shallow audience that lives by instructions to sell the sizzle.
It is the advertising copywriter, not the journalist, whose trade requires him to sell the sizzle and not the steak — the journalist will hear no sizzle in a blancmange.
Stop the speechifying and the sham, prime minister.
You demean us when you peddle to us the principles of journalism while being a willing customer of blancmange flackery.
The fearless journalism of which you speak has been but code for your loyalists taking down challengers and talking up business opportunities on cue.
Your high regard for transparent, ethical journalism is matched only by the opacity of the ethics of the establishment press or of the sponsored pack of online hounds with several masters who pose as vibrant new media.
Make policy, not speeches.
Put in place real policies that will strengthen our institutions — as you promised to do in 2009 — and strengthen our journalism. Rein in the cretins around you, and put their feet to the fire.
And live up to your words. If you won’t believe in them, who will?