Glaring omissions and a bit of vagueness

I have looked a bit into the reporting about the Labour and Conservative party conferences which took place some weeks ago in Autumn. I was interested to see whether there were any references to absences and silences in the speeches that were held. I looked at the Guardian’s online reporting only at this stage, since articles about the party conferences were grouped together on the Guardian’s websites, so articles reporting about both conferences could be easily retrieved (unlike with the order in which they appear on The Times website).
It was interesting, first of all, to observe the level of meta-ness of the reporting if that makes sense: In the case of the Labour conference, 16 out of 79 articles’ headlines on the conference addressed the style and effectiveness of the speeches held, including ‘panel verdicts’ by Guardian authors, first time voter ratings of the speeches and analyses of tweets reacting to the speeches – and 12 out of 87 regarding the Conservative conference. Headlines include: “David Cameron’s speech pulled rabbits out of hats early – because it had to” (1/10/2014), “Best man Boris makes an effortless performance” (30/09/2014), “Labour party conference: barely an open eye in the house” (24/09/2014), “Ed Miliband’s NHS care pledge a crowd-pleaser, but a much needed one” (23/09/2014), “Ed Balls’ speech: light on jokes and lighter on spending pledges” (22/09/2014) – and even double-meta: “The Guardian’s view on how Labour responds to Cameron’s speech” (1/10/2014). These headlines suggest that the speeches are not only received in terms of content, but also understood as staged performances which are carefully and strategically planned, crafted and orchestrated; that they aim at triggering media attention, reassuring party members and at attracting certain segments of the voting population. Their effectiveness is discussed in these terms. This is a given – the articles presume rather than explain that party conferences are ‘show time’.
Some headlines suggest more narrowly a concern with what was not said: “Labour party conference: the code of silence sounds all wrong” (21/09/2014), “Ed Miliband admits he forgot key section of Labour conference speech – Opposition leader fails to deliver passages on deficit and immigration but insists he talked clearly about Labour’s plans” (24/09/2014), “Ed Miliband under fire from his own side for forgetting to mention deficit” (24/09/2014), “David Cameron’s speech was great oratory, but it didn’t answer the trust question” (1/10/2014), “What the Tories don’t say about the deficit” (29/09/2014).
One issue with the Labour conference was that apparently Ed Miliband had presented his speech from memory without prompters and thereby ‘forgot’ to deliver passages addressing the deficit and immigration. With regard to what was not said, the focus on this “glaring omission” (24/09/2014) dominates the reporting about Ed Miliband’s speech. However, a lot of the articles claim that he was quite clear and specific on the issues that were covered in the speech; only one article noted a further absence, relating to the discussion about constitutional reform in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which one commentator missed in Miliband’s speech (21/09/2014).
One comment, with reference to Cameron’s speech, suggests that leaving “much more unsaid than said” is more forgivable when it is a result of oversight as in the case of Ed Miliband than if done by design, which was seen to be the case in Cameron’s speech. (1/10/2014). According to this article, where the Conservatives addressed the deficit, cuts remained unspecified and silence loomed over broken promises (ibid.); “they fail to mention what is happening to the deficit on their watch” (29/09/2014).
One recurring theme regarding the Conservatives was as mismatch between questions and answers, or between acknowledging problems and providing solutions: “Cameron’s speech implicitly understood a lot of the questions that needed asking. But it supplied all too few of the answers.” (1/10/2014). Cameron’s speech was reproached for leaving cuts unspecified and also about how much longer fixing the deficit would take. “Thereafter the priority will be tax cuts. The precise value of those remains unclear since Cameron’s speech did not set out a timetable by which they will be achieved.” (1/10/2014).
Noting vagueness, i.e. a lack of specific information occurred more in the reporting about the Conservative speeches (Cameron and Osborne) whereas the coverage of Miliband’s speech was dominated by the obvious mishap of leaving out sections that apparently were prepared for the speech, rather than criticising the depth of information on the topics he did deal with.
It was interesting for me to see that even within this very limited range of material on only two party conferences, there are repeated references to things about which speakers were expected to say something. When, for some reason or other, they fail to meet these expectations, these absences get noted and are considered noteworthy enough to include mentioning these perceived shortcomings in the coverage of these events. What motivates these expectations? In this small case, it is mostly the omnipresence of the issue in the public realm that makes its absence in the speeches noteworthy (the deficit, immigration, constitutional reform) – so apparently, there are things that you cannot not talk about in certain situations. Further, the coverage suggests that party leaders can be expected not only to lay out their political priorities for the period ahead and rally supporters, but also to provide details on costing and timing of such measures. These absences get earmarked in the coverage as something that belongs in the package of the topic – they leave a blank spot to be filled with more detail, at least at some point further down the line.


About meeelani

I am a linguist and discourse analyst, specializing in political discourse, discourse key words and public discourse about language as well as silence. I have been intrigued by silence, by its communicative salience and by the question of how to get hold of it by way of linguistic analysis for some time. After having looked into silence, concealment and expectations of speech in political discourse over the last few years, I now become particularly interested in the way that the development of discourses generates absences (and in the methodological issue of how to capture these in the process!) and in silence’s peculiar relations to power and submission, hegemony and subversion. I lecture in German Studies at the University of Reading, but I use this blog in a personal capacity. View all posts by meeelani

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