Taking a quick look at part of a recent Newsnight discussion about the Occupy movement. Journalist Laurie Penny and former partner with Goldman Sachs Richard Sharp (recently recruited as an adviser by the Conservative Party) speaking with BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, 17 November 2011.
Maitlis opens the discussion addressing Sharp (who is in-studio) first:
Maitlis: “You must be pretty impressed with how they’ve managed to influence mainstream politics now aren’t you?”
An interesting question to put to a former Goldman Sachs partner who now advises the government in an official capacity (rather than an unofficial one). It’s a clever dig at Sharp (and the banking industry), highlighting the political power Occupy has generated with miniscule financial resources, limited human resources, and all the while in constant confrontation with overwhelming police, media, banking and government obstruction. But Sharp rejects it outright, and then turns it around:
Sharp: “Well I was actually disappointed with the demonstrations themselves in some way, because there is a generation which does have to care deeply about their future, which have been damaged by the activities of the last 15 years of governments and commerce and left a legacy of debts and problems they’re experiencing in seeking employment and facing a future where they will have to repay the debts associated with expenditure for which they got no benefit.”
Sharp rejects the premise of the question, firstly saying, “Well I was actually disappointed”, before going on to explain why people should be angry. This “disappointment” gives the impression Sharp aligns with the fundamental motivations of the movement, but worries is it is not likely to be effective. A seemingly compassionate view that surprises Maitlis, who responds, almost incredulously:
Maitlis: “So what are you saying? They’re doing the right thing by protesting surely?”
Sharp appears to hesitate in response, perhaps thinking he has laid it on a bit too thick. In this response there is little empathy with the protesters grievances and demands, it is pure derision:
Sharp: “Well I I…I thought the demonstrations certainly in New York um was for my mind er er at that time, this is only 10 days ago was chaotic and flaccid. It was a tourist spectacle with more journalists than protesters and some of the points being made were trivial, and they’re are some substantive points, but they were not being made when I was there.”
Having elicited the combative talk necessary for a debate promising two sides in an ideological fight (and one that’ll power a tweet like the one above), Maitlis turns to Penny, summarising Sharp’s comments – support, common ground, unvarnished (and possibly unsubstantiated) criticisms and all – into a pithy (professional) soundbite:
Maitlis: “Laurie Penny what do you make of that, a demonstration that manages to be simultaneously both chaotic and flaccid?”
Unexpectedly, Penny immediately corroborates Sharp’s impression, “Well that may have been the scene a few days”. Why is not clear, does Penny agree with Sharp’s impression? Was she disarmed by his initial attempt at finding common ground? Or was she approaching the interview / debate in the wrong way altogether?
There were certainly strong debates circulating about whether the movement had lost momentum, with some commentators arguing that Bloomberg’s crackdown would reinvigorate it, but Penny is in soundbite territory, there is no time to allow nuance to enter the debate, or to attempt to clue the listener into a complex debate the speaker is engaged in elsewhere. If a movement is “chaotic and flaccid” it is failing. To concede this in a short television debate is not a viable tactic.
Penny: “Well that may have been the scene a few days ago but certainly after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street on Tuesday night the energy has been galvanised again, and there were thousands of people on the street again today…”
As the interview progresses it’s clear Penny is being forced into the unenviable position of an Occupy spokesperson role, asked to explain what the movement wants etc, and here is the major difficulty for a movement like this engaging with the mainstream media. They are looking for soundbites, policy specifics, they want groups to be easily defined and pigeonholed.
By reverting in the later part of the interview to calls for “change” and other Obamaesque Newspeak Penny enters a media Bermuda triangle, “what does it mean in tangible terms?”, which allows Sharp to come back with the comment, “one of the reasons you are not hearing an answer is…”.
Penny ends the discussion the way she should have begun it, “I can’t believe a former banker is sitting here…peddling out this Tory line”. Lesson one when taking part in any media discussion, challenge the premise and the context.
Better still, take the discussion to the streets: