Today David Cameron has been “setting out proposals designed to deter citizens of other EU and non-EU countries from coming to Britain in order to take advantage of the NHS and the welfare system.” This speech is a useful case study of how speeches are staged and how audiences are just part of the choreography.
First off, here is a short slide show showing how some of UK news websites covered the speech:
And here is a clip of his speech:
Firstly we can see that all the coverage feature similar striking images of a dark-suited Cameron. The image is pleasingly elegant with a clean palette (black, white, light blue, skin and wood). The Government crest and the union flag signal that he is speaking on behalf of the national government but the light blue colour scheme is possibly an attempt to frame the strong stance on immigration as coming from the Conservative Party (the speech is though to be partly in response to Conservative fears about the recent success of the UK Independence Party).
Compare the image with that of the 2012 Conservative Party conference speech where the red white and blue Union Flag featured – it was already explicitly a Conservative Party event so the intention was to signal a British (all-encompassing) identity for the party.
It’s also worth noting that most of the pictures zoom in close enough not to see the teleprompters (see below). These are quite normal devices, and their omission is more about having a better close up of Cameron than trying to hide something. But it’s still interesting to note that witnessing a speech on video tends to remove this information about how the speech is actually constructed and delivered.
And if we zoom out a bit further we can see a bit more information about the live performance, for example the speech is taking place in some sort of conference suite to maybe 100 or so people. The union flag backdrop looks like a temporary screen brought in for the event – behind it is a plain wall and a projector screen. It’s not clear that this backdrop does anything for the people in the room.
This points to the fact that the speech is not really for the people in the room when it is given, it is for the people that watch the live stream on the BBC or see it reported afterwards.
As the Independent‘s Andy McSmith writes:
“David Cameron did not go to Ipswich to talk to people who live there. He went to read a speech in front of six television cameras”.
I also highlighted in the slide show how the reports all mention early on that the speech was in Ipswich (in the University of Suffolk). But it is not because he wanted to speak specifically to the people of Ipswich. McSmith continues:
“After the reading, and when the applause was over, he took four questions, two from journalists, two from local people. None of the questions threw him at all, or drew forth any unexpected or memorable answer. Mr Cameron is a consummate pro, as adept as a political talking machine. You press the button, out comes the answer.
Rebecca Clearer, from Suffolk Refugee Support, asked if there was anything that could be done for asylum seekers who have been languishing in Ipswich for seven years or more, waiting to be told whether they can stay or must go. He praised the work she does, but afterwards she remarked ruefully: “I don’t think he addressed the actual problem that I was raising.”
Before she had any opportunity to express that opinion in the Prime Minister’s presence, he was thanking everyone for coming, telling them that it was a ‘stunning’ experience to be in Ipswich, and being whisked into a side room where the departing listeners could not bother him with any more questions. After the audience had been shown the way out, the Prime Minister and his entourage did a quick march to the cars waiting outside. Exactly 65 minutes after he had begun speaking, Mr Cameron was gone.
That was the Prime Minister, but it could have been almost any of the current big name politician. In their trade, it is important that people think that they get out of Westminster to meet the public occasionally.”
Rather it was about talking to people like the people of Ipswich. The same speech given in London would have a different impact. As well as being the seat of Government, London is also a large city with a history and identity built around immigration. Ipswich however is a typical London satellite town with less experience of immigration that has ‘felt’ recent eastern/central European migration more. Speaking in Ipswich is somehow speaking to people in places like Ipswich more than if the speech was in London, even though people watching online are not physically any closer to Cameron.
The choice of holding it in a university is also a careful one that signals a certain rationality and authoritativeness to his claims that would not be conveyed if he gave it, for example, in a factory (might bring too much attention to the benefits of immigration to business). And unlike a community venue (which might bring too much attention to local views), the University also allows for a controlled audience:
“…that disaster that Gordon Brown suffered in Rochdale during the election, after his encounter with Mrs Gillian Duffy, stands as a warning of the dangers of unchoreographed contact with the public.
The old troopers would actually address the audience in front of them directly. The best liked to be heckled, because a good heckle followed by a sharp put down brought a meeting to life.
But in this age of rolling news, politicians dare not risk spontaneous interaction with voters. The purpose of a public meeting is not that the politician should meet the public, but that the public should be meat.”