Free speech …at a cost

We don’t have the unrestricted liberty to say anything we want
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By Jonathan Spencer

In the dying embers of a US administration we saw a president, so used to rallying his base of supporters on any campaign platform, now ill at ease confined to autocue – constraint concluding his term after his Twitter account was suspended.

Restraint came with a script from aides, lest he should further enrage legislators moving to conclude his term sooner.

If democracy had pillars – as a glance around Washington’s white monuments might suggest – then free speech would be one of them. Only this symbol of freedom was to be shrouded a month ago by thousands of National Guard troops camped in and around the marble halls, as Capitol Hill resembled a fortress.

We don’t have the unrestricted liberty to say anything we want. If information is power, communication must be …handled with care. THIS WAY UP, should be stamped on it. Because at any key moment, to a key audience words can trigger all manner of public reaction without needing to be incendiary.

Closing the gate after the horse has bolted… a fair label tagged to the toning down of Trump’s rhetoric, as West Wing staffers quit; other aides distanced themselves from his comments; the nuances of political commentators wove their own paths.

The commander-in-chief now resembling a one trick pony. The White House little more than a one horse dorp, as power ebbs away. And yet, in the words of a democrat, Speaker, Nancy Pelosi: “…a clear and present danger.”

Hers a colourful well-worn line. Though perhaps, arguably, it has an air of responsibility about it. Or the opposite – because if we weren’t thinking that already, we were a moment later. But the phrase was weighted, as a warning. It wasn’t teased as a trigger. And that is the difference here.

Whether it’s a headline, a message or a balance of context, on any public platform we need to choose our words carefully. We should anticipate how information will be received. It’s more about letting a point land comfortably than exploiting reaction.

This doesn’t mean messages can’t have impact to make people listen.

I must have listened to hundreds of media interviews, and I would be the first to call out the dull remark or tedious repetition in any mantra. I am not alone in tiring of verbatim government messages, public information and soundbites. Here in London, government ministers now pre-empt the tedium with, “I am going to sound like a broken record when I say…” Which used to be, “The one thing people should remember is…” 

Some messages need to be repeated, or restated, to influence behaviour, drive an opinion or rally support. However, you can tell when someone is speaking freely, from experience or illustrating a point with a story, and that becomes a refreshing difference. But never risk loosely departing from a script – or believing you can wing it – because you can’t. As was dangerously staged by the former leader of the free world.

Perhaps it’s a good idea to ask: why am I saying this? whom am I saying this to? And critically, what am I actually saying? – before we have said it.

That doesn’t cost us anything.

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