By Louis Mertens
I had to think for a moment about what constitutes a ‘sound bite’. Is it only a phrase which is spoken enough and sticks in the mind? Or, is it something that politicians consciously create to help formulate the public image of themselves and the party they represent? I quickly concluded that sound bites aren’t something that politicians have any control over, try as they might. “Strong and stable government” has become a memorable phrase of Theresa May, not because it is so frequently and exclusively used by her but by those mocking her, too. Similarly, Andrew R T Davies also created a soundbite, one that he has tried to undo ever since, born from an unfortunate blunder at the Welsh Conservative Conference in October 2016. “We will make breakfast a success,” is a comical trip up for many, but for the sake of this argument, it goes to show that politicians can’t pick and choose the words that we remember.
This clearly presents a PR issue for many politicians who view themselves as a brand. I remember my local MP once told me that after you’re elected to parliament you are given coaching on how to dance around questions and interviews from the media. This is all to aid the brand, but as Andrew Marr said in his most recent interview with Theresa May, it has the effect of making politicians sound cold and robotic, and I believe probably contributes to a lot of voter apathy. Much of Donald Trump’s success is because he tackles topics head on, he doesn’t hide behind uninspiring slogans or phrasing that leaves questions unanswered. But sound bites aren’t a bad thing in their entirety, rather it is the way they’re employed to avoid questions and remove the accountable from accountability which makes the politicians who use them appear so unfeeling.
The most significant and memorable sound bites have long outlived the original interview or speech on the basis that they bear a message that is transferable to other elements of life, and not simply to give a wishy washy answer to an important question. “We will fight them on the beaches,” Churchill’s most memorable quotation embodies an unwavering and shared determination, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream today,” reminds us that you can work against the status quo to achieve a better society, John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon … not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” hails to a fantastically revolutionary period in American history. The point I am trying to make is that politicians should not be asked not to use sound bites. It is their own failings that their soundbites convey such a two-dimensional message and contribute so heavily to an image of politicians as little more than people who work to line their own pockets. We may only hope that politicians use sound bites more creatively, more inspiringly, to answer some questions and restore their own accountability.