What do Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, President Obama, Mitt Romney and Jimmy Savile have in common? They were made or broken by their television appearances; and their visual impact was more significant with the public than the words they spoke and the actions they took or promised to take.
It was widely agreed that the 2010 election debate was a turning point, in particular for Nick Clegg, who came to public attention in a very favourable way; while Gordon Brown’s appearance had often been less well received. Future historians will ponder over whether the right impression was given, and whether sufficient attention was paid to the policies offered by the three men. Prime Minister David Cameron had made a terrific impact with his party conference speech in 2005, made without reference to notes, and regarded as a turning point in his rise to the leadership. The fact that he needed no notes is remembered more than what he said.
Ed Milliband has now used the same ploy, with a well received party speech, to enhance his image and hence his electability; what is being discussed now is how much more he looks like a prime minister.
Only a day later did the media start to ask whether there were any substantive policies or a new agenda resulting from the speech.
The Obama-Romney debate a day ago is also going to be memorable, as the occasion on which for the first time Gov. Romney made a pleasing and powerful impact visually and as a speaker, while Pres. Obama was said to look tired and detached.
The TV debate may mark the turning point in the election, which had previously been regarded as a sure triumph for Obama. Again, more attention has been paid to the way the two candidates conducted themselves than their track record or pledges for the future.
Ed Milliband made much use of the phrase “one nation” in his speech, a phrase always associated with Disraeli. It seems (and readers will surely correct me if I have this wrong) that Disraeli did not use this expression, relating to a united country, in a speech: it was extracted from his novel Sybil, and developed in his parliamentary appearances. Its power and durability as an attractive aim were for those who read about it, and about Disraeli, rather than looked at him.
Disraeli for sure would not have gone down well on television and history would have been different.
For once, one can indeed judge by appearances. It was his TV celebrity status that made him inviolable, and shame on us for for the adulation that we heap on celebs, then and now, and in relation to the reported career aim of some young people – to be a celebrity.