Tony Blair’s legacy: Blairspeak for Beginners

August 3, 2006

As part of his legacy Mr Blair has produced a guide for aspiring politicians. We are lucky enough to have obtained a copy of the chapter on ‘Answering Questions from the media’.

“A successful politician (like me) has to be a supremely skilful communicator (as I am). Here are some strategies that work:

1. Whether you are making a speech or answering a question you will need to use what I call ‘ferret words’- words which can mean one thing today and the opposite tomorrow.

For example:
‘we must commit ourselves to a complete renaissance of our strategy/ change dramatically the focus of our strategy/ re-appraise our strategy’ can appear to mean ‘I got it wrong. I’m going to do a U-turn’ today or ‘We were right all along, I’m going to go on doing exactly what I was doing before’ tomorrow. You get the idea?
Here are one or two other handy expressions to store away (or ‘squirrel words as I like to call them):
‘revitalise the broader global agenda on’ or ‘this has brought home to us the urgency of the situation’ can mean ‘stop doing nothing about..’ or ‘go on doing nothing about’.
Three more handy expressions:
‘we need to move on’. Use this instead of ‘we screwed up but I think we can get away with it’

‘I think it is important that we don’t exaggerate this’ (you’re right but I’m not going to say so).
‘There are issues to do with the presentation.’ (we made a complete ball’s up from start to finish)

Brilliant isn’t it?

2. The Aunt Sally tactic
Make it out that the questioner asked a really stupid question and knock it down

Prime Minister, for you to commit British forces to war there has to be a clear and imminent danger to this country – what is it?
TONY BLAIR: I’ve never said that Iraq was about to launch an attack on Britain but if you look at the history of Saddam Hussein there is absolutely no doubt at all that he poses a threat to his region.

3. Be completely unintelligible
(it helps to start by saying ‘let me be absolutely clear on this)…
Paxman referring to the so-called deal with Gordon Brown) : So this deal is just in his mind?
Blair: Well, I think you going on about what is in his mind … As far as I’m aware, as I think he was saying this morning, as we sat on the sofa together, , you know, we were there together to serve as prime minister and chancellor.

4. Procrastinate
Paxman: Would cost convince you not to go ahead with it?
Blair: You just … Look, there’s no point in speculating about that at the moment because we’re a long way off taking the decision.

5. Be vague
Paxman: Do you agree that condoms prevent the spread of Aids?
Blair: Yes, I do.
Paxman: Would you be prepared to tell the Pope that?
Blair: Jeremy, I mean, you know, I’ve … I don’t know. If I ever have this conversation with him, I’m sure we will talk about how we can do lots of things to help the world, but I don’t want to … I’ve got enough issues in my own election without getting into his.

6. Throw some of the questioner’s words back at him
Paxman: Can you tell us how many failed asylum seekers there are in this country?
Blair: I’ve said I don’t think there’s any point in speculating.
Paxman: … you have no idea.
Blair: Well, it’s not a question of having no idea.

7. Use lots of words to confuse the listener
Paxman: Well, what is your idea, Prime Minister?
Blair: What you can say is, how people are applying for asylum, month by month, how many people you are removing and what is the backlog, and we are dealing with all of those issues.
Paxman: So you have no idea.
Blair: No, hang on a minute. You have an idea of the numbers that are claiming, the backlog, and the numbers that are being removed. Some of those asylum seekers, when they fail and their claim fails, they will go back voluntarily.

8. Say you’ve already answered the question
Paxman: And just one final time, you have no figure that you can give us for the number of refused asylum seekers who are in this country.
Blair: I’m giving you the information that I’ve got, and I’ve answered that question.

9. Offer to answer another question
Blair: …the answer that I have given to you on the numbers of illegals here is precisely the answer we have always given, and the last government gave.
Paxman: Although you’ve not given us a number.
Blair: Well, I’ve just explained to you why it’s impossible to do that. But what you can do is give numbers for the other things.

10. Answer a different question
PAXMAN: So it is acceptable for gap to widen between rich and poor?
BLAIR: It is not acceptable for poor people not to be given the chances they need in life.
PAXMAN: That is not my question.
BLAIR: I know it’s not your question but it’s the way I choose to answer it.

11. Say the question is irrelevant
PAXMAN: So the answer to the straight question is it acceptable for the gap between rich and poor to get wider, the answer you are saying is yes.
BLAIR: No, it’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that my task is¿
PAXMAN: You are not saying no.
BLAIR: But I don’t think that is the issue..

12. Keep giving the same answer- the questioner will eventually give up
PAXMAN: You may not think it is the issue, but it is the question. Is it OK for the gap to get wider?
BLAIR: It may be the question. The way I choose to answer it is to say the job of government is make sure that those at the bottom get the chances.
PAXMAN: With respect, people see you are asked a straightforward question and they see you not answering it.
BLAIR: Because I choose to answer it in the way that I’m answering it.
PAXMAN: But you are not answering it.
BLAIR: I am answering it. What I am saying is the most important thing is to level up, not level down.
PAXMAN: Is it acceptable for the gap between rich and poor to get bigger?
BLAIR: What I am saying is the issue isn’t in fact whether the very richest person ends up becoming richer. The issue is whether the poorest person is given the chance that they don’t otherwise have.
PAXMAN: I understand what you are saying. The question is about the gap.
BLAIR: Yes, I know what your question is. I am choosing to answer it in my way rather than yours.
PAXMAN: But you’re not answering it.
BLAIR: I am.
PAXMAN: You are answering another question.
BLAIR: I am answering actually in the way that I want to answer it.

13. Deny whatever you are supposed to have said or written
Example A:
PAXMAN: But you said “over the five years of a Labour Government we will rebuild the NHS.” Did you underestimate the task?
BLAIR: I don’t think we underestimated the task.
PAXMAN: Why say you could do it in five years?
BLAIR: We didn’t.

Example B:
JEREMY PAXMAN: Well you said of those UN resolutions and the sanctions which followed them in the year 2000, you said that they had contained him. What’s happened since?
TONY BLAIR: I didn’t actually, I said they’d been contained him up to a point and the fact is – ¿
JEREMY PAXMAN: I’m sorry Prime Minister – we believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein in the last ten years, you said that in November 2000.
TONY BLAIR: Well I can assure you I’ve said every time I’m asked about this, they have contained him up to a point

14. Tell him it’s the wrong sort of question
Paxman: So the short answer to the question is, you don’t accept any responsibility (for the death of Dr Kelly).
Blair: Well, it’s not a question of not accepting responsibility; it is a question of simply explaining the circumstances.
Paxman: It’s a question to which you could give a yes or no answer, Prime Minister.
Blair: Yeah, but it’s maybe not a question you need to give a yes or no answer to.

15. Saying anything that comes into your head and hope no one is listening
JN: Twenty years ago, when Ken Livingstone led standing ovations for Gerry Adams at Labour Party fringe meetings, when there were IRA bombing campaigns in London, presumably with legislation like this he could have been arrested and thrown into jail for glorifying a terrorist?
PM: I don’t think that is true in fact because – oh look, I can’t … to be absolutely frank you may have a better recollection of exactly what Ken was saying in that particular time than me – erm, but, let’s be absolutely clear: there will be all sorts of people who say for all sorts of reasons: “look, I understand why the terrorists do it, and you know, you can sympathise with their motivation.” Now I happen profoundly to disagree with that, but I am not suggesting that you make that a criminal offence. Er, what I am suggesting should be an offence is somebody who in effect by glorifying is inciting and is saying to people – particularly impressionable people – and we know, look, that this is a modern phenomenon that we have, this extremism based on a perversion of Islam – is in effect saying to impressionable young people: this is something you should do.
(TB: perhaps I should have used a different tactic here?)

16. Suggest the questioner is implying something else
JEREMY PAXMAN: You’ve just said the decision was taken by the inspectors to leave the country. They were therefore not thrown out.
TONY BLAIR: They were effectively thrown out … So when you say the inspectors, when you imply the inspectors were in there doing their work, that is simply not the case.
JEREMY PAXMAN: I did not imply that, I merely stated the fact that they were not thrown out, they were withdrawn. And you concede they were withdrawn.

17. Show your contempt for the question
JEREMY PAXMAN: And you believe American intelligence?
TONY BLAIR: Well I do actually believe this intelligence –
JEREMY PAXMAN: Because there are a lot of dead people in an aspirin factory in Sudan who don’t.
TONY BLAIR: Come on. This intelligence is backed up by our own intelligence and in any event, you know, we’re not coming to this without any history. I mean let’s not be absurdly naïve about this –

18. Semantic diversion- make one word mean another (use ‘effectively’ or ‘to all intents and purposes’ when you do this.
JEREMY PAXMAN: No, effectively they were not thrown out of Iraq, they withdraw.
TONY BLAIR: No I’m sorry Jeremy, I’m not allowing you get away with that, that is completely wrong. Let me just explain to you what happened. JEREMY PAXMAN: You’ve just said the decision was taken by the inspectors to leave the country. They were therefore not thrown out.
TONY BLAIR: They were effectively thrown out

19. Ignore the question
JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, your own foreign minister Mike O’Brian said it is true. (that the inspectors found no evidence of WMD)
TONY BLAIR: It is absurd to say in a situation where Iraq has definitely had these weapons, developed them over a long period of time, concealed them, that there is nothing to be suspicious of when they can’t even account for the weapons that we know were there when the Inspectors left in 1999.

20. Ask a question back
JEREMY PAXMAN: There have been 66 arrests in Europe in the past two months, 29 of them have been in Pakistan, there have been something like 16 from Algeria, 14 from elsewhere in North Africa, not one of them has been an Iraqi.
TONY BLAIR: What do you prove by that?

21. Be flippant
JN: We have had a lot of cross party consensus and you can see the strains. And here is a quote “It is all too easy for us to respond to such terror in a way which undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions”. Now to be fair to you, that is Cherie Booth QC talking. It is a widely held view.
PM: It is just as well you told me that before I responded!
(TB: get the wife to keep her mouth shut if at all possible)

22. Accuse the questioner of being flippant
JEREMY PAXMAN: And you concede they were withdrawn.
TONY BLAIR: They were withdrawn because they couldn’t do their job. I mean let’s not be ridiculous about this,

23. Cosy up to the questioner
JN: Finally, you have just come from a Bill Clinton fest across the other side of New York , he’s got the great and powerful around discussing the future of the world. Is that what you will are going to be doing in three years or two years or 18 months or whatever it is when you have left office?
PM: I haven’t the faintest idea, Jim,

24. Try and introduce a stirring, Churchillian phrase.
Here’s one of my better ones:
“Let’s not go backwards,” I told one group of supporters, “that wouldn’t be wise. Let’s go forwards”

25. Careful not to let the cat out of the bag (as I nearly did here!)
Q: Were you surprised by Hutton’s conclusions?
Blair: “No, I never had any doubt at all. I set the Hutton inquiry up!”

26. If all else fails, tell a bare-faced lie
(try and include phrases like ‘let’s be honest about this ..’
Example A:
MALE: The difference between Korea and Iraq is it purely based on oil, because Iraq’s an oil-producing country and Korea isn’t.
TONY BLAIR: No, let me just deal with the oil thing because this is one of the ¿ we may be right or we may be wrong, I mean people have their different views about why we’re doing this thing. But the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.

Example B The bigger the lie the more vigourously you have to utter it:
Blair: Well it is untrue, that statement is untrue. The idea that I or anyone else in my position frankly would start altering intelligence evidence, or saying to the intelligence services ‘I am going to insert this’ is absurd.

27. Up the ante
If you are under attack make it appear that the questioner is attacking a respected instiution, the foundations of society etc as well as you.

Blair .. there couldn’t be a more serious charge that I ordered our troops into conflict on the basis of intelligence evidence that I falsified. You could not make a more serious charge against a Prime Minister.

28. At the end of the day, don’t worry- people will forget:
Question 64% of British opinion, according to a recent poll, said the war will prove to have been justified only if Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are eventually found. The question is, if you don’t find any, what will be the British attitude?
Prime Minister I have no doubt that we will. We have got absolutely no doubt that these weapons
exist. But there has been a campaign of concealment by Saddam ever since he knew that UN inspectors were coming back into the country, and I have got absolutely no doubt that those weapons are there.You can never find these things unless you have the cooperation of the regime itself, and once we have the cooperation of the scientists and the experts, I have got no doubt that we will find them.

Well, I think you’ll agree that I saw off these media hacks pretty effectively didn’t I?”


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