Douglas Murray vs. Julian Assange

On 9 April 2011 in Kensington Town Hall in London there was held a debate sponsored by the New Statesman. The motion was  “This house believes whistle-blowers make the world a safer place.” There were three speakers on each side of the argument, though in this post we shall be hearing from just two of them, one because it was his turn to speak and the other because he interrupted all the time. The speaker has appeared before on this blog. I shall try to seek out some interesting material from the intrrupter. If you are wondering why I have chosen now to look at some speaking from three and a half years ago you have not been following the news very closely.

Something that I try to remember to remind both trainees and myself when I am training is that they and I can watch their performances played back from video, and can express all the opinions we like, but ultimately the only judgement that matters is that of the audience. A speech is a product, an audience the market. The market is never wrong. It can be irrational, idiotic, imbecilic, but it can’t be wrong.

Murray begins with some relatively inconsequential backchat; but within 40 seconds, riding on the back of  something an opponent had said, he is into serious stuff (albeit with a joke attached). Listen closely to the silence in the market. Except for laughter the audience is very quiet indeed. This is the ultimate compliment.

The silence is caused not just by the weight of the message, but by the way Murray delivers it. His style tends to be very quiet, and he silences his audience that way. He is an habitual and expert practitioner of the 2-inches-from-my-nose school. This technique chooses not to go out to its audience but to bring it closer (this is all metaphorical, you understand). If you speak very quietly. distinctly and quite slowly you can, by force of will, make the focal point of even a large hall to form just two inches from your nose. If you pull that off (the technique, not your nose) it’s a glorious feeling. I have often thought that whoever coined the cliche, “audience in the palm of my hand”, must have been a 2-inches merchant. A word of warning: don’t do it all the time. Vary your style and pitch. Murray does.

Is it a mistake, or is Murray deliberately provoking disruption when he launches a protracted anaphoric sequence? At around 3:30, with the words, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing when …” he kicks off a series of questions which might claim to be rhetorical, but which cause Assange to charge the microphone to supply answers. Is Murray then deliberately stoking the heat when he denies the interjection?  – “No, no, no, you’ll have your chance later.” The pent-up quarrel becomes really rather entertaining. Both of the other opposing speakers likewise leap to their feet and Murray refuses their interjections also.

My opinion is that he might not have foreseen quite how much this would all bait Assange, but was delighted to play him like a trout when he saw the development.

The debate chairman eventually tries to release some of the steam from Assange, and some elements in the audience, by over-ruling Murray and allowing the interjection. There follows an exchange, and even quite a long period of the two speaking simultaneously. There is one critical difference of demeanour between them.  Murray is smiling: he is enjoying himself.

He stops smiling when again the floor is his alone. The subject matter is serious and he is not averse to introducing some drama to close. Characteristically his peroration owes its drama to quiet intensity rather than thunderous auxesis. He pairs his finish with his opening. He closes his circle. Full marks.

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