The Cambridge lockdown debate

On 28 January, The Cambridge Union conducted a live-streamed debate on the motion, “This House Believes Lockdown Was A Mistake“. The speakers were Sir Graham Brady, Laura Spinney, Richard Tice, Phil Whitaker, Toby Young and Layla Moran.

This blog having brought me to the attention of people overseas, I began a few years ago delivering distance coaching via video link. In the early days it was rather clunky, but trial, error and perseverance prevailed. Though passionately involved with my work I was not getting any younger, and I fondly imagined that virtually trotting around the world delivering speaking training from my study was a reasonable recipe for semi-retirement. Then came Covid and lockdowns.

Somehow word quickly spread that I was a specialist in delivering training by video link and my semi-retirement got busy. When it’s distance training it makes little difference if the person on the other end is in East Africa or West Sussex. Also delivering training via a computer screen nurtured a byproduct skill that was useful now that people wanted to learn how to deliver speeches via a computer screen. There’s quite a list of guidelines, but I’ll restrict here to the essential three.

  • Framing: arrange yourself and the camera so that your face is mainly in the top third of the screen.
  • Lighting: in front of you not behind.
  • Eyes: ay there’s the rub, because in video-link eye-contact is an illusion. If you look at their eyes you appear not to. Look at the camera.

So firstly let’s see how the speakers did on those principles.

Framing: all fairly good, though Spinney and Young were the best. Whitaker would have been ok if he’d sat up, but he looked as if he’d crawled into frame.

Lighting: Moran was startlingly brilliant. The others were good except Spinney whose lighting couldn’t have been worse. I wonder whether she is shy. (I’m not joking: I work often with bright and successful people who are shy. Intelligence and shyness dwelling in the same person is a miserable combination for them.)

Eyes: Sir Graham, script-bound, is conforming to the politician’s habit of reading and looking up periodically at the audience. His assumption is that the audience is on the screen, so we never get his eyes. Spinney is speaking spontaneously and extremely well, but the light is so bad that I can’t really see her eyes. Tice, script-bound, is using the same routine as Sir Graham, except better because when he looks up he looks at the camera. Whitaker’s eyes are all over the place: script, screen, the wall, barely the camera. He does himself no favours as the resultant effect is perceived insincerity. Young is shooting from the hip, with eyes locked firmly on the camera. Moran’s eyes are locked on and she is so slick that, reinforced by other symptoms, I suspect autocue.

Briefly, because this is already getting long, I will address some of what was said. Sir Graham was not just the first but the last to speak, and he accurately summed up a general feeling that had pervaded both sides of this debate. The first lockdown may have been justified because of the dearth of data at the time, but the subsequent ones indicate at best a failure. He reasons and argues very well, as befits an experienced politician.

Laura Spinney speaks with us (that italicised preposition is one of my hobby horses). It’s an excellent skill which makes the hearer want to listen. Apart from the stygian darkness, this is my joint favourite speech.

Richard Tice, has well-marshalled arguments that show their workings – and the workings include some explosive revelations. Being script-bound he sadly loses much of his relationship with his audience, and that isn’t helped by his adopting a phoney, am-dram, emotive tone.

Phil Whitaker begins by telling us what Covid 19 is. It seems not to have dawned on him that over the past year we have kind of gathered all that stuff that he wastes valuable time telling us. In that pointless preamble he implies that the virus is novel in that it can sometimes cause no symptoms. How does he know that is novel? How often has there been a government project to mass-test perfectly healthy people for signs of an infection? “Asymptomatic” surely means “healthy”.

Laurence J. Peter‘s second most famous pronouncement, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret” nearly applies to Toby Young’s contribution. Having spent months compiling a huge assembly of competing expert opinions on this matter, along with mountains of data, he has formed a view and is able to dispense with a script and speak straight to the camera. Arguments backed up with facts, figures, and quotes from peer-reviewed papers are fired in volleys straight at us. He does get a little too worked up towards the end, nearly causing his case to unravel, but he just manages to hold it together. It’s compulsive watching.

Layla Moran’s advent is startling. Production values including the lighting are brilliant. It’s almost too good. I have in the past had occasion to warn in this blog against perfectionism because if you smooth away every edge you risk sterilising the product. In this case, despite admiring those production values I dislike the speech because of the data torturing. If you quote bald numbers to promote a case, without comparing them to some sort of control, you are merely decorating a shop window. Her opening salvo is cheap and unworthy. All that said, I do admire the elegance of the anadiplosis that begins at 1:04:05.

For the record, the Proposition won the debate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.