Andrew Neil: the thickness of paper from brilliant.

In London on 16 October the Holocaust Educational Trust held its annual Appeal Dinner. Speaking was Andrew Neil.

The link on his name will take you where you can learn something about him if you don’t live in the UK and haven’t happened upon him. To that I would add that he can be a very tough interviewer and I have long found him to be one of the freer thinkers in the mainstream British media. True, the British media in general do not have that bar very high; but he sets standards that others could do worse than emulate.

Regular readers here will confirm that I have oft denied that being a good public speaker automatically follows being a good broadcaster or a good writer. Indeed I rather think that to span those media makes you an exception.

Those same regular readers will immediately know my first reaction. What’s he doing with that paper on that lectern? A good, skilled speaker does not need paper. Paper dulls the colour and impact of any speech. Occasionally it is sadly inevitable. Here it isn’t. What a pity!

He is showing symptoms of Hump. That doesn’t surprise me: his professional comfort zone is the lens of a camera which is very different from a sea of faces. Also, of course, that lens would have his script scrolling – and that is why he believes he needs paper here.

He opens by paying tribute to his introducer, Kitty Hart-Moxon, momentarily struggling against displaying emotion through his voice trembling. The emotion is genuine, the successful struggle likewise, and both are laudable. In that tribute it emerges that her introduction was a surprise to him, and that means that this section was unprepared and therefore not on that paper. It’s a beautiful, spontaneous moment, and shows how good he can be without paper. Already I am wishing he knew it.

He moves into recounting the circumstances of his invitation to speak here. He doesn’t need his paper for that, but still he looks at it because it’s a comfort blanket. That is followed by a story about a conversation with a malapropist after another speech. It’s quite amusing but he delivers it a little heavily. It needed a lighter touch and to be ‘thrown away’. My rhetor fingers twitch.

Once he hits the meat of the speech he is manifestly more confident, and the hump recedes. The message is well structured, but then it would be; it is well argued, but then it would be; he’s a very fine journalist after all. And to anyone with a brain, the importance of his message is self-evident. It is a very important speech, and almost a brilliant one.

Had I been there, and had a chance to speak with him afterwards, I would have liked to have taken issue with a couple of things he said; but that is almost by definition the purpose of such a speech. And actually I would have been more likely to have taken issue with his paper-dependence. For instance…

At 12:20 he removes his spectacles and for thirty seconds really looks at, really engages with, his audience. It’s by no means the first time he has raised his eyes, but that was essentially tokenism. For this half minute his delivery lights up. He has been speaking at, here he is speaking with. That’s what he should do all the time; and he could, easily.

If he reads this he won’t believe that: they never do till I show them.