When did politicians get into this annoying habit of speaking with their backs to their audiences?
I have a feeling that George W Bush might have initiated the policy. I cannot recall Tony Blair ever doing it. Yet it has been thoroughly internalised by our political class and they now view it as being entirely normal. Speaking with your back to the audience is in fact one of the eccentricities that marks out this weird class from the rest of society. They are passionate about opportunity for the many and not the few; they are the only people left in the country who cannot see that the £31 billion nuclear deterrent isn’t a deterrent because we would never fire it; and they think that it is socially acceptable to give a speech with your back to the audience.
I am sure that you can see the scene already. Barack Obama is standing at a podium and behind him there are generally between five and ten rows of people who sit looking as uncomfortable as hostages. Some of them hold up placards reading “OBAMA,” with their expressionless faces registering no hint of the lactic acid that must be racking their poor arms. These people are supposed to appear alert and engaged at all times. They are forced to basically spend an hour or so gazing with a look of studious concentration at a choice of locations between the back of the President’s head and his heels.
These backdrop people are a diverse bunch. For example, there will be usually an indiscriminate Latino man who has been hand-picked to sit there and symbolise all Latinos. Before the speech, this person will have been searched for amongst the backdrop candidates and pushed to the front. Despite their diversity, the backdrop people all look controlled and perfect, as though they are from a society that has been reared using eugenics. There is never anybody who is cross-eyed or covered in dandruff.
It is unimaginable that one of these backdrop people might heckle. The discipline behind their processing and conditioning must be remarkable. None of their composed, patient faces has ever flamed angrily into life and forced the President or Prime Minister to turn around, so that their back is to the camera. The nearest that we have come to malfunctioning was a young teenager named Tyler Crotty who had yawned repeatedly during one of George W Bush’s speeches. It was 2004, in the early days of the science, and Bush was speaking at a rally in Florida. The BBC reported that, “A clip of the “yawning boy” appeared on the David Letterman show on Monday and has turned him into a media star.” But Crotty’s example illustrates how tightly controlled this race of backdrop people really is. The White House promptly took over. A story was cobbled together that the boy was so excited about seeing the President that he had been unable to sleep the night before. This was why he was yawning and not because Bush’s speech had held obviously no interest for a normal teenager.
What is this world? Inevitably, the PR experts have come up with the backdrop people as a way of manipulating us. When you switch on the television and you see Donald Trump speaking at a rally, with rows of people sitting emotionlessly behind him, you are struck with the primal instinct to conform and to copy the depicted obedience. The backdrop people are not meant to be listening to the speech – they are put there to show how you are meant to listen to the speech.
Or rather, this is how the backdrop is intended to work. I don’t know how alone I am in rebelling against it. Throughout the whole of Ed Miliband’s career, he never uttered any definitive statement that I can now remember. At best, there is a blur of hard-working families striving to get on the property ladder to make capitalism work for all. Everything that I can recall him saying is undermined by the possibility that David Cameron might have actually said it. The only thing to stand out for certain is my annoyance that Miliband was always speaking with his back to his audiences. Was he brought up in the wilderness by wild animals? It is the most elementary good manners that you look at the people who you are speaking to! How is it possible to even function in a social situation when you have turned your back on your listeners?
In fact, the only social situation in which it is acceptable to talk with your back to somebody is when you are standing at a urinal. Perhaps Miliband subliminally equates his own oratory with streams of liberated urine.
At last we reach Jeremy Corbyn and this article can begin to pack up and go home. Yesterday, in the words of the Daily Mail:
Jeremy Corbyn suffered another Michael Foot moment… after starting to deliver a speech with his back to TV cameras – before an aide stepped in to turn him around. The bungling left-winger committed the toe-curling gaffe as he held a rally with activists in Harlow… Mr Corbyn appeared bemused as he was led across the grass, and on being handed the microphone he started speaking while facing away from the cameraman. The ludicrous situation was only remedied when a desperate aide leapt into shot and pulled him round to address the TV crew.
This is a man who has vowed to overturn the “rigged system” of politics. He has refused to “play by the rules.” Instead, he has submitted without a whimper to the first and most egregious of these rules. He should have said, “All of these people have come to see me and I’m going to pay them the extraordinary courtesy of looking at them.” He should have told the TV crew to bloody well go and stand in the crowd. In yesterday’s footage, we can still see some belated decency – after his aide has spun him around he is still attempting to address the crowd from over his back. It is otherwise akin to watching all of a man’s revolutionary promise being blown out like a candle.
Corbyn should heed the fate of the French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre. Before 1794, Robespierre was this good guy with some interesting ideas, but as the Terror wore on he went increasingly round the bend. Finally, at the apex of his lunacy, he committed the tell-tale mistake of speaking with his back to the audience. He appeared before the National Convention on 9 Thermidor and tried to argue that there should be more Terror. He was unable to see the reactions of his audience because they had been seated behind him in rows and forced to hold up “ROBESPIERRE” placards. Oblivious to their mounting scorn and hatred, he was fatally vulnerable. A heckler cried out “The blood of Danton chokes him!” and Robespierre’s political career was, along with the rest of him, cut short. The next time he faced an audience, he had been shorn of his back, arse, and heels.
Come on, Corbyn! There are countless beautiful buildings and landscapes up and down the country that you can use as backdrops over the next few weeks. Just look your listeners in the eye! You would do well to insist upon the famous maxim of Oscar Wilde: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”