No more Straw

If I never hear Jack Straw's grim tones over the radio again, it will be too soon.

Brandon Robshaw

Topics Politics

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It’s 7.30am, and to fill the morning silence you switch on the radio. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, of course. But just seconds later, you’re as bored and despondent as you’ve ever been in your entire life. UK foreign secretary Jack Straw is on the air again.

There are many disagreeable noises: a dog’s ceaseless barking, a baby’s incessant crying, the whine of a dentist’s drill – but none is as joyless as the grim, grinding, pitiless tones of Jack Straw. Nor as hard to avoid if you listen to Today, where Straw seems almost to be one of the regular presenters. Okay, he is foreign secretary. But I don’t recall previous foreign secretaries treating the Today studio like a second home.

A Today spokesman says that Straw is only on about twice a month, though he was on more often when the war against terrorism started. All I can say is that it feels like a lot more than that, maybe because each appearance seems to last 100 years. I have spent so much time listening to Straw that – without meaning to – I’ve learned all his detestable tricks of speech by heart.

There’s the intake of breath followed by a half-swallowed ‘Well’ and a tiny pause (creating the illusion that he is actually considering the question put to him). There’s the robotic monotony of his delivery, never varying in pitch by more than a semi-tone either way. There are the harsh, heavy stresses he uses to hammer home his point: ‘What I am suggesting is…’; ‘What we are saying is…’; ‘What we have stated is…’. It’s like listening to an overly argumentative sixth-former.

Then there’s his studied calmness, his maddening air of patience – a trick he must have learned from Thatcher. His interview technique is heavily indebted to the Iron Lady. He has inherited her trick of breathing only in the middle of a sentence, never at the end. In fact, Straw’s sentences never really end at all. An ‘and’ or a ‘but’ or a ‘so’ kicks in and then the next dreary sentence grinds out – making it impossible for the interviewer to say anything without interrupting him.

Of course, all politicians are guilty of using techniques like these. But nobody uses them so sincerely, so naturally and with such deadly effect as Straw. The whole dismal lexicon of interviewspeak – ‘complete nonsense’, ‘we’ve already made this perfectly clear’, etc – the cocksureness, the out-of-hand dismissals of opposing views…this really is Straw’s own language, not just an assumed lingo for the purposes of self-defence in an interview. You get the feeling that Straw was born to talk like this – that he talks like this at home, on holiday, in his dreams.

What makes Straw so hard to listen to is the colourlessness of his vocabulary. He uses hardly any concrete nouns, no descriptive language, nothing that gives you any kind of mental image. After listening to him for five minutes, you often find that you can’t remember a word he’s said. All that’s left is a vague impression of stubbornness, rigidity and illiberalism.

Straw goes on and on and on. I quail when he says, ‘I want to make two points here’. In a recent interview he promised ‘I’ll just make this last point’, and for a moment my heart lightened. But of course it wasn’t the last point, or the penultimate point, or even the ante-penultimate point. We were only midway through the interview.

It was in that same interview that I heard Straw say ‘You mentioned Euro-sceptics in the most general sense of the word’, and in the middle of this fantastically dreary utterance he actually chuckled. What could he possibly have been laughing at? Did John Humphrys tickle him? Or did Straw suddenly appreciate how wonderful it is to be able to bore seven million people at his own sweet will?

What I’d like to know is why the Today team keeps inviting him on. It’s time they stopped. Getting ready for work in the morning is a melancholy enough process, without the gratuitous infliction of Jack Straw. Today should be made a Straw-free zone.

Otherwise, the programme and I are going to part company, and I’ll start listening to something else in the mornings – like a recording of barking dogs, crying babies or dentists’ drills perhaps.

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Topics Politics


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