Frank Luntz, the American pollster, has written a book about political communication called “Words that Work”, however it is the subtitle that is of most interest to me, “It’s Not What You Say, it’s What People Hear”.
Patrick Mercer made a number of remarks about life in the army. Reading through them I couldn’t find any that I knew to be factually inaccurate, Patrick painted a picture of the Army warts and all.
When I first heard about this situation I felt that it was deeply unfair that Patrick had to stand down for simply describing the rough, brash, rude and often insulting way that all soldiers habitually interact. The level of swearing, name calling and shouting does not increase nor decrease in relation to the colour of the deliverer or recipient’s skin, all soldiers are rude to all other soldiers all the time.
Then I thought about the subheading of Frank Luntz’s book, “It’s Not What You Say, it’s What People Hear”. Patrick Mercer will probably be familiar with a fundamental rule in military communications, the responsibility for ensuring the correct and complete receipt of a message lies with the sender not the recipient.
Whatever Patrick meant to say was overshadowed by what people thought he said, and that is his fault! What he said has given ammunition to a lot of Tory hating MPs and media commentators who were desperate to cry out “same old racist Tories”, as unfair and untrue as that line is, it will stick and undo much of the good work that the party has done.
In a country which increasingly swayed by just the headline of a story lines like “Cameron sacks Tory front-bencher over ‘black bastards’ gibe“, “Top Tory axed over Army race row“, “Nasty Party” etc. do a great deal of damage.
I don’t believe for a second that Patrick Mercer is a racist or is an apologist for racism, but after today there may be a number of people who do. That is why it was right that he stood down from the front bench.