In the days after the 7/7 London bombings why did the British government’s representation of ‘terrorism’ and ‘moderate Muslims’ seem to create the opposite response from Muslim constituencies to that which the government intended? A new paper co-authored by myself and Giles Moss at Oxford has been published in Political Studies that tries to answer this question. There are ways in politics to make claims about states of affairs that allow those we address to engage with the substance of what we say, rather than switch off or view our address as an attack on us. We analysed speeches of Tony Blair, John Reid and others, and responses of British Muslims and British citizens more generally to their speeches. We found that citizens found the politicians’ claims about ‘terrorism’ or ‘Iraq’ to be too certain, too fixed and too direct, making it difficult for citizens to comprehend or connect to their representations as meaningful and negotiable. It was not simply that citizens mistrusted politicians or disagreed with their policies, but that politicians’ rhetoric and mode of address was interpreted as putting matters beyond debate. Citizens understand that politicians must reach decisions and respond urgently to terror attacks, but Blair, Reid and others were deemed to say controversial things and then present them as if they were beyond question. Yet even in moments of crisis, we argue, the responsibility to sustain engagement does not evaporate – if anything it becomes more pressing.
Giles and I hope to build on this article by reconsidering insights from Dewey and Lippmann that, contrary to the notion that citizens are turned off by ‘hard news’, suggest instead that it is around complex, controversial subjects in which politicians are deemed to be failing that publics actually do take an interest. We will look at public responses to the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War as a case in point.