Editor's Blog

Meetings in the age of bullshit

The foundations of the meetings industry would collapse if delegates started treating expert speakers with the same levels of skepticism we now typically see reserved for politicians.  

Whenever a politician opens his or her mouth, our default response is either to attempt to decode what they are saying or else to look for an ulterior motive for them saying it. It’s difficult to recall a time when public discourse was so hobbled by mistrust.

That’s not to say we should simply swallow what we are told, of course, or that it’s a recent phenomenon. Political language is designed ‘to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. That was written in 1946, by George Orwell.

But our needle is now permanently twitching between 9 and 10 on the bullshit-o-meter – and that rather suggests healthy skepticism has turned into something more malignant: cynicism.

It’s not just politicians who have a credibility problem. The media does too.

Trump’s endless assertions of ‘fake news’ haven’t helped matters. But the seeds of the current problem were sown long before he started tweeting his random thoughts as POTUS.

We might start our inquest in the early 1990s when technology started to radically change the presentation of television news, making it less information – more infotainment.

Overnight the title music became more portentous and the pomposity of the anchors more overbearing. “Good evening” …dum, dum, dum…“The headlines at ten o’clock…”

To a certain extent the technology began to dictate the content. What the news looked like was now every bit as important as what it sounded like. And live - everything had to be live.

The ‘two-way’ satellite link-up became a staple, regardless of whether or not the hapless ‘roaming reporters’ had anything pertinent to add to the story. Often they did not.

The newsroom itself resembled the deck of the Starship Enterprise, while green-screen  technology meant reporters being encouraged to use ‘helpful’ graphics in increasingly ‘creative’ ways.

News, in short, became a spectacle. A slickly packaged product.

All of this had a deleterious effect on the news itself – skewing the priorities of editors – but also succeeded in  promoting politicians who were themselves slickly packaged and capable of coining a soundbite on the spur of the moment. Enter the media-savvy career politician.

The emergence of a truly 24-hour news culture - where a politician caught off guard could be ruined before breakfast  - only helped to increase the culture of spin and counter spin, and the role of public relations officers and communications strategists in the corridors of power.

Add the internet into the  mix – with its paid-for content, alternative news channels, and viral videos of dubious origin – and it has now become an article of faith to take anything or anybody prima facie.

Which all makes human connection – seeing people face to face – so much more important.

Scientific, professional, or academic meetings  only work because of the implicit trust between the person on stage and the person in the audience. They are a beacon of sanity in a media-mad world.

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