In this age of instant communication, the notion of ‘in time' has changed enormously, with its own peculiar consequences.
It is not at all unusual now to find a journalist reporting what a politician is going to say in a speech later in the day. The old principle that political speeches were embargoed until they had actually been made has largely gone by the board. The same thing applies, obviously, to speeches from others as well as politicians.
As someone who was a full-time journalist in the days before emails and mobile telephones, I note this change with interest, but no surprise. Modern methods of communication mean that information can be pretty well instantly available around the world. They also mean that members of the public have access to them instantly, 24 hours a day. What is more, people definitely expect to have information available “24 x 7”. In these circumstances, the politicians have little choice if they are to maintain their reputations.
There was a good recent example of the implications of living in a world of instant communication, when President Obama, in Afghanistan, made a speech broadcast to the United States. It marked the new historic agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan defining, in the President's words, “a new kind of relationship between our countries — a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins”. It was made in the middle of the night so that it could be heard, live, in the U.S., at a time when people were awake and easily able to look at television. This, of course, was not quite the same thing as reporting what the President was going to say, but the timing was crucial in ensuring that the speech made a full impact.
For a vivid reminder of how the communications world has changed, let us go back to the 1960s, and specifically to the world-changing speech which Harold Macmillan, then the U.K. Prime Minister, made in South Africa — a speech which made it clear to the pro-apartheid political leaders of that country that their days would soon be over. It was the famous “wind of change” speech: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it”. His audience, including Hendrik Verwoerd, the racist Right-wing South African Prime Minister, definitely did not like it — but Macmillan's message was soon to be proved right.
Much less pressure
The interesting thing about timing in this case, compared with the Obama timing, is that Macmillan had been travelling for several weeks in Africa when he made the speech. There was no doubt about its significance, but the time pressures were quite different from those that obtain today.
The changing pressures of time, from those more leisurely days to the present era of instant communication, do not particularly affect the significance of messages being put across to the public. Important policy statements are, as they always have been, important policy statements.
What is affected is the time pressure on everyone involved in dealing with policy issues. The politicians are under great pressure to make their policies known instantly. The journalists are under similar great pressure.
It is, of course, true that communications systems have been developing over very many decades. Journalists reporting major events in the 19th century had to accept that their reports might take days, or even weeks, to reach the newspaper (no television or radio in those days). For my generation, inevitably, that seemed almost antediluvian. Telephones, and cables, ensured that the time taken in transmitting information was, by comparison with the 19th century, of a completely different order.
I do not suppose any of my contemporaries was really surprised to see how things developed after “our” day. Most of us would not have been able to predict precisely how things would change, but we were all aware that change they most certainly would.
One major advantage of today's systems is that less time has to be devoted to the process of communication, and more time can therefore be devoted to gathering the substance of what is to be communicated. There is, I guess, a balancing disadvantage, certainly for the politicians. It is that when decisions have to be declared instantly, time for careful reflection is no longer available.