ANALYSE: How a newspaper comment article persuades its reader

INTRODUCTION

John Kay’s article in the Financial Times (“It is time to end the oligopoly in banking”, 9th May 2012) is a masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, read it now. It’s about how the Co-operative shouldn’t be prevented from entering the banking sector just because it doesn’t have the “capital and governance structure” of contemporary banks. It also attempts to naturalise the banking sector into just another type of exchange, like at “grocery checkouts”.

The reason this article is so persuasive is because its politics and its poetics are complementary. We Prac-Critters are used to this  in our literature (e.g. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads has a poetic structure – stanza, rhyme, metre – which complements and is complemented by its political attention to “the real language of men”). But we are not used to it in our newspapers. Justifiably: the poetics of most articles we read are restricted by editorial standards.

But I hope to prove that John Kay’s article persuades the reader of his free-market politics through a deliberate naturalising – that is, demystifying – of the banking sector. I will prove this first through analysing how the narrative structure (poetics) of the article favours a ‘natural’ storytelling style. Then I will look at how the free-market, anti-intervention, anti-regulation politics of the article interact with this poetic structure.*

NATURALISING POETICS

John Kay’s article differs from most newspaper articles you will read because its narrative structure is more akin to traditional storytelling (it is climactic) than journalistic explanation (which decrescendos from its beginning). It has a prologue, a first chapter, a climax at two-thirds/three-quarters through, and an epilogue. Instead, journalism imparts its most important information at the start and, as a generalisation, gets less and less important. This diagram explains.

Now see for yourself. His first column (pictured below) reads like a prologue to a Victorian novel:

The Co-op is a British institution like no other. It originated in the 19th century, its goals political as well as economic. Its members aimed to undermine capitalism, particularly rapacious shopkeepers, by direct collective action. Co-op shares won a significant share of retail trade, especially in food and in the north of England and in Scotland. In the 20th century, however, the stores were often badly run . . .

In providing a short interesting history of his protagonist, the Co-op, Kay is working poetically to enforce his naturalisation of the banking sector. This type of narrative is a ‘natural’ one for the reader to process because it is devoid of jargonistic language and low on explicit argument – like a novel. It contains a protagonist, a plot featuring success and failure, characterisation of “rapacious shopkeepers”.

Simplistically: Kay convinces the reader that banking is a simple process of exchange by describing it so simply. Imagine how dreary a straight essay on the need to evaluate banking oligopoly could have been. Any weaker journalist would have begun:

There is an argument that banking is different to other sectors. This argument won historic acceptance, with the result that banking has become over-regulated.

Do you see the marked difference between those two beginnings? It’s not an issue of differing arguments (in fact, the latter quotation is actually taken from Kay’s article, appearing about three-quarters of the way through). It’s an issue of narrative placement: when the writer chooses to reveal his argument explicitly, if at all.

After the prologue, the second column begins Chapter One: ” The Co-op also found a niche in financial services. Once again, the motives were partly political.” Now the plot is in action. We have a scene, as it were, set deep in financial district. The Co-op has become the star of an ‘underdog narrative’: it is “near the top of surveys of customer satisfaction” but regulators are preventing it from challenging the establishment because it is run by “a group of amateurs”.

Pertinently (see the diagram again) Kay’s narrative only reaches its crux in the fourth column of five, by which point the reader is wholly ready to accept his explicit argument. How much more convincing is this than an all-out baring of his wares, followed by a limp decrescendo! I will come to the epilogue later . . .

NATURALISING POLITICS

The banking sector is not a mysterious financial land where money-deals are executed by well-paid genii. That is the lay-version of Kay’s article. In the Prac-Critter’s terms, he is attempting to naturalise banks to argue that they shouldn’t be exempt from the free-market model (i.e. unregulated). You can see where he makes this point explicitly in my notations below (starred zealously). He says:

There is an argument that banking is different. It won historic acceptance [and] perhaps that was a good bargain, but it is a bargain that is no longer available.
 
This is good-point-well-made territory, and I won’t tread further. Crucially, Kay builds up to this argument at a micro level throughout his article via a subtle advocacy of anti-intervention, anti-regulation, and anti-technocracy. Here is the best example:
The central issue seems to be that if the Co-op wants to be a bank, it must become a bank. It needs to put in place a capital structure and governance structure, impose a clear separation between the banking tills and the grocery checkouts, and recruit board members and staff with extensive banking experience.

Here Kay’s politics and poetics interact beautifully. His politics implies that because the Co-op is functioning well in its current state, it would be detrimental to artificially “put in place” or “impose” a “structure” onto it. His poetics agree: this is the first time in the article that he has used tricolon (or rule-of-three), a technique inseparable from persuasive rhetoric and fairly distant from narrative storytelling. This may strike a discord with the reader who has so far been treated to Kay’s Co-op story; all of a sudden we are in an essay. Banking regulations have disrupted the story, suspended the plot, and this discredits them via our aesthetic sensibilities. That the tricolon is punctuated by those three business-like verbs “put in place”, “impose”, and “recruit” serves to heighten its artificiality.

There isn’t a sentence in this short article which doesn’t flout this tension between natural and artificial, between politics and poetics.

CONCLUSION

We should conclude with the final sentence of Kay’s article. His epilogue is the keystone of the text, and I am very glad that he took the brave decision to place it as the end, not the beginning (for reasons depicted in the above diagram). It reads:

Plurality and diversity are generally sources of stability – in banking as in nature.

The Prac-Critter should notice immediately the lilting cadence of the three rhyming words (“-ity”). The vastly different concepts of plurality, diversity, and stability are bound together through their poetic resemblance. Similarly the repeated construction “in ____” links the nouns “banking” and “nature” better than a more verbose explanation could.

This sentence may remind us of Andrew Marvell’s line “Things greater are in less contain’d”, which demonstrates its point simultaneous to describing it.

Kay’s sign-off finally reveals his article for what it has been all along: a bold call for the re-evaluation of banking as a natural and free-market point of exchange. In fact, do you remember, this is exactly what his title said from outset? Ah but it is only the Prac-Critter who will read the article to the end and, in doing so, become privy to the powerful and subtle techniques employed throughout.

Bravo, John.

*I have a wider ambition: to explain that we Prac-Critters should view every situation that man has touched with rigorous attention to how and why it achieves what it achieves.

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