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Dog-whistle politics

Australians will be familiar with this term for a type of targeted political campaign message, since it has been known there since at least 1997. It has started to appear in Britain during the current election campaign because of the Australian political guru Lynton Crosby. He ran four campaigns for John Howard before transferring his person and his skills to the UK and another Howard, the leader of the Conservative party, Michael Howard. The phrase refers to a campaign message that will not cause general offence, but which contains a coded message to which sympathetic voters will respond, in the same way that a dog will hear an ultrasonic whistle inaudible to the humans around it.

The net also plays into the Tories’ hands by facilitating the “dog-whistle” campaigning at which Michael Howard has become increasingly adept. Just as a dog-whistle is inaudible to humans but is heard by every canine within miles, Howard has been beaming messages at targeted groups — anti-abortion campaigners, and people hostile to immigrants, gypsies and asylum-seekers — which, if broadcast in the normal way, might repel the majority of voters.

the Observer, 10 Apr. 2005

The Tory leader’s choice of issues, from immigration to travellers and abortion, is said to be an example of “dog-whistle politics”. “You call home your traditional supporters of the party who have drifted away by appealing to their basest instincts and stirring up fear and prejudice and ugly gutter politics. But you do so at a pitch that cannot be heard by others. It’s a hit-and-run approach,” says Mr Hain.

the Independent on Sunday, 27 Mar. 2005

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Apr. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 April 2005.