On the radar: empty chair
In June 1993, after Roy Hattersley failed to turn up for the satirical quiz Have I Got News For You for the third time in a row, the producers made a decision. Rather than rush to get a last minute substitute, they replaced the politician with a tub of lard. As the host, Angus Deayton, drily observed, the lard was ‘liable to give much the same performance’ and was ‘imbued with many of the same qualities’ as the MP.
This memorable comic incident was an example of ‘empty-chairing’ (even though the chair in question was actually occupied by a tub of lard): the practice of deliberately drawing attention to a politician’s failure to turn up to an interview or other event. Both the noun ‘empty-chairing’ and the verb ‘to empty-chair someone’ have surged in use recently, after the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would not be taking part in televised debates ahead of the general election in June. In response, broadcasters declared that the debates would go ahead without the Conservative leader, and that an empty chair may be left on set to emphasize her absence.
The practice of ‘empty-chairing’ reflects a changing attitude towards politicians (and, indeed, many other formerly feared and respected figures of authority), and the emergence of a more aggressive form of journalism. When a broadcaster ‘empty-chairs’ someone, rather than politely covering up their absence, they are deliberately drawing attention to their refusal to turn up, and making a mockery of it. The empty chair symbolizes the politician’s avoidance of awkward questions and situations. The message is clear – we will make an example of you, even if you try to avoid being in the spotlight. You can run, but you can’t hide.
Sometimes the empty chair is metaphorical, but the impact remains the same. On radio, for example, you cannot show an unoccupied seat, but the practice is still common. Each time a radio reporter states that ‘we requested an interview, but the minister declined’, they are empty-chairing their victim – openly stating that the politician has refused an interview, rather than sweeping the matter under the carpet (to continue the allusions to domestic furnishings).
But is the rise of the empty chair only due to a lack of respect for elected officials? Could it also be that – in the age of tightly controlled political sound bites – politicians are more likely to avoid conflict, and situations where they may be challenged and exposed?
The emergence of ‘empty-chair’ as a verb meaning ‘draw attention to a politician’s failure to turn up’ certainly seems to be fairly recent. The earliest print evidence we have found so far is from 2001, in a piece by the broadcaster John Humphreys. Within his article, however, Humphreys hints at a far earlier origin, describing ‘empty chair’ as ‘an old favourite’, and claiming that the practice goes back to the 1950s, when a discussion about smoking and health had been set up, but the tobacco industry representative refused to appear, so the programme went ahead with an empty chair in the studio.
There is certainly evidence of the term being used adjectivally far earlier – particularly in the phrase ‘empty chair debate’. This practice – which describes a performance where one person pretends to debate another, who is represented by an empty chair – seems to be a particularly American phenomenon. One of the earliest instances was in 1924, when the Progressive vice-presidential nominee Burton K. Wheeler debated an invisible President Calvin Coolidge. A more recent example was seen in 2012 when the actor and director Clint Eastwood held an empty-chair debate with President Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention.
Though the connection of these ‘empty-chair debates’ to the more recent journalistic ‘empty-chairing’ is clear, they are not exactly the same thing. Crucially, in an empty-chair debate the individual represented by the chair has not been invited to attend and give their side of the story, whereas the entire point of empty-chairing a politician is to show that they have refused a request to appear.
We do not currently give a definition for the new sense of ‘empty-chair’ on Oxford Dictionaries, though the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for an attributive use ‘designating a policy of withdrawal from participation in meetings, votes, etc., in response to a disagreement or dispute’, with evidence dating back to the 1950s. In the OED’s definition the power is held by the person avoiding the meetings or votes – they are the one choosing an empty chair policy as a way of making a political point. In the new sense, the meaning is reversed – it describes the media seizing power from politicians by turning their refusal to appear against them. What will happen in the pre-election debates is still to be decided, but if the Prime Minister sticks by her decision not to take part, then ‘empty-chair’ may be finding its way into our dictionary sooner rather than later.