Monthly Archives: June 2015

Wimbledon is here, so eat a Sherborne Mess


My dear friend and lush Kirsty proclaimed to me that Wimbledon had started on Saturday. Ever the traditionalist, I spat out my early morning iced tea and said that this could not be true! Kirsty took the high ground and stomped her foot like a cornered wild boar.

“Check the Television dear, there is a man with long hair playing as we speak!,” she said.
Ah! television that superb fabulist. I flicked on to see a brilliant five set match of tennis unfurling before my eyes….alas it wasn’t quite live.

“OK this is a match between Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter from 2001. The biggest giveaway is that they keep mentioning that it is the final!!”

We mustn’t laugh too hard at dear old K because she, like the rest of us, was just looking forward to a wonderful tennis tournament that stinks of summer; the All Englishness of it…

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The real abuse of language Michael Gove is tackling

For the last couple of days the press has reported on a memo sent out by Michael Gove, Britain’s Lord Chancellor and a senior cabinet minister, instructing his civil servants how to write documents.

The coverage has focused on some of his stylistic orders such as the instruction not to use shortened forms such as “doesn’t” and “don’t” but to spell out the words in full – the full memo is at the end of this blog.

I don’t agree with all his grammatical idiosyncrasies but it is hard to criticise his desire to get civil servants to write with greater clarity.

In particular I noted one instruction which was hardly mentioned in the media coverage. Half way through the memo, Gove tells his bureaucrats to “use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible.”

Gove is highlighting a practice that the public sector – including for example the police, local government and health authorities – and big business are fond of using, particularly when they want to deceive us.

Those of you who read my blog will see the countless examples of this. Organisations use the passive in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.

As I have noted many times before, the bureaucratic instinct is to use phrases like “it was decided” or “agreement was reached” rather than say Mr A decided or Mr A, Ms B and Mr C agreed.

Using the passive enables an organisation to avoid saying who has taken a particular decision and more importantly who might be accountable for a misguided policy or decision.

Gove should perhaps send a personal note to Alison Saunders the director of public prosecutions whose preference for sentences with passive verbs I identified in my blogs on the decision not to prosecute Lord Janner for child abuse.

Of course Saunders, like a significant number of the Lord Chancellor’s department, is a lawyer – a trade whose instinct is always to evade, avoid and deceive on behalf of their clients.

In another blog, I noted that neither they nor the police talk like normal people.

This excessive use of passive infects the whole public sector – but it would be wrong to excuse the private sector. Most recently I wrote about South Railways.

But if you have the energy to trawl through my earlier blogs you will find many other examples.

I will close with a story published in the Sunday Times last weekend – ironically on the very day that the article about Gove was written. This illustrates the scale of the task that Gove faces if he is to persuade bureaucrats to use the active form.

The story is about an 87-year-old man who is going to court to seek the right to kiss his dementia-stricken wife of 67 years when he visits her nursing home.

It would be improper for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of this case. But I did notice the comments of Derby Council, the authority involved in the case.

“Where a person lacks capacity to make a decision for themselves…any decisions made are done in the best interests of the adult following consultation with all parties involved, including family members… Where parties do not agree or the decision is complex, it is necessary for an application to be made to the Court of Protection. We are committed to supporting contact arrangements as set out in the court order.”

Why are so many sentences structured in the passive? This seems totally unnecessary in this case.

But, if I sat in the jury and heard a witness speak in such a convoluted way, I would find it very hard to trust that evidence.

When I started blogging a few months ago, I noted in one of my first blogs how the passive was used by bureaucrats to deceive us.

My view than was that we should “always doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot and be suspicious when sentences have no subject.”

Nothing I have heard or seen since causes me to change that opinion.

Michael Gove’s instructions

In correspondence, civil servants must make sure they have:

* Not written “I am sorry to hear”, but “I am sorry to read” instead.

* Not written “however” at the beginning of a sentence (or any words such as “therefore”, “yet”, “also”, “although”), but put it after the verb: “There are, however, many options”.

* Not used “doesn’t”, “don’t”, “aren’t”, and so on, but spelt out both words.

* Taken a warm tone and been very gracious in thanking people for their letters.

* Used the active voice and the present tense as much as possible: eg, “We are doing this”; “My department provides guidance”; “The evidence shows that…”.

* Even if the view is an opposing one, acknowledged the arguments while not yielding on the substance.

* Avoided “this” and “it” on their own, trying to write exactly what they are referring to in correspondence.

* Not been repetitive.

* Not used anything too pompous.

* Not written that they “met with” someone (just “met”).

more “partner” deceptions

My last two blogs were on the misuse of the word partner – and I have just seen another abuse which is worth a quick mention.

I am indebted to Charlie Sale in the Daily Mail for identifying this.

Ascot says that, unlike I think all other meetings, it has no sponsors. And this is certainly true of the races themselves.

But as Sale points out there are plenty of logos of what they call their offical partners scattered round the course. A spokesman responded that there was a difference between a commerical sponsor and the commercial partner model.

Yet again you can see what a useful word “partner” is when you want to mislead and how many convenient applications it has to describe relationships, which should in essence be nothing more than a commercial transaction.

How the word partner is used to deceive us (part two)

My previous blog looked at the way the word “partner” is being used to promote an unhealthy relationship between media and commercial organisations.

There are of course other abuses of the word which did not fit exactly with the theme of the previous blog, so I thought I would do a separate one here.

You should always be suspicious when organisations start referring to “our partners” or “our partner organisations.”

This is used particularly when there has been, for example, a child abuse scandal or some policy disaster involving more than one body.

It is designed to create the impression that all of these groups are sharing responsibility – indeed they may even use the word.

But the aim of their lawyers and PR departments is rather different. It is to evade accountability. It doesn’t mean they will accept joint accountability, rather that they can ensure that the blame can never fall on one individual organisation.

Next time there is a major scandal, I will highlight how this word is used.

And there is another rather unpleasant use of the word partner. The word – or the verb equavalent “work together” – is used by companies to try to defuse a conflict with their customers.

They will try to create the impression that they are on your side when you make a complaint about a product or a service.  Dont be fooled – this is simply a device to try and confuse the debate.

So don’t be fooled. Whenever someone in power tried by words or behaviour to create they impression they are on your side, they are deceiving you – customer service staff will always be on the side of the company that pays their wages and their work colleagues and will put these interests ahead of those of the customers.

You have been warned

How the word ‘partner’ is used to deceive (part one)

Have you noticed how the corporate world is increasingly distorting and corrupting the word ‘partner’ to create a deliberately misleading impression.

Yesterday, when Newcastle announced Steve McClaren as their new manager, he was only allowed to speak to “preferred media partners” – a newspaper and a television channel. He later told the Daily Mail that he was not allowed to speak to the independent press.

Let’s look at what exactly a partner is. A partner is someone who plays on the same side as another; a person engaged with another in business; or a couple living together. It embodies a close relationship and shared concerns.It is, if you like, the commercial wing of that dread political phrase: “We are all in it together.” And it seeks to imply exactly the same thing.

Whatever the partnership between Newcastle and its preferred media partners, there has to be something in it for both of them. Only the coverage next season will tell how each is scratching each other’s back.

This is not the first time that the commercial side of organisations have given an unintentional insight into how they are subverting the media.

Earlier this year, the journalist Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph, arguing that the “coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

The Telegraph’s response included a very interesting paragraph. “We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.”

It is impossible to reconcile the first half of this paragraph with the second. By referring to those they have a commercial relationship with as “partners”, they are saying they are on the same side as them. To preserve the integrity of a media organisation from allegations of favouritism, every part of it should be firmly on the opposite of the table to those it deals with.

How indicative of the modern Telegraph it is that the words they use to defend their independence actually have the effect of reinforcing Oborne’s argument.

And anyone who is blase about the dangers of too close a link between commercial and journalistic coverage should look at the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections. Mihir Bose noted in a tweet in April that “The Daily Telegraph’s Russian pull out has articles praising Stalin, including his pact with Hitler and press freedom under the Soviets.” He warns that “The Telegraph may say thè views are those of the supplements but would most readers understand that?”

Of course, all papers, including respected ones like the Financial Times, have commercial sections, but these are always one-offs and don’t affect long-term coverage in the main editorial pages. Can one be so confident that, when there is a deal to publish sections on a country or company on a regular basis, there will be no insidious pressure on the news and feature coverage in the main paper.

If you are still unconvinced, all you have to do is google “media partners” and see how many companies come up with the words. All of them are looking for ways of crossing the bridge between commerical interest and editorial independence.

I don’t blame them for doing this – if the leaders of our media outlets are too feeble to resist, you can’t criticise those who exploit this weakness.

And I dont want to be naive about this – there is always going to be a tension between commercial and editorial interests. Sometimes one side wins out, sometimes another.

But it becomes immoral and professionally corrupt – and potentially damaging to editorial independence – when any media organisation refers to a commercial or political organisation as its partner.

So whenever you hear a reference to the word “partner” in a media relationship, be deeply suspicious.