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Gareth Rees - Anatomy of a manufactured controversy
2008‒11‒03
20:52

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Anatomy of a manufactured controversy

A strange story appeared in the UK press today:

This is not a piece of news: there’s no event being reported here. It’s a report about someone saying something about someone. Now these kinds of non-news-stories are very common in the UK press, but usually it’s clear where they come from: they originate from public relations companies pushing a product (as in the case of the Telegraph piece “Formula for a perfect shopping trip revealed” which generated a bit of free publicity for a shopping centre) or pressure groups pushing a cause (as in the Telegraph piece “Fish ‘should be rebranded as sea kittens’” which reported on a publicity campaign by an animal rights group). I wish journalists wouldn’t do this, but I guess that staffing levels and the pressure of work mean that they have basically no other way to meet their allotted word count; the blame lies with management who allow their organizations to be used as mouthpieces for PR flacks. *

But in the case of the Latin story it’s completely unclear who’s doing the pushing. The Mail and the Telegraph attribute it to unnamed “classics scholars”; the AP to “Britain's Greek and Latin aficionados”; the BBC to “some Latin scholars”. So who’s behind this?

A couple of people give quotes: Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University and Peter Jones, “an academic and founder of the charity Friends of Classics”. Are they the culprits? This article on their website suggests not: that they were asked to comment by the media rather than being the source of the story.

What about Mary Beard? Here’s where it gets interesting. Her blog has a recent post on the issue, “It's bonkers to ban Latin”, which says:

I was contacted last week by a Telegraph journalist, The Telegraph had uncovered, he said, the fact that local councils were banning Latin words from all official documents and in their dealings with the public more generally. This was information the paper had obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. (Hang on… do you really need the FOI Act to find out about this, or did the horrid truth emerge during a trawl for something even more sinister?)

This strongly suggests that the story originates with someone at the Telegraph, someone obsessed enough with the issue to send out FoI requests to councils for their language policies. And a bit of further digging strongly suggests that the man with the bee in his bonnet is Telegraph writer Gerald Warner (pictured), who wrote a piece on the issue, “Local council cretins ban Latin as ‘elitist’, pro bono publico”, on November 2, a day before the story broke elsewhere.

And my goodness, Mr Warner certainly feels strongly about the issue:

Councillors and their staff are the most ignorant and pretentious people in Britain. They are so superfluous to any conceivable requirement, the constraints of the English language inhibit adequate expression of how unnecessary, unwanted, useless, unfit for purpose and generally de trop (whoops!) these municipal excrescences are. These priggish, politically correct, climate change-obsessed, social engineering, provincial Hitlers (forgive me for not coming off the fence and saying what I really think) are as useful as a code of ethics in a New Labour Cabinet.

In fact the whole piece is so full of raving right-wing reactionary drivel, that I can hardly believe it's intended seriously. Read the whole thing for the full head-exploding experience.

Now one could try to refute him on the facts: of course public bodies have guidelines on how to deal with the public, and of course they have to deal all the time with people for whom English is not their first language, and who are not highly educated. Having guidelines on communicating simply and effectively doesn’t amount to a “ban” on Latin.

But really there’s no point, because he makes it completely clear why he wants to preserve the use of Latin in official language:

Latin is a useful litmus test. It separates the civilised, as in past centuries, from the Goths and Vandals.

It’s a “litmus test”. If government services use Latin, then people who have not studied Latin will find it harder to use to those services, and people who have studied Latin will gain a relative advantage. People like him.

So shame on the press for picking up this absurd defense of privilege and running it as a news story. I hope you didn't fall for it.

* Credit where it’s due: I got this narrative about the media’s relationship with PR, and the two examples, from Ben Goldacre.

Update: also discussing this chez gerald-duck, language hat, and language log.

Further update: Bournemouth Borough Council have issued a press release on the issue:

Bournemouth Council must correct inaccurate reporting in several national media.

The Council has not banned any Latin words or phrases. Two years ago, we issued advice to our staff to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at.

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[User Picture]
From:gerald_duck
Date:2008‒11‒03T22:09 (UTC)
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Nonetheless, many of the phrases cited (apparently genuinely, as having been deprecated in Bournemouth) are perfectly reasonable, useful and common. Indeed, they're so reasonable, useful and common I think it's fair to treat them as English, now.

I can't offhand think of any better way to express the concept "vice versa", for example, and "NB" is a good, brief way of drawing attention to something. "Via" is used on road signs and nothing else comes close to it for terse clarity.

Yes, it seems the person who brought all this to the attention of journalists is a jerk with reprehensible views, but he does have a point in many respects.

(I'm very worried about what on earth the thing above his — or someone's — wrist is in that photo, by the way.)
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From:gareth_rees
Date:2008‒11‒03T22:39 (UTC)
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"vice versa" = "and the other way round" (but it would be even better to use a chiasmus).

"n.b." = "note that" or "please note" (or you could say why it should be noted).

"via" = "through" or "using".

Even if everything being reported is true (and if Gerald Warner told me the sun rose in the east, I'd get up early and take out a compass), it's only Bournemouth Borough Council telling its employees how to write official documents. I expect that even the Telegraph has these kinds of guideline. There's no threat to anyone's freedom of speech or to the richness and diversity of the English language. The only threat appears to be to the self-esteem of people who think they are better than others because they had an expensive education.
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From:gareth_rees
Date:2008‒11‒03T23:35 (UTC)
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It's important not to confuse the issues here, by the way, which I take to be:

1. Is it factually the case that using simple English can improve access to local government services? [Surely yes: I don't think the Campaign for Plain English were making this up.]

2. Is it legitimate for local government to make guidelines for their staff to follow when preparing official documents and correspondence? [Of course it is.]

3. Does this mean that the rest of us should stop using Latinisms? [No, what an absurd idea.]

4. Is this the end of civilization as we know it, a sign that the barbarians are at the gates, etc etc? [Ut Latina cadit, sic omnis terra!]

(That thing is part of Mr Warner's left hand: there's another person out of sight to the right both of whose arms are visible in the foreground.)
[User Picture]
From:gerald_duck
Date:2008‒11‒03T23:59 (UTC)
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I'd add "5. Are all of the specific examples given really less simple than alternatives?" and answer "no", though.
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From:gareth_rees
Date:2008‒11‒04T09:49 (UTC)
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But if that's what this is all about—if “office guidelines slightly over-zealous, could be improved” amounts to a national scandal, then we’re all in a world of trouble. I’m shredding our C programming guidelines right away.
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From:nickbarnes
Date:2008‒11‒04T01:29 (UTC)
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That picture of him is hilarious. What's all the ironmongery?
I see that today he is writing scare-mongering nonsense about the American election: "Who is Barack Obama?". Given the amount of information available on the subject, if he's too stupid to figure out the answer to that question, what on earth is he doing writing for a newspaper? Or even for the Telegraph?
Just goes to show, you can lead a horse to Latin but you can't make him think.
[User Picture]
From:nickbarnes
Date:2008‒11‒04T01:43 (UTC)
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whoops, failed to close italic tag.
From:gjm11
Date:2008‒11‒04T02:28 (UTC)
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The best answer I have seen to the vital, urgent, scary question "Who is Barack Obama" can be found at http://fafblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/barack-obama-black.html .
[User Picture]
From:frabcus
Date:2008‒11‒04T12:43 (UTC)

Flat Earth News

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"I wish journalists wouldn’t do this, but I guess that staffing levels and the pressure of work mean that they have basically no other way to meet their allotted word count; the blame lies with management who allow their organizations to be used as mouthpieces for PR flacks."

Alas it is even more culturally and economically endemic than something that management could fix. Flat Earth News by Nick Davies is an excellent book that came out at the start of the year, and fully dissects the problem with British newspapers. I highly recommend it.
[User Picture]
From:gareth_rees
Date:2008‒11‒04T14:02 (UTC)

Re: Flat Earth News

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You might be right; it just seems unfair to me to blame individual journalists for laziness when it's really the system set up by the proprietors and the managers they appoint that forces journalists to act like this. I think Nick Davies would agree:
[T]he average Fleet Street journalist now [2005] is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985. In other words, as a crude average, they have only one-third of the time that they used to have to do their jobs. Generally, they don't find their own stories, or check their content, because they simply don't have the time.
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From:elfy85
Date:2008‒11‒04T18:26 (UTC)
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Personally, I'm considering this whole furore a litmus test of my own: people who are taking the Telegraph's side in this and suggesting that it's a disgrace for councils to try to communicate effectively with people who speak poor English are generally selfish prats entirely lacking in empathy.
[User Picture]
From:gareth_rees
Date:2008‒11‒04T20:02 (UTC)
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I wouldn't go that far; language hat is a pretty sensible chap, for example, and he fell for it. The thing is that if everything that was reported about this story was a 100% accurate and fair summary of the whole truth, with nothing distorted, spun, taken out of context or cherry-picked then it would indeed be a (minor) scandal. I don't think you can really fault people for failing to see how they are being manipulated. I'm sure I've fallen hook, line and sinker for similar stories that happen to flatter my own prejudices.

What we need is education, not litmus tests.
[User Picture]
From:nickbarnes
Date:2008‒11‒06T11:35 (UTC)
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also discussing this chez gerald-duck, language hat, and language log.

Oh no! Getting ... sucked ... in!
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