Nicholas Jones spoke at a rally at the House of Commons (17.11.2008) in support of the drive by the Plain English Campaign to win wider support for the Small Print Bill. The aim is to help vulnerable people who miss out on compensation because of confusing small print. One of the aims is to ensure a minimum size for the print used in guarantees, contracts etc. Jones described the “love hate” relationship between journalists and those campaigning for plain speaking and writing.
If you will excuse the clichés, I will try to explain why we journalists have a hot and cold, love-hate relationship with the Plain English Campaign and your well-founded attack on confusing small print. As a former BBC political correspondent I have always applauded politicians who have championed plain speaking because when working for BBC Radio 4, I was always listening out for the soundbite, for the actuality which precisely encapsulated the point the speaker was trying to make. Perhaps it was a political pledge, an apology or a negative attack on an opponent. It was the words which mattered and the meaning which they conveyed. But therein of course lay the danger for the politician.
You only have to remember the incalculable harm which Harold Wilson inflicted on himself in 1967 -- after his infamous attempt to reassure the British public about the devaluation of the pound -- to see the potential pitfalls of speaking plain English. Wilson said that devaluation did not mean that the pound in “your pocket or in your purse or in your bank has been devalued”. Of course literally this was correct -- he could not have been clearer -- but his words rebounded on him. I have to admit, with a little help from the journalists of the day, the Prime Minister’s broadcast was held up as an example of his deviousness, that Wilson was trying to kid the public into thinking that devaluation would not have an effect on their lives.
Journalists have a lot to answer for. If there is ever another meaning -- a damaging interpretation -- which can be placed on a politician’s words, then you can be sure that’s the one the news media will pounce on. And here was Harold Wilson, a noted wordsmith, falling into the trap of trying to speak in a way everyone could understand when perhaps he should have realised that a complex subject like devaluation was a political minefield, open to so many interpretations. Of course the consequence of this -- the other side of the coin, if you will forgive another cliché -- is that politicians have become so fearful of being tripped up by what they say that they purposely use jargon and formulaic phrases in order to protect themselves from being misinterpreted.
If you think back to last week and the terrible case of Baby P, it was noticeable how council officials in Haringey, ministers and government departments all took refuge in the same phraseology, that the “proper procedures” had been followed. They all stuck rigidly to the same sentence knowing that any deviation might be seen as apportioning blame and that would be a chink which journalists and their opponents could exploit.
When it comes to plain English, I don’t think any of us would ever think there was a way of getting round saying “I am sorry”. But believe me -- as a collector of apologies -- there are all sorts of weasel-worded get outs which can be deployed. When it comes to us journalists, the feral beasts as Tony Blair dubbed us, the real red meat is forcing a public figure to say sorry.
Nothing will deter us once the hue and cry has begun: we want a scapegoat and we’ll get one. Alastair Campbell knows full well the importance of an apology. Sometimes there is only one way to draw a line under a damaging story -- and to move on, as the spin doctors say -- and that is to apologise. For a really effective apology, the spin doctor spins in advance that a “sorry” is on its way. Hence back in 1997 at the height of the row over Labour taking a £1million donation from the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, Campbell tipped off the Sunday papers that Blair would be saying “sorry” when he was interviewed by John Humphrys that Sunday morning for On The Record. The Sunday Telegraph’s front page headline could not have put it any better: “Blair goes on tv to say I’m sorry”.
In fact what happened during the interview was that the Prime Minister skirted round the issue -- “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy”, said Mr Blair. “Yes, I am sorry for the way this was handled”. Note what he said: he said “sorry” not for taking the money, but for the way the issue had been managed and presented to the public. Perhaps I am splitting hairs. Mr Blair did say the word “sorry” and that’s all that mattered to the media: the Prime Minister had been forced to eat humble pie. But you can see why for a spin addict like myself, apologies do give me quite a fix. The precise wording of them can be an art form in itself.
Now I am sure all journalists, wearing our hats as members of the public, applaud your campaign against confusing small print. Just as anybody else, we hate feeling we have been misled whether it is the small print in our household insurance policy or an inadequate guarantee on a faulty bit of equipment. But we journalists also have a vested interest which we should perhaps declare. It is often the small print of public life and commerce which keeps journalists in business. I loved nothing more as a political correspondent than going through the small print of leaked documents to find out whether the powers that be had misled us: did minister say one thing in public but another in private. Does the minute of a meeting or the small print of the document show there was duplicity, double dealing or perhaps something even worse.
We just love comparing and contrasting all that small print. And you must remember that it is journalists who are invariably on the side of the customer when they have been misled. You only have to look at the money sections or travel pages to see how far newspapers will go to fight for the consumer, to get a refund, a new holiday or whatever. My son is the deputy editor of Guardian Money and they devote a full page to the work of their consumer champion. Last Saturday’s edition featured a typical complaint about small print and the difficulty of getting a refund from Barclaycard. So remember, without all that confusing small print some journalists would be out of work.
But seriously the media is right behind you in campaigning for well-written terms and conditions because banks, insurers, retailers and the rest are always going to have get out clauses and it is your job -- and our job -- to help protect the public.
Finally let me return to the importance of plain speaking. Marie Claire suggested I armed myself with some examples so where better to go than the BBC’s website. Here’s a quote from the head of marketing for BBC Global News on how to promote the BBC brand:
“BBC World News has created this unique high-profile brand campaign to showcase its journalistic rigour and engage audiences with our core brand values and ultimately, to increase tune-in to the channel”.
I think what the BBC is trying to say is that they’re they launching a new campaign to attract more viewers to BBC World News.
Auntie could have done better than that.
We all know the work of the Plain English Campaign is never done: so keep it up.