Is Auntie scared of the C-word?

No, not that word, but “cut”.

Everywhere you look, the cuts are coming – cuts to budgets, cuts to staffing levels, cuts to spending. 2011 could well become remembered as the Year of the Cuts, particularly in the public sector. But will we end up thinking of it as the Year of the Savings, due to the BBC?

BBC journalists have reportedly been told to use "savings" rather than "cuts" after being branded the British Broadcasting Cuts Corporation by David Cameron. A BBC News oopsy even managed to use both in the same headline the other day, possibly indicating an anxiety over which term was right.

It's led to predictable grumbling from Labour that the friendlier, less scary word is replacing the harsher term; but the BBC responded that the right words were being used in context.

So, are the right words being used? Is Auntie being bullied into downplaying the cuts? When is a cut a cut, and when is a cut a saving? Is it all a big plot from the establishment-loving Beeb to bow down to its masters in government? Or is something a little less conspiratorial going on here?

It's not a straightforward replacement of "cuts" with "savings". Have a scour of the BBC website, for example, and you will see that the word "cuts" has not been excised completely; and it's the same story on the broadcast platforms, where the word has been sprinkled around without fear of an iron boot.

Are the two terms interchangeable, then? Not entirely. You can cut a budget, and in doing so you make savings; or you can cut back on staff, through which you make savings, but they're not exactly the same thing.

You can make efficiency savings without making cuts; and you can also make cuts without necessarily saving money in the short term – redundancies do cost money, which won't be saved until further along the line, for example. Cuts and savings aren't always the same thing, though you can argue about which term sounds friendlier than the other; it depends, perhaps, on whether you see public spending as a problem that needs to be solved or a vital duty of the state.

Perhaps it's the messianic zeal with which opponents of the government (UK Uncut, or Stop the Cuts, for example) have seized upon the word "cut" that makes the BBC a little uneasy when using it. In Auntie's constant quest to be seen as impartial and objective, too much use of the C-word might lead to familiar accusations of a leftist agenda being at work.

As ever, the Beeb bends over backwards to be seen as being as transparent and fair as possible – which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I think. I don't think it's playing down the scale of the government's plans for the public sector, or attempting to toe any kind of line over the language that's used, despite Cameron's rather snotty little attack.

Just as with the Beeb's anxiety over the word "reform" and possible positive connotations with reference to the forthcoming AV referendum, I think this is simply evidence of the corporation attempting to be as fair and balanced as possible, and keeping its guard up against possible accusations of anti-coalition (or anti-Tory) bias.

The word "cuts" will continue to be used, just as government spokespeople will be allowed to repeat the "We inherited this mess from Labour" time after time; I don't think anyone's trying to hide the truth of what's going on.

To many, it might seem like evidence of Auntie being told what to do by the government, but I'm a little more optimistic.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle