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
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.