Journalese is like a poker player’s tell: it shows when a story is flimsy

As George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. Perhaps all reporters should take a compilation of 'journalese' words more seriously.

Journalism is rarely confused with literature and news reports that rank as great journalism usually do so more for the quality of the story than for the writing. Those of us who make our living filing copy against ever-tighter deadlines often have to be satisfied with getting all the facts into a sensible order, with words in between them that make sense.

So perhaps it’s unfair that I’ve written a book that questions some of those words. For much of the past year, I have been collecting the phrases seen only in news reports, or those that carry quite a different meaning from the one on the surface. These include phrases such as “potentially fatal” (meaning: not actually fatal in this case), “arcane rules” (regulations we don’t understand) and “senior backbencher” (backbencher who returned our call) as well as clichés such as “chilling foretaste”, “lethal cocktail” and “crunch talks”.

Some newspaper reporters have taken the journalese project slightly personally. “I feel guilty every time I write a story, thanks to you,” one remarked to me recently. That wasn’t my intention and I could never have got such a long list so quickly without the enthusiastic support of other hacks.

Indeed, people’s general delight when I describe my journalese collection shows that, for many, these words are beloved friends. Who can read about “red-faced council chiefs”, “booze-fuelled rampages” (which often turn into “nights of shame”) or “two-timing love rats” without smiling?

And yet, as George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. It matters that politicians know any adjustment in policy will be written up as a “humiliating retreat”. In April this year, I was in the room when Vince Cable was asked whether he agreed with the man next to him that the pop band One Direction were paid too much. The then 69-year-old Business Secretary was unaware of the “teen pop sensations” and thought the question was about “one director”. As the man next to him was the head of the Institute of Directors, he believed he would be on fairly safe ground agreeing with him. As soon as the press conference ended, Cable’s error was explained to him and he gave an interview correcting his earlier words.

It was very funny but was it fair for newspapers to describe this as a “U-turn”? On the big question of executive pay, Cable’s view was unaltered, as was his absence of views on the smaller question of boy-band compensation.

My worry with journalese is that lazy writing goes with lazy thought. If all we write about are “cabinet rifts” (two adults disagree on the solution to a complex problem – always mention that their departments are on a “collision course”) and ministerial “slapdowns” (a politician we like has been rude about a politician we dislike), we risk missing bigger stories.

The political commentator Steve Richards argued in a BBC Radio 4 documentary this year that many of the “news judgements” made at papers come down to: “We write about this because we’ve always written about this.” We give house fires more prominence than housing policy. There’s a parallel point about the words we use. We write in journalese because that’s what the newspapers were written in when we were growing up.

Most of the strongest newspaper stories are free from journalese – they tell themselves. Journalese is like a poker player’s tell: it shows that the reporter knows the story is flimsy and he or she is trying to make it appear more solid.

So while I don’t want to make life difficult for fellow journalists and though I continue to love journalese, it may not be such a bad thing if reporters were slightly more reluctant to write that someone had “fleshed out” a policy (repeated the policy but with one new detail) in a “keynote speech”. (When I asked a Downing Street aide why all speeches were described this way, he said, “You lot won’t come otherwise.”)

Some things won’t change. Political scandals will continue to have ministers going from “defiant” to “embattled” to “beleaguered” to “shamed” (or, if an inquiry finds against them, “disgraced”). Yet I would like to see numbers move at speeds other than those of a “skyrocket” or a “plunge”. And perhaps we can find new ways for parties to adjust their political position, other than simply a “lurch to the left” or a “drift to the right”.

To those reporters left feeling guilty by the list of journalese, I suggest that they adopt the view of another “newsman”, who grabbed my book with delight and said: “Great! Is there a place where we can tick the words off when we’ve used them?”

Robert Hutton is the UK political correspondent for Bloomberg News. His book on journalese, “Romps, Tots and Boffins: the Strange Language of News”, is published by Elliott & Thompson (£9.99)

Mind your language: Orwell argued that the words we use shape our thought

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.