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?

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.