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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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