Sunday, 11 August 2013

Can we please get back to using plain English?


The job of a journalist is to tell people what’s going on. It’s really as simple as that.

Relaying events, reporting on issues and policies which affect people’s everyday lives.

Our job is to be in the courts, in Parliament, at Government announcements and in company briefings on behalf of the public and then to report back through the pages of a newspaper or on screen, telling the nation what has just been carried out in their name and at their expense.

This process requires one main skill - an ability to take often very complicated information, digest it, process it and spit it back out in plain English.

Sounds simple, and some of the time it is, but more often than not it isn’t.

Journalists wade through hundreds of pages of reports and documents, all knitted together with reams of jargon and complicated terminology to produce that 500 word article readers scan over breakfast.

Hours of debate between politicians, company reports peppered with figures that don’t appear to add up, blogs and press releases sometimes written to disguise the truth but push another message.

This is the job of the reporter, and we are happy to do it. But there is a lurking menace, uglier than all the Consumer Price Index figures and customer experience enhancement policies.

It is the a desire of politicians, medical officers, MPs, company chief executives and media relations officers to, at the point of delivery, suddenly pretend they don’t speak English.

A ‘toilet’ to every English-speaking member of the human race suddenly, when presented to the public by someone in authority, becomes a “public rest facility”.

People peed off at rising gas bills become “Subjects struggling to adjust to long-term wholesale price trajectories influencing the overall household energy budget projectile”.

Officials stand in front of groups of journalists at a specified time and place, with a message they want us to take back to the public, and for about an hour spout absolute bloody nonsense.

An example came while I was sitting in a Government energy briefing where it was announced “UK householders are currently saving around £64 on their gas and electricity bills as a result of energy and climate change policies”.

Fine, if you know what an “energy and climate change policy” is.

I tested it out on some friends, worried I was particularly clueless: “Guys, if I said to you ‘energy and climate change policies are saving you money’ would you know exactly what I meant?”

A resounding “no”.

A quick call to the Department of Energy and Climate Change press office, surely a media officer will know off the top of their head exactly what this means, after all it was their meeting - they didn’t.

It turns out that the Government, by encouraging people to install energy-efficient boilers and get their homes insulated, are in the long run helping them save money.

Fine, I get it, but why couldn’t they just say that.

I’ll be honest, I sort of knew the answer to that one before I set out on my point-making mission, but that's not the point.

The point is this - why must we suffer this repeated reluctance to just use plain English?

Do politicians and those talking to the press will think others won’t take them seriously unless they speak some strange tongue no-one really understands.

A bit like if you string incomprehensible words  together in a way that makes people fold their faces up in agony, you can smugly assume you are cleverer than they are?

There are some real corkers out there, and here is one of the finest examples.

The UK Energy Research Centre recently published a document based on research into public attitudes to the UK energy system.

Their take home message to the British public, and that includes you mother if you are reading this, was as follows:

“We conclude that meaningful public acceptability may only be achieved if it is rooted in a significant way, in the described value system.

“Publics are unlikely to settle for a form of change that does not show signs of commitment to the longer-term trajectories commensurate with the values.”

Yes - you read that right. I especially like the use of the word “publics”, one I use often to describe that which a lower mortal might merely refer to as “people”.

The report goes on: 

“If actors do not consider and take into account public values in their decision-making, resistance to energy system transformations or conflict over particular issues is more likely to result.

“However, pursuing energy system changes in ways that are in keeping with longer-term trajectories aligned with public values could form the basis of a social contract for change.”

‘Actors’???!??! - you have got to be kidding. Brad Pitt are you listening to this?

I remind you mother, as you consider slashing your wrists with your butter knife over breakfast, that this report was ultimately aimed at you - a bog standard member of the British public (no offence intended xx).

If you think that this kind of rubbish was a one off, think again, it comes thick and fast - ask any journalist.

Here’s a corker which landed in my in-box just this week.

“Alfa Laval ThinkTop D30 for standard process lines that don’t require high-end valve control”

Confused? Don’t be, it came with a line of explanation:

“Simple, yet savvy

“A fully integrated, intuitive control top, the Alfa Laval ThinkTop D30 fills the gap for valve control where conventional valve monitoring and control solutions are too expensive and loaded with more high-tech functionality than needed, or where an economical alternative to control panels equipped with external solenoid valves is required.”

Ahhhh - crystal clear.

I’m sorry, but I can think of one “simple, yet savvy” Anglo-saxon term to describe this garbage.

All this has inspired me to launch a new campaign, a driving force to call for and insist on the re-establishment of plain English.

Those simple words we share to get a point across without any undue mental anguish.

The title of my campaign has been inspired by much of the jargon-littered rubbish we hacks have to wade through on a daily basis.

So, without  further ado, I hereby give you the ‘Campaign for Real Anglo-Saxon Prose’, and yes, that shortens to CRAP- very apt I thought.

CRAP’s mission is to stamp out just that, to stick two fingers up at deliberately confusing reports, to root out the trouble-makers who clearly spend hours converting plain and simple English into incomprehensible gobbledegook.

CRAP is on a mission to name and shame the worst culprits, push for simple language and spare millions the horror of having to read garbage.

So watch out all those who dare to litter my inbox with “facilities” and “trajectories”, “modular indices” and “variable accountabilities” - I am watching you.


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