How to slag off your old boss, in plain English

Chrissie Maher has spent her life fighting jargon. Now a tribunal has found for two employees who felt the rough side of her tongue. Kim Sengupta reports
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The Independent Online
It Was not something Chrissie Maher would have cared to be in the headlines for, but the accusation and the language in which it was put were plain enough: she was a gossip who had driven two of her employees to resign with unfounded allegations of an affair.

Martin Nobbs and his colleague Jill Cushway had resigned from the Plain English Campaign, founded and run by Mrs Maher to counter bureaucratic gibberish, and claimed constructive dismissal. Last week they heard that they had won their industrial tribunal action.

The candid sentiments and refreshing lack of jargon in the reaction of those involved at the end of the case was just the sort of straight talking of which Mrs Maher approves. Mr Nobbs' wife Christine, an infant school teacher, spoke of the "hideous pain, anger and distress the rumour had caused her", while her husband said the final straw had been Mrs Maher's decision to prevent him and Mrs Cushway from making a plain English presentation in Scarborough, Yorkshire, as part of a roadshow they operated together.

Mrs Maher, on the other hand, maintained: "This is a miscarriage of justice, I never started any rumour. I could think of something to say in plain English, but I had better not." She said during the row over the trip Mr Nobbs "threw his briefcase on my desk and asked why the f---ing hell he and Jill were not going."

At the Campaign's headquarters in New Mills, Derbyshire, staff did not want to dwell on this little local difficulty. One said it would be a shame if the adverse publicity made people forget Mrs Maher's remarkable achievements.

She has certainly had an extraordinary life. The Plain English Campaign is now well recognised, an established concern called in by government departments and international companies to disentangle the linguistic knots and verbiage which their documents had fallen into.

And its role does not end there. The Campaign helped draft the Bill of Rights for post-apartheid South Africa, and the new constitution of Ghana. It now has offices in the US and parts of Africa; the fifth international conference of the Campaign was held last July where sessions were devoted to topics such as financial information services, policing and the law, public utilities and trade unions. Chrissie Maher, a grandmother eight times over, is now one of the great and the good.

Yet she came from a world which could hardly have been more different. Growing up poor in Liverpool she seldom went to school, and often did not have shoes. Like other bright children denied a good education, she took refuge in books. But since even the local library would not let her come in barefoot, she had to search through dustbins for discarded ones.

Escape from this debilitating poverty and frustration came in the shape of an employer who sent her to night-school. It was, for Chrissie, a time of discovery tinged with uncertainty because she had not been taught the basics of English language and literature when she was young. Seeing her first Shakespeare production, she burst into tears because the audience was laughing and she could not understand why.

But a few years later Mrs Maher had enough confidence to launch a widely praised community newspaper, the Tuebrook Bugle. Then it was time to take the message of plain, good English beyond Liverpool. In 1979 she went to Parliament Square and began shredding official documents. She was read a stern official warning, the Riot Act, by a policeman. When he had finished parroting through it Chrissie asked "Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?"

Having fallen foul of officialdom, Mrs Maher decided to do something about it. She and a friend, Martin Cutts, started the Plain English Campaign. The then Supplementary Benefits Commission asked her to translate its forms into a style which its clients could understand more easily.

With messianic zeal she moved to other targets, and now few official bodies escape her censure. Academics "use jargon which is intended to exclude", the Inland Revenue self-assessment forms are akin to "tax terrorism", and "the Health and Safety Executive must be amongst the worst communicators on the planet".

But Mrs Maher's own communications have not always been trouble free. The industrial tribunal case brought by Mr Nobbs and Mrs Cushway is not the first time she had fallen out with colleagues. Her working relationship with Martin Cutts ended in acrimony in 1988, and he established the rival Plain English Commission the following year.

Verbal warfare broke out in 1995 when Mr Cutts' Commission began to give out prizes for clear language, something the Campaign had been doing since 1981. To rub it in he gave a booby prize, a Silver Rhubarb, to the National Westminster Bank who had been nominated approvingly by her as Crystal Clear Bank of Europe for the ease with which its literature could be understood.

An angry Mrs Maher declared: "He should be ashamed of himself. He is deliberately trying to undermine a grassroots movement. He was a student from Liverpool University when I found him."

Mrs Maher has her own booby prize, a bucket of tripe, which she likes to dish out. After the embarrassment of the industrial tribunal many of her detractors feel the only thing to do is to serve herself some.