Robert Fisk: Newspeak: why the BBC has an 'issue' with problems

Rhetoric

Share
Related Topics

A few weeks ago, a Very Senior Correspondent of the BBC was asked a tricky question.

I will not reveal the identity of this friend of mine, nor the country in which he spoke – He Knoweth Who He Is – but it was his answer that captivated me.

"I recognise this as an issue," he replied. I cannot recall the question – whether it was about the BBC's grovelling coverage of Israel or its refusal to show a film seeking help for wounded Palestinian children after the 2008-09 Gaza slaughter (on the grounds that this would damage the BBC's "neutrality") – but the reply was very revealing. Indeed, it was very BBC. So BBC, in fact, that I told my friend that he would one day be the corporation's director general.

Note the two words he didn't want to use. Of course, what he should have said was: I know this is a problem. But he couldn't. Because BBC-speak doesn't allow words like problems – because problems have to be solved. And the BBC doesn't solve problems. Because they do not exist. There are only "issues". And issues only have to be "recognised". Thus what my friend really meant was: "I know exactly what you're talking about but I haven't the slightest intention of admitting it, so piss off."

Being neither an internaut nor a Googler, I took a look through my BBC files and – quick as a shot – came up with an interview in The Independent in which Paul Mylrea talked about his new job as head of BBC "press and media relations". And bingo! "If you enjoy dealing with reputational issues," said Mylrea, "this is one of the most fantastic jobs around." His background, he explained, was "very much in reputation and crisis management." Again, you see, he couldn't use the word "problems". And sure enough, later in the interview, Mylrea admits that filling his predecessor's shoes "is a massive issue". Is there, I wonder, a BBC school that teaches employees to use this verbiage.

Take a look at the rest of what Mylrea says. The key part of his job will be "explaining the strategy" of the BBC (not to mention making clear the "quality" of the BBC's work). Neutrality means "not just delivering for one person, but delivering for a large number of people". Thus also turning a transitive into an intransitive verb. True, Mylrea does also talk about "the messages that go out [sic] about what the BBC is doing", the messages being the object of "deliver", I suppose. Mylrea does talk about his Open University degree and admits briefly that he was seeking the answer to "problems". But wait. He found, he says, that "lots of people had been thinking deeply about some of the issues". And there are other BBC darling words, too. "The big challenge" is to make sure the media understand the BBC's "strategic direction". And "the challenges of working in the public sector are huge ... I've always been lucky to work with teams that have challenged me."

O Lordy, Lordy, where does this bloody vocabulary come from? For some reason it keeps reminding me of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, who was always "absolutely" and "completely" certain of what he said. The BBC, of course, wouldn't dare use such language – absolutely and completely certain about anything, the BBC is not – but it must surely admire the language which builds up now around our former prime minister. I have to thank a magazine from Malaysia that informs me he recently took part in a "National Achievers Conference" in Kuala Lumpur which was organised – wait for it – by an outfit called "Success Resources". I assume that WMD was not part of this "keynote" speech.

But then who wants to talk about anything serious these days? I note an Associated Press dispatch from Jerusalem this week telling us that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, recently talked to American Jewish leaders about what the reporter Josef Federman called "touchy topics". Whoops! Touchy topics? Well, here goes. Abbas, according to the AP, spoke about "Mideast peace talks, anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media, violence and terrorism and the Holocaust". What on earth is "touchy" about the Jewish Holocaust? Or about "violence"? Or "incitement"? Or "terrorism"?

What all these words – issues, challenges, delivery, success, quality, achievers, touchy topics – have in common is the essential lie: that everything is for the good; that problems, disasters, third-rate work or bloodbaths simply don't exist, or are at best to be regarded as "touchy topics", something we don't need to hear about or for which we should be forewarned.

And while I'm on the subject, can someone explain this to me? Kent University's magazine informs me that it is using digital technology to photograph ancient documents in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral. All well and good. But Professor Michael Fairhurst says the system will allow a historian to "input metadata". What? And in case you think Professor Fairhurst is on his own, I have received an invitation to a lecture at the London Film School by Dr Hamid Naficy. The title? "Contextualising Iranian Accented Cinema – Exilic, Diasporic, Ethnic?"

Fairly exilic, I should imagine – like most of Abbas's Palestinian people who are indeed, I suppose, "exilic" since they are refugees. But that's another "touchy topic", isn't it, an "issue" we'd better avoid.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Day In a Page

Read Next
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Good on Andrew Lawrence – he’s exposed the liberal consensus that blights what passes for comedy

Nigel Farage
The appearance of Miguel Arias Canete at a Brussels hearing last Wednesday caused 100,000 people to sign a petition to prevent his appointment  

TTIP is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU's suspect relationships with corporations

Lee Williams
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain