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

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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?