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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit