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Johann Hari

Johann Hari: Don't allow Cameron to rebrand cuts


The only job David Cameron ever had outside politics was as a PR man for a large corporation – and now he is using the skills he learnt then to launch an act of rebranding worthy of a panicked business desperate for brand decontamination.

The Prime Minister knows it's wildly unpopular to impose the biggest programme of cuts since the 1920s – especially when our national debt has actually been higher for 200 of the past 250 years. YouGov has found that 50 per cent of us think the cuts are too deep, 53 per cent think they are bad for the economy, and 63 per cent think they are unfair. But rather than listen to the people, Cameron has a different solution: rename the cuts. From now on, they are to be called "savings".

The Prime Minister is trying to impose this shift on the BBC, publicly lambasting them last week into altering their vocabulary. The excellent blog Liberal Conspiracy has documented the subsequent shift in their news reports. But this is a change from using a factual and neutral word to one that is in many cases literally inaccurate.

Let's start with the word "cuts". It is not a pejorative. I have cut the amount of food I eat over the past year, and I'm proud of it. I have cut the amount of time I spend reading fiction, and I'm dismayed by it. The word neutrally and aptly describes both. It means simply "to reduce the size, extent or duration of". The word "savings" means something different – and they are not synonymous. Here are three obvious examples of cuts that are not savings.

Example one. The major HIV charities are warning that the Government's actions are leading to a big cut in the public money given to their projects to persuade high-risk people to be tested for HIV, and then carrying out the test quickly and for free. So the number who find out they are HIV-positive is going to fall. They will then be – as reams of research has demonstrated – considerably more likely to spread the disease. All the people they infect will then eventually require treatment. So the Government gets to keep the £50 for an HIV test and the £10,000 a year for somebody who persuades hundreds of people to take it, but then they have to spend £250,000 to treat each newly infected person over their lifetime. That's a cut – but it's not a saving.

Example two. Public investment in the arts is being cut by 27 per cent. To pluck one example, the Film Council was abolished, even though it funded a renaissance of British cinema, including the Oscars-smash The King's Speech. Independent studies found that for every £1 the Arts Council spends, it generates £2 more in tourism (these films are massive adverts for Britain), added employment, new tax revenues, and more. That's a cut – but it's not a saving.

Example three. Until Cameron, local authorities were required by law to make sure that when a young offender was released from custody, he was given a place to live. The reason is obvious: if a young person who has fallen into crime walks out of jail with no money and nowhere to go, they are virtually guaranteed to commit more crime. That means you or me getting mugged or burgled. Now the Government has abolished that responsibility. So they'll get to keep the £5,000 a year it would have cost to house them, and instead will spend the £78,000 a year it costs to process them through the criminal justice system. That's a cut – but it's not a saving.

If Cameron coaxes the BBC – and others – into rebranding these acts as "savings", he has coaxed them into a lie. George Orwell wrote: "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least... send some worn-out and useless phrase into the dustbin, where it belongs." The "saving" we need most is to save our language from being contaminated with this latest lie.

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