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