I thought it might be interesting, even informative, to look back from our post-Brexit, post-COVID vantage point in early 2023 to a time before a culture of impunity had become embedded, a time when there still seemed to be a consensus across political persuasions that competence was a first requirement of whoever was elected to govern Britain, (but a time, too, in which there was a feeling among many that profound changes were overdue). In 1997 I made a series of programmes for BBC World Service Radio, looking at how emerging words and phrases seemed to embody novel attitudes on the part of the British. The broadcasts were aimed at listeners outside the UK, although at that time also accessible inside the territory.
The first in a series of short programmes looked at the language of New Labour, at perceptions of a closer relationship between its politicians and what is now called the mainstream media and at the role of the spin doctors (one of the very new formulations heard in those days) responsible for what is now called comms and messaging and for negotiating that rapprochement.
I was fortunate to be able to draw upon insights from Derek Draper, at that time one of New Labour’s highest placed political advisors and lobbyists, journalist and columnist Julia Hobsbawm and writer and critic Peter Bradshaw. Our conclusions were at that time revealing, I think, even if now the notions and the behaviour we were looking at and the terminology that accompanied them have become commonplace.
These recordings were lost for many years, and I am very grateful, both to my then-producer Colin Babb for recovering some of them, and to Urban Mrak who has managed to restore and re-record a small selection of the damaged tapes. The first of them can be accessed here, although the first few seconds during which we listened in the studio to reiterations of the ‘New Labour, New Britain’ mantra are missing…
In the following days I will add two more of these short recordings, dealing, respectively, with the idea that late-90s Britain was experiencing an upsurge in aggressive, selfish behaviour, typified by the new concept of ‘road rage‘, and an increase in female assertiveness caricatured as ‘girl power‘.
‘Expert commentary’ on a volatile, contentious process
I was somewhat bemused to be asked, as a linguist and someone who has written about government communications and messaging, to comment recently, this time on the self-presentation of the candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party, hence also for the role of Prime Minister of the UK (in a series of back-and-forth slurs and clumsily staged photo-opportunities characterised today by Cabinet Office Minister Johnny Mercer as ‘puerile’). My first observations concerned Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s identification with an earlier political icon.*
These were my comments in answer to the Daily Mail‘s questions on the performance of Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak in the latest and final stages of the contest…
Both candidates seem to me to be reaching for very simple and basic images and messages – not complex or ‘deeper’ concepts and as a linguist I suspect that they are both trying to avoid having to demonstrate the ‘oratorical’ skills that Boris Johnson’s supporters claimed for him. In other words they are going for visual over verbal as neither of them is renowned as an inspiring public speaker.
In terms of oratorical skills or lack of them Liz Truss has been gaffe-prone and can come across as hesitant while Rishi Sunak, though articulate, has to avoid the impression of an over-eager schoolboy in his attempts to convince.
In terms of the core messages, Rishi Sunak is very obviously trying to counter the sense of him as someone removed from the concerns of ordinary people because of his privileged upbringing and his great wealth. Thus he emphasises the (quite authentic) role of the family man, devoted to wife and children, at the same time countering Truss’s projection of herself as an assertive ‘lone’ female – the image Margaret Thatcher conveyed in her exercising dominance over male colleagues. Thatcher also kept husband and children in the background and emphasised her own gravitas and steeliness above all else.
Pulling pints is another attempt by Sunak to demonstrate that he is not wholly out of touch with the ‘common man’, but this sort of posing does risk backfiring as when he fumbled in his attempts to use a bank debit card to buy fuel for a humble, borrowed car.
I’m surprised that Sunak does not more strongly emphasise his financial background and expertise gained as a financier/fund manager (the sort of professional experience that Liz Truss would have trouble competing with), but he may rightly sense that public perceptions of hedge fund manipulators are far from entirely positive.
Both candidates are attempting to focus, as they must, on the universally understandable issues of taxation and immigration/refugee management, subjects on which those entitled to vote for them (a very small number of key individuals incidentally) are already likely to have very firm views.
I added the following…
I don’t wish to seem contentious or uncharitable, but their messaging – in both cases – really does leave much to be desired, beginning with the campaign slogans, ‘Ready for Rishi!’ and ‘Liz for Leader.’
On Rishi Sunak’s part, his public postures belie the fact that he is, among many other things, a teetotaller…
And as for Ms Truss…
Which approach, I was asked, was likely to play out better with the 1600 party members entitled to vote in the leadership contest?
I think it’s very difficult to predict: I suspect that many Tories will still instinctively prefer the certainty and strength of purpose that Margaret Thatcher represented – the steely glare rather than the eager-to-please smile. But perhaps on reflection they may come to decide that someone at ease with financial manipulations (public or private!), and someone who is not really encumbered with ideological baggage could be more convincing in the long run and a safer pair of hands? It’s perhaps reassuring and worth noting that those two ancient bugbears of British political life, ethnicity and gender, probably are no longer barriers to advancement.
This is how my remarks were incorporated into the Mail’s front page of July 25 2022…
– Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine
The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.
After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**
The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.
With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:
We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. It not working We’ll set up a service to do that You haven’t
We’ll set up a world beating…
It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****
– Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan
In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…
As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.
*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…
A perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft. In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.
On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…
Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mailjournalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’
Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…
…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…
Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter…
From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”
From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”
From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”
The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…
In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…
Also in January 2021 theGuardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…
In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…
In February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.
Many specialists and members of the public, too, were aghast at the government’s rhetoric around the notion of ‘Freedom Day’, a more or less complete, and overnight relaxation of protective restrictions proposed for July 19. The consistency of the chosen keywords characteristically began to unravel, as Professor Alice Roberts noted on July 11, ‘What does this actually mean? Is vigilant this year’s “alert”? How does vigilance help protect against an airborne virus when a government is not recommending and supporting effective mitigations…’ and Guardian journalist Sirin Kale commented two days later (quoted with her permission), ‘I see the government is trying to row back their Freedom Day messaging at the 11th hour just 2 weeks after senior ministers briefed they wouldn’t be wearing masks indoors any more. You’d think they’d have learned the dangers of conflicting messages after the Xmas fiasco but nope’
In September 2021, following revelations by government aide Dominic Cummings of his employers’ vacillation and incompetence, a second ousted advisor, Lee Cain, broke silence to excoriate the teams working on communications during the pandemic:
In the autumn of 2021 the public became aware of a ‘Plan B’, supposedly to be implemented in the event of a new surge (which was already, some said, happening). The exact details of this plan were not specified in any official communications and the press and public were left to speculate. A few new restrictions were introduced in late November, perhaps prompted by concern at still rising infection rates in schools and elsewhere, though ventilation in schools was not among them, then in the second week of December, as the Omicron variant spread to general alarm, Plans ‘C’ and ‘D’ implying successively stricter moves towards a lockdown were mooted. On 12 December emergency measures (presumed to be a version of Plan B) focusing on encouraging the takeup of booster shots were announced. On Twitter the next morning Russ Jones commented, ‘Plan B was drawn up 5 months ago. That’s how long they’ve had to plan for it. They gave the NHS 4 hours warning that they’d need to do 1 million tests a day, the booking website crashed cos nobody thought to upgrade it, and we ran out of lateral flow tests within 3 hours.’
In February 2023 Dr Philip Seargeant (with whom I have collaborated, notably on the Language of Lying project, featured elsewhere on this site) published his review of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, focusing on its communications strategies and manipulation of public discourse:
At the beginning of March 2023 Isabel Oakeshott, ghostwriter of former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock‘s pandemic diary, engineered the release of private messages exchanged by Hancock with then PM Boris Johnson, former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and others at the beginning of the COVID crisis. The Daily Mail asked me to comment on the language used in these, and their article (punctuation errors and typos are not mine) is here:
Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.
The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.
And this – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.
Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’
Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?
Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.
The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like – were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.
Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation, emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).
The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:
I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.
There was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:
Humour me. What’s your favourite punctuation mark and why?
(If anyone actually responds to this I’ll be astonished 😂)