Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 24 January 2011

BBC in basic grammatical misunderstanding shock

Sometimes the BBC makes itself hard to defend.

You do your best. Today's development, that BBC Online will be cut by 25%, is basically a punishment for being too good. When the BBC comes up with a decent product, and their web offering is a supremely decent product, they are criticised for killing competition. When they come up with a bad product, their critics ask why we should pay the license fee.

But they occasionally make life harder for themselves. Today's report of a leaked memo instructing BBC staff not to use the word 'reform' during coverage of the electoral… something… referendum is so barmy it's hard to find the appropriate superlative.

According to the leaked memo, the corporation's political advisor apparently said: "Please can we make sure that we don't describe this – in our own scripts, headlines, etc – as the referendum on 'electoral reform'. When the [BBC's] Guidance is published ahead of the referendum period, it will make clear that, in the context of the referendum, that is not an impartial term – 'reform' explicitly contains a definition of 'improvement'."

Spare a moment for Paul Sinclair, director of communications for the 'Yes2AV' campaign, who must be close to madness by now. "Adopting the alternative vote is electoral reform," he said simply. "There is no other way to describe it."

Sinclair was also smart enough to mention that the BBC has spent the last week talking about NHS reform, which it must evidently approve of.

You might also like to ask what the BBC will replace it with. Reform is what it is. The fact that someone wants to change something implies that they believe the status quo is unfavourable. But that relates to their sentiment, not that of the speaker. Mistaking those two things is as basic an error as grasping for a gun when describing a shooting.

Interestingly, the BBC's judgement stems from the fact that people want change. There is such widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in politics, economics and pretty much every other area available for comment, that any and all change is quickly assumed to be A Good Thing. But that's a change in the world, not in semantics.

At least we get some decent word-gymnastics out of it. Firstly, there's the challenge of discussing an electoral reform referendum without using the word, like some twisted political version of Taboo. Then there's future coverage. Now they've written 'reform' off in this respect, they'll face pressure to avoid it on other matters, for fear of looking partial. And best of all, they'll be doing it under one of the most reforming governments of the modern era. Constitutional reform? NHS reform? Education reform? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

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