Sunday, November 19, 2023

Press Exposure: Taking care of English (1995)

The Press Exposure column from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not what you say . . . 
The entire nation will have rejoiced at the news that Education Minister Gillian Shephard had set up a steering group to lead "a campaign for better English”. Shephard had declared herself fed up with "estuary English" and "communication by grunt" and felt the threat to our native tongue was so dire that only someone famous for their immaculate pronunciation would be good enough to head the steering group. So step forward—as they are fond of putting it in the newspapers which are not famous for their perfect English—Trevor MacDonald, newscaster at ITN. Of course a few obstinate people may have failed to rejoice, remembering that other famous person—Richard Branson, of the toothy grin, tousled hair, baggy pullovers and baggier bank balance—who was once appointed head of a similar steering group to get rid of street litter. Ministers were getting fed up with having to wade through discarded fast-food packages, old newspapers and homeless beggars on their way to their clubs. Whatever became of Richard Branson and his scavengers.7 We all know what became of the rubbish and the beggars—they’re still there.

But the really good news about MacDonald and his steering group was that he would be helped by Sir David English, who is chairman of Associated Newspapers which owns the Daily Mail and the Mail On Sunday. He reached these dizzy heights after a spell as editor of the Daily Mail and he is now editor-in-chief of both newspapers. His ‘wage’ is £440.000 a year, which will have been hiked up through a generous, secret share option scheme, while his newspapers lambaste "bonus bonanzas” for "fat cat" company chiefs and screams "Time’s Up For Greedy Bosses".

. . . It’s the way that you say it
English’s time as editor of the Daily Mail saw a great renewal in its fortunes as well as a consolidation of its reputation as one of the less reliable newspapers (not that there is much competition for the reputation as the most reliable). Consider these episodes in the newspaper’s recent life.

In May 1977 the Daily Mail claimed to have exposed "the amazing truth about Britain’s State owned car makers British Leyland". This "truth" was based on a letter from the chairman of the National Enterprise Board which discussed "Special Accounting Arrangements"— accountant-speak for a secret fund to finance bribes and undercover commission. Only the very naive would regard the “exposure" of such a fund as “amazing" but the problem for the Mail was that the letter was a hoax—a forgery. English had to apologise but did so grudgingly.

After Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, had been sentenced various newspapers were so desperate to get intimate stories about him that they competed to shower money like snowflakes on his relatives. The Daily Mail took a lofty stance above all this hysteria, piously insisting that as a staunch upholder of journalistic rectitude it would never stoop so low as to boost its circulation by paying Sutcliffe's family to tell all about him. But in 1983 the Press Council gave a different story—the Mail had negotiated £5,000 for Sutcliffe’s father, it had entertained other members of the family and had offered large sums of money to Sutcliffe's wife.

Later in 1983 (clearly, this was not a good year for English’s empire) the newspaper started up Millionaire’s Mail—a transparently specious title for what was actually just another version of newspaper bingo. Like most of the bingo on offer in the other papers, the Mail promised that some lucky people could win a million pounds. The paper did not mention that the odds were such that statistically a Mail millionaire could be expected to emerge once every 400 years (which was about three times more often than with some of the other papers).

Loyalty’s reward
We don’t have to worry about whether rich people give each other backhanders, or about workers expressing their delusions about capitalism in fatuous “games" run by newspapers, or about the reputations of government ministers. The point is if a newspaper can so consistently dabble in falsehood should anything it prints be regarded with anything but contempt? For example what about the slavish devotion to the Thatcher government by English’s papers, which earned him his knighthood? What have the working class in this country to thank Thatcher for? Under her government their poverty had sunk even deeper into the levels of despair.

Consider a recent development—the employment, sometimes re-employment after being sacked, of workers part-time with a consequent lower wage. Consider that more and more companies are operating with a small band of core workers who are supplemented at need with agency workers or those on short-term contracts. This technique has been seen at its finest in the Burger King fast-food chain, which clocked on its workers as the customers arrived, which meant paying them for only the time they actually worked, calculated by the minute. These developments make our poverty sharper as they benefit the employers by practically destroying any statutory employment safeguards.

In the face of this, what does it matter whether we express our disgust and anger at this social system in the kind of immaculate language to please a newscaster or a knighted purveyor of falsehoods like English. However we say it, let's make it clear that we’ve had enough of capitalism and its defenders.

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