Opinion

John Lloyd

Mark Thompson’s wise words

John Lloyd
Dec 4, 2012 18:28 UTC

Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles ‑ as far as I have seen ‑ were written.

Yet Thompson’s remarks are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They were wholly concerned with the use of language, the bedrock of all media. They expressed a deep worry ‑ at times, a real pessimism ‑ about the health of the democratic debate because of the abuse of words.

Part of Thompson’s theme was that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible ‑ “might as well be in Sanskrit.” That is especially the case of news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject  replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions.

Deeper than that, though, is another concern: that the rhetoric employed by politicians, commentators and other public figures is destructive of trust and of real engagement.“The public language that most people actually hear and are influenced by,” Thompson said, “is changing in ways that make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation” (his emphasis).

The main example he gave was the phrase “death panel,” used by the former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to describe the ‑ wholly voluntary ‑ medical interview that, under Obamacare, would have been offered to senior citizens about their present and likely future health. Her Facebook post, a model of its kind, read in part:

A formal scandal for the BBC

John Lloyd
Nov 12, 2012 21:40 UTC

The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” andbad form” were, until recently, compliments, or severe criticism, of behavior. Four and a half centuries of internal peace in England have allowed the country’s traditional roles and offices to remain intact for outward show, their “forms” undisturbed. The monarch, the Lords and Ladies of the upper chamber of Parliament, the Church of England, the hundreds of orders given for public service each year ‑ all are more or less devoid of substance, there for the gorgeousness of their mere existence. All these forms — and yet more that will go unmentioned ‑ still attract formal obeisance, remain envied and, where possible, are sought after.

This past weekend another piece of British form encountered a media storm, and may not recover its original … form. The director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, George Entwistle, in the post for less than two months, resigned late on Saturday night. In his short stint in office two separate scandals emerged with, at their roots, allegations of pedophilia. Those scandals transfixed the Corporation and destroyed Entwistle’s career.

In the first case, a Newsnight investigation into the pedophilia of a BBC star presenter for decades, the late Sir(!) Jimmy Savile ‑ he was a member of the Order of the British Empire as well as a knight of the realm ‑ was halted at the last minute. There are now two inquiries into whether top executives interfered to prevent the airing of the BBC’s dirty laundry. Last week a new scandal emerged with a terrible symmetry: Newsnight did another investigation into separate allegations of pedophilia at a Welsh children’s home. It said the pedophile was a “very senior Conservative politician of the Thatcher era” and more or less pointed the way to the Web, where the said politician was identified as Sir George McAlpine, the party treasurer for much of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party.

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