Michael Gove makes an impact at the MoJ

Justice Secretary Michael Gove (Photo: Department for Education)

Justice Secretary Michael Gove / Photo: Department for Education (via Wikimedia)

In his latest effort to ingratiate himself to the population, that lovable rascal Michael Gove has been sending memos round his new ministry telling everybody how to write.

Included in Gove’s list of pet language peeves which staff at the Ministry of Justice will henceforth have their wrists slapped for using in official correspondence, is the word “impact” as a verb.

In other words:
The impact was felt far away
The drugs impacted on his health
Not OK.

Now, for the most part I find Michael Gove to be very reliable as a kind of moral anti-compass: whatever he approves of, I think is horseshit, and whatever he thinks is horseshit, I think is great.

But annoyingly I’m kind of with him on “impact” as a verb.

Not that I would go as far as actually penning a letter to my colleagues and telling them to stop doing it. But it does irritate me.

It invariably has the same meaning as “affect” or “influence”, but presumably those just aren’t sufficiently dramatic or… impactful.

I suppose what bugs me about it is that it has snuck into the language from a certain type of business parlance. People use it at work when they’re trying to sound more “businessy”. You know: I’m a businessperson, I speak right, I’m a member of this gang, I’ve been on all the right courses etc. Rather than speaking in their own voice, they ape the language that everyone else in the boardroom is using.

Is that me being snobby against a certain class of person? (I’ve said before that not liking certain words often boils down to not liking certain people.)

According to the BBC, Gove and I are way off the mark, though. Impact has been around as a verb since at least 1601 and was even used by EM Forster – one of the writers that Gove advises his colleagues to read to improve their English.

Of course, the thing about language is that people will just carry on saying and writing whatever they like, regardless of what Gove (or I) thinks, so if more and more people decide that stuff can indeed “impact on” stuff then, well, it can.

Of all places, you’d hope that staff at the Ministry of Justice would keep their focus on more important things than this. If I worked there, I would make a particular point of including an “impacted on” in every email, report and press release – and twice in every communication with the Justice Secretary.

I can’t imagine it would impact on the ministry’s effectiveness in the slightest.

Why ‘Man bites dog’ doesn’t cut it as a headline anymore

A few years back I remember pondering how the web was killing tabloidese (with inspiration from a piece in The Times by Carol Midgley).

Since then there’s been an even bigger change in online headlines.

Once upon a time, if a man had bitten a dog, the headline would have been, “Man bites dog” – leave out all those auxiliary verbs and other troublesome bits and pieces, and just use the words you need to get the point across.

These days, on the internet, that headline would be, “This guy totally bit a dog”. Or it might be, “10 amazing videos of nutjobs attacking animals”. Or, “This little yappy dog won’t stop bugging this guy. What happens next will make your jaw drop”. Or, “The only dog video you need to see today”.

What changed?

Partly, it’s the same factors that have been drawing writers away from using traditional tabloidese online for a while: the web lifting the space restrictions of print, so that brevity isn’t as big a deal as it was, and the web encouraging writers to speak to their readers as equals.

But there’s a lot more going on behind this revolution in headline style.

One thing is shareability. Social media is huge as a way of driving traffic to online articles, so headlines have to promote sharing. That means they can’t just be brief, informative and direct, they have to be shocking, awe-inspiring, or funny enough that someone will endorse them and share them with their mates.

The next factor is the dynamics of clicks, which has given rise to the irritating yet irresistible “clickbait” phenomenon.

In print, by the time someone sees your headline, they’ve kind of invested in the article already. They’re half way to reading it. So you can afford to go for a cryptic pun or something a bit abstract, and use the standfirst on the same page to tell the reader what the hell your article is actually about.

On the web you don’t have that luxury. Your headline probably appears amid a list of several others, without a standfirst, your reader could close the page at any time and look at any of millions of other sites, so you have to grab them sufficiently that they feel like they won’t be complete as a person if they don’t click through and read your article.

Very often, clickbait headlines will exploit the “curiosity gap”, giving you just enough detail to make you curious, but forcing you to click through to have your curiosity sated.

All these factors together give us the likes of…

This Is What Happened When Christian Groups Tried To Shut Down Korea Pride

The Big Clue You Missed In The GoT Finale

5 incredibly delicious chain restaurants you should never, ever eat at and 1 you should but can’t

As if Dolly Parton wasn’t cool enough, look what she’s been doing for kids — every single month

41 Pictures You Need To See Before The Universe Ends


Notice, also, that the grammar of headlines is now much closer to the way people actually speak (and, in the context of social media, type). No longer do we feel the need to leave out all the unimportant grammatical words, as in “Man bites dog”. We’re not limited by space, so we don’t have to – we just write the story the way any other human being would write it.

Good headline writing is a super-important skill, and also a good test of how well a writer has understood a story. That hasn’t changed. But the style in which headlines are written, most definitely has.




Content in context

Content is a big deal these days.

If you work in media or marketing, you’ll be hearing a lot about content. Even if you don’t, you may be thinking about it as a way to help promote your business.

My job title recently changed from a series of variations on “editor”, to “head of content”. The idea is that the job isn’t just about producing print publications, or keeping websites fresh, it’s about creating great “content” through every possible means and medium. All very sensible.

To me, content is an odd word because it doesn’t really mean anything without context.

Setting the world of media aside for a second, “content” just means something that’s inside something else, doesn’t it? Like the contents of a box, or the contents page of a novel, or the content of someone’s character.

So in the context of media, content means “stuff”. It’s the stuff that you publish in your newspaper, or website or TV channel. I’m the head of stuff (which is fine by me, by the way).

Strange that a word that used to mean “something inside something else”, now specifically means articles, infographics, photos, YouTube videos, white papers and tweets.

Not a point of enormous import in the Great Scheme of Things, perhaps, but worth remembering when we have to explain our job titles to people outside the world of media.

Rules that are there to be broken

I enjoyed this very sensible piece by Steven Pinker for the Guardian, on grammar rules that it’s OK to break sometimes.

Pinker says of grammar rules:

Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.

It’s a catchy dichotomy, but a false one. Anyone who has read an inept student paper, a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping.

He puts it very well. I’m not sure I realised that was how I felt about this stuff. But I do.

Another reason to love Wikipedia

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to love Wikipedia, I think their fundraising email sent out in the run up to Christmas is brilliant.

Clear, simple, informal, and not afraid to say bluntly what Wikipedia is and isn’t. “Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here.” “We don’t think having your email address is a license to spam.”

If only more organisations could communicate this well. Here’s the text in full:

Dear Robert,

At Wikipedia we only ask for donations during our year-end fundraiser. That’s our tradition. We don’t think having your email address is a license to spam. We send two reminders per year. This is your first. Donate today, and we won’t send you the second. 😉

If everyone visiting Wikipedia right now gave the price of a cup of coffee, our fundraiser would be over. Please help us forget about fundraising and get back to improving Wikipedia.

Did you forget why you supported Wikipedia last year? Here’s a reminder:

Wikipedia is the #5 site on the web and serves 450 million different people every month. We’re non-profit, but we still have costs like any top site: servers, power, rent, programs, staff and legal help.

Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.

When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different.

This year, please consider making a donation of £20, £30, £50 or whatever you can to protect and sustain Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia Founder

Even better than horsemeat

Horse / Photo: Will G (via Flickr)

Horse / Photo: Will G (via Flickr)

So Tesco burgers have horsemeat in them. Not great news, but the supermarket has apologised and assured customers that: “We will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again.”

Harder than ever, you say? This is an example of a tic I see cropping up increasingly in corporatespeak: the use of phrases like ‘even better’ and ‘more than ever’ when talking about progress or improvements.

In their relentless efforts to put a positive spin on everything, some PR people have reached a point where they can no longer talk about something just ‘getting better’ because that implies that it used to not be as good as it is now. (If I say I’ve got better at Tiddlywinks, will people go away thinking I used to lose every time?)

The way around this is to say I’ve got ‘even better’ at Tiddlywinks, thus implying that I’ve always been pretty good at it, but now I’m the regional champion.

You see it in press releases all the time – a company unveils an ‘even wider range’ of products (two) with ‘even better performance’ (they definitely work this time).

And so we have Tesco working “harder than ever” to not put the wrong animals in the blender. I think that’s pushing it a bit. To illustrate the point, here’s a handy five-point scale of hard work:
1) Working really hard
2) Working quite hard
3) Not working that hard
4) Not working hard at all
5) Horsemeat in the burgers

So spare us the “than ever”, Mr Tesco. You’re going to work “harder” to keep your burgers free of horse. And so you bloody should.

Before and after

In a hilarious mixup, I recently received the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of a heavily Photoshopped corporate photograph.

I’m not going to share the pictures with you as that would be unfair to the person concerned – you’ll have to take my word for it that the difference was pretty stunning. It was also quite creepy, and part of a trend of official photos being excessively touched up.

Of course, we’re all used to digital airbrushing in the fields of showbiz and fashion – everyone knows that movie posters, album covers and cosmetics ads have been extensively Photoshopped to make the stars look inhumanly beautiful. You can often tell by looking, and there have been numerous exposes of the extent to which images are manipulated.

I say down with this sort of thing (and I applaud the work of people like Jo Swinson who stand up to it) but I can also shrug it off because it’s part of the crazy world of entertainment and marketing. It’s not real life.

But what happens when the subjects of the Photoshopping are ordinary people? Not people who make a living by parading around in skimpy outfits, not people who have ‘bought in’ to any sort of celebrity lifestyle. Just people.

I don’t know how many of the corporate headshots I see have been touched up, of course. But you can certainly spot a lot of them. The telltale signs include flawless, silky smooth skin and dazzling white teeth. I’ve met human beings, and they don’t look like that. Rather than photos, these are artist’s impressions of what this person might look like, in a perfect world. You might as well stick in a unicorn galloping by in the background.

It seems to be more an American phenomenon than a British one – perhaps as part of a more formal workplace culture or as a result of more pressure to look good, I’m not sure.

I know my way around Photoshop and I admit that I’ve done a bit of retouching myself in my time. But it’s quite clear to me where you draw the line. There are innocent changes you can make that don’t mislead the viewer about what the person looks like – such as changing the colour balance to make them look less red (something that is as much a result of the lighting in the room as it is of the number of flights of stairs the subject had to walk up) or tidying up their hair.

But when you start changing tooth or eye colour, smoothing skin, removing marks, and (worst of all) trying to make someone look thinner, that’s when it gets creepy. The camera can be unflattering sometimes, and the result isn’t always as you had in mind. But you need to come up with a picture that shows what someone looks like – not what they’d like to look like.

The photo I received this week had had the skin lightened and smoothed, marks removed, and most noticeably an entire double chin thinned to nothing, completely changing the shape of the person’s face. I have to hand it to whoever did the Photoshopping and say they did a pretty good job – if I’d only received version B, I wouldn’t have realised there was a version A. But when you look closely, it’s obvious: people’s necks just don’t curve like that.

I don’t get it. Why would a person want this? What happens when the porcelain doll of the corporate headshot has to meet people in person who’ve seen this photo? They’re going to have to embark on a serious health drive (not to mention surgery to alter their jawline) if they want to look like the edited version any time soon.

I also don’t know where the pressure comes from – if people push for this themselves, if companies have just got used to doing it for all their employees, if they think they’re doing the person a favour, or if they feel under pressure to Photoshop their own employees for public consumption.

Whatever the thinking behind it is, this trend for faked photos leaves everyone concerned looking bad.

Executive blow-dry

What’s an executive blow-dry?

I genuinely don’t know. But they’re available at the Canary Wharf shopping centre for £20.

Does it mean a blow-dry for people who make decisions?  A blow-dry for people who earn more than a certain amount? A blow-dry for the president?

Contact us! Actually, don’t

A guide to getting in touch with usIn our world of instant communication and supposed consumer empowerment, it continues to baffle me how some companies get away with being impossible to contact.

The worst offenders tend to be companies like Facebook and Google who provide online services for free – making it a bit difficult to complain anyway.

But it also extends to firms whom we pay lots of money for frivolities like heating and water. Phone companies, paradoxically, are particularly bad.

Lots of companies have a section marked ‘Contact us’ on their websites. Don’t be fooled. It generally consists of a list of reasons why you should not contact them, and suggestions for things you can do instead (reading an out-of-date FAQ, discussing it in a forum with some other clueless souls, asking your cat…).

The government is doing it too. I had to call HM Revenue and Customs yesterday, but before I was allowed to speak to a person I had to listen to a five-minute script (strictly speaking a 2 ½ minute script, played twice) about why I should hang up and go to the website. Oh well, at least they’re not in charge of anything important like taxation.

A number of people recently had their GMail accounts hacked by people trying to extort money – and one of them spoke on BBC Breakfast earlier this week about how Google proved impossible to contact.

This woman had lost hundreds of contacts, and everyone she’d ever emailed had received a fake message from her, pleading for money. But Google, that giant of the internet, that shining beacon of the information age, that bastion of openness and connectivity, had no one to call. When the poor woman managed to get hold of an office number for them and rang it, she got hung up on.

Google, the friendly face of technology. Those nice, quirky, ‘don’t be evil’ guys who go to work in their jeans and sit around on bean bags. But if something goes wrong and you need their help, you find that their office is actually on the Death Star. And the bean bags are filled with shredded complaint letters. And there’s no phone.

So I was pleased to see today that Innocent, who make juice and whatnot, have gone all out with the contact details on their packaging. They suggest that I might contact them via carrier pigeon, semaphore or interpretive dance (the semaphore signals are actually listed on the bottom of the carton).

But they’re only joking! At the bottom, they give me an address (two actually – one UK, one Ireland), a phone number, an email address, a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter ID.

I almost feel like calling, writing, emailing and tweeting just to say thank you for being reachable. Once I’ve done that, I’ll get on to why they’ve cheekily made their cartons smaller.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions about this post, you know where to find me.

Good or bad week for the press?

News of the World poster

Photo: Kadeeae (via Flickr)

Following the extraordinary developments in the phone-hacking scandal this week, I’ve had the feeling of reading one of those choose-your-own-adventure books that I used to love as a kid, where every page presents you with a choice, and every choice sends the story in a weird new direction. After David Cameron’s press conference on Friday I half expected to see a message saying ‘Turn to page 1 to start the adventure again’ so I could roll the dice differently and maybe get the Rebekah Brooks becomes Prime Minister ending or the Hugh Grant turns out to be an alien ending or the Alan Rusbridger wakes up and it was all a dream ending.

I’ve accepted now that the week’s events really did happen. What I’m having trouble deciding is whether it has been a good or bad week for the British press. The News of the World, the country’s biggest-selling national paper, died. So should we be celebrating or mourning? As a victim of phone-hacking, Steve Coogan said last night that the closure of the News of the World was “a small victory for decency and humanity” and that he was “delighted”. On the other hand, those with more affection for the News of the World’s heritage – or for its employees – called it a sad day.

I work as a journalist so I want the press to be respected and its freedoms to be protected. On that basis, here are some poorly organised thoughts about what kind of week it’s been:

Firstly, what sort of state was the British press in before all this? Optimists would say flux, pessimists would say decline. Print circulations are falling as new media take over, but the press hasn’t reinvented itself, and a sustainable model of online journalism has yet to be settled on. As for regulation, the tabloid press prints pretty much what it likes because the PCC is toothless – in fact, the Star and the Express ignore it completely.

The News of the World did a lot of harm. We already knew that it invaded privacy, damaged lives and reinforced myths and stereotypes about issues like crime, immigration and benefits. Now we know the extent to which it also intimidated politicians, broke the law and bribed police officers. But for the most part it just peddled a combination of tittle tattle and right-wing self-righteousness, sprinkled with casual sexism and xenophobia. I defend their right to do that as part of a free press but if you ask me it shows contempt for readers. The counterargument, of course, is that the tabloids just “give people what they want”, and that if you look down on the tabloids you’re looking down on the millions of ordinary people who read them. Wrong. Playing on people’s fears and prejudices is not “giving people what they want”, it’s manipulating them. I also think it’s pandering to a shrinking section of society, and is out of step with what people want from media these days.

But let’s not forget that The News of the World did some good. Recently it exposed the Pakistan cricket cheating scandal, for example – an important story that might not otherwise have come to light. It also caught the Duchess of York offering to provide access to Prince Andrew for cash, although the ethics of how it went about it are questionable. Even in more frivolous stories, it has revealed public figures to be liars, bullies or hypocrites.

Either way, Britain’s best-selling paper just died. Simply in terms of its commercial success and ability to appeal to its audience, the News of the World was exceptional. It was one of the few remaining success stories in the print world – in fact it subsidised its upmarket stablemates The Times. Even if a Sun on Sunday rises from its ashes, it’s hard to see how the closure can do anything but hasten the decline of more print titles.

Speaking of which, many of the other papers have failed in their reporting of this scandal, either because they’re also Murdoch-owned or because they have their own skeletons they’d rather keep closet-bound. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Mirror and the Mail have the most to worry about – hence their near silence on the phone-hacking scandal until recently. Yesterday, when most of the papers were following the arrest of Andy Coulson and the revelations of a possible News International cover-up, the Mail’s website chose to lead with the headline: “It’s a royal rodeo: Wild Will Hickock and Calamity Kate cause a stampede as they don matching hats and get into the cowboy spirit”.

It’s sad but not surprising that News International sister titles The Sun and The Times also failed to report properly on the phone-hacking story, until the crescendo of outrage got so loud that they had to. Look at this half-baked rant from The Times’ Roger Alton – this from a paper that charges for online access to its expert analysis.

The complacency, cowardice and vested interests of the mainstream press, and their failure to rise to this occasion, may do as much harm as what happened at the News of the World itself.

The week has been a wonderful demonstration of people power. A social media campaign which, wisely, targeted The News of the World’s advertisers, achieved more than it can ever have hoped for. Mumsnet users insisted that the site ditch its deals with Sky – because the broadcaster is part-owned by Murdoch.

All week we’ve had the unedifying sight of politicians, Murdoch employees and journalists forced to change their views on things because of public pressure. What is obvious today to David Cameron, Ed Miliband, James Murdoch and Dominic Mohan was simply not mentioned by them a few days ago. As John Finnemore said on Radio 4’s The Now Show: “They all changed their mind this week because we shouted louder than they expected.”

Alongside the worst of British journalism, we’ve seen some of the best. Who was it who exposed the rotten journalists? Not the police – they were in on the whole thing. Not parliament – they were too terrified to do anything. Not the regulator – they were taken for fools. It was other journalists – most notably the Guardian, which has beavered away at this for years in the face of secrecy, corruption, lies and intimidation.

Change has been kickstarted this week – but where will it lead? It’s true that the PCC is a waste of time, but it’s also true that it’s very hard to get regulation right, and this particular scandal involves lawbreaking which goes beyond the remit of a self-regulatory body anyway. I fear now that public disgust at the iniquity of News International will lead to over-regulation, which won’t do us any good.

We must remember that journalism relies on getting information that people don’t want to give to you, and the current code recognises that journos pursuing stories in the public interest (not just of interest to the public) must sometimes blur or cross lines. All sorts of nastiness would have remained unknown and unchallenged if people hadn’t done that over the years.

Statutory regulation would, in my view, be a really bad idea. As Amy Davidson says in the New Yorker that the Guardian’s role in uncovering all this suggests the last thing we should do is take power away from the media and give it to politicians. I hope the inquiry into press ethics which the PM has announced will be sensible and independent and that we get a proper debate on this.

On balance, I’d say the week has offered us a chance to make things better. Finally the power and pernicious influence of the Murdoch empire (of which Marina Hyde paints a beautiful picture here) is out in the open. Finally unscrupulous hacks are in the public eye. Finally there’s an opportunity for a serious debate about proper regulation. Finally the dysfunctional relationship between politicians, the media and the public has been shaken up. If this leads to a healthier relationship (and I find it hard to imagine how it could lead to a less healthy one), then it’s been a bloody brilliant week.