The easy phrase has always had a value; especially to the hard-pressed journalist. After all, you can’t come up with Wildean aphorisms or inspired metaphors every time you file a report. That said the almost viral spread of certain jargons and the inevitable conjunction of descriptors in association with their objects is a cause for worry and irritation. They bespeak a knee-jerk and Pavlovian response to certain stimuli that take us dangerously close to the mindlessness of crowds.
‘What are families?’ ‘Hard working!’
‘What are communities?’ ‘Tight-knit!’
‘How do we feel about the death of our 98 year-old Granny?’ ‘Devastated!’
In his fine 1960s satire The Tin Men, Michael Frayne proposed a newspaper computer that would simply churn out appropriate headlines based one or two words relevant to the story. But we don’t really need the computer for that, as we have trained our journalists to do it anyway.
Such homogenisation is more than just lazy. It is dangerous to our social intelligence. That is, our capacity to consider facts and reality and arrive at proportionate responses. Families are not always hard-working (or indeed, hard-pressed). Some are idle and many more manage perfectly well. But we should have the data to back up such assertions. Communities are by no means always tight-knit. Often, the tragedies that beset them are in part caused or exacerbated because they were not tight-knit enough – although sometimes far too much so.
Then too we have the difficulty of the exaggerated emotional reaction. This is framed most clearly in the tendency of reporters everywhere to present in a froth of excitement and shout their commentaries to the camera. Tyros and minor field stringers of both sexes are especially likely to do this, but even old hands like Jon Snow are prone to overcook the drama as they stand outside the White House or interrogate a defence witness in whatever newsworthy issue they are prosecuting.
A few reporters such as Lindsey Hilsum, the International Editor at Channel 4 News, manage to retain some sense of dignity and balance but for the most part show business has taken over in our day-to-day news. However you call it, the ‘X-Factor’ syndrome is a virus now embedded in our collective audience psyche in which emotive expression, whether of stimulus or response is the default setting.
For years, the capacity of demagogues to arouse through oratory and slogan, has shown it was probably ever thus. Except that in our mass media age – now at least 150 years old – the simplifications and amuse bouches of our media discourse have become at once more dilute and more dangerous. This is because, as with sugar in food or medicine, they are ubiquitous and unnoticed in the exercise of their function to make information easily swallowed; likewise, their side effects go unnoticed, too.
It is also true that some of the slick associations arise from much more long-standing social perceptions; it is called stereotyping, and will almost inevitably have some historic rationale for its existence. Descriptors such as ‘public schoolboy’ or ‘Tory’ or ‘property magnate’ will almost inevitably precede some discreditable story of sin and malfeasance where opportunity occurs. And yet, the equivalent – we have to say ‘left-wing’ – appendage phrases such as ‘Red’ or ‘far-left’, seem to have fallen into desuetude. This may well be because wealth and privilege and their symbols have long been a legitimate target of critique, the Berlin Wall is long fallen and we are all New Labour now.
Whilst we are on politics, it is sad to note that even politicians have adopted the dreadful locutions where ‘in the future’ has become ‘going forward’. In one sense this is justified by being more than a mere aspiration in which there is a hiatus between ‘now’ and some other state of play. It implies progress being made – doubtless toward targets – and one supposes this is some kind of beneficial change (going forward). The Corporate executives and politicians who fall back on this way of expressing their intent need to understand that we are not fooled. If not forward where? If forward how and when?
So in going forward we must also create a ‘narrative for our journey?’ This is not just about politics; it is about our personal stories as women, men, hard-pressed and hard-working families, gold-medal-winning athletes, surprisingly successful housewife novelists or anyone faced with the opportunity to be interviewed by the media – in all their diversity, both plural and unique.
But of course, life is the cliché. All untimely deceased people ‘loved life’ and any youth, especially if dying at the end of some evidently alcohol- or other drug-fuelled evening out was ‘fun-loving’. This contrasts with those sad souls whose bodies were found in some desolate tower block having been missing for months of whom neighbours remark ‘they kept themselves to themselves’; and in such a tight knit community too.
But these brief media obituaries are probably the best we can expect. We are too many in number as citizens to warrant or expect more. How much better it is for the poor victim to be described as ‘bubbly and pretty’ than ‘spotty, rather sulky and over-weight’: or ‘lively and into his PS3 ‘rather than ‘dim and something of a no-hoper.’ In any case, there has to be the possibility of innocence and of being the victim of circumstance. Sadly, sometimes the victim really is a good person of great merit.
Rather more regretfully, post the NotW, we must bid farewell to the days of ‘Our reporter made his excuses and left’, or ‘Shamed vicar in schoolgirl romp’. Our tolerance of adult sexuality, concern over sex crime and the role of photo-journalism have rendered joyous, sea-side-postcard innuendo redundant. Instead, celebrity culture and the dominance of digital photography mean that copy as such is almost irrelevant. We need only to name or imply the footballer, use a stock descriptor such as ‘stunning’ or a pun (often borrowed from African American street argot) such as ‘bootiful’ to accompany our shot of the celebs – with a bit of luck undressed or revealing some aspect of their physique to invite our lechery or derision.
The trite phrase is to be heavily criticised when it obscures or over-complicates meaning. A biography is not ‘a narrative of my journey’, it’s your fucking life story (for what it’s worth). Cliché should also be condemned where it subverts important truths or ideas. In this context sadly, every institution, commercial or private, is culpable due to what is called ‘Public Relations’.
In this dubious business, truths, facts and realities are too often corrupted by dissimulation and evasive vocabularies. The best exemplar is the phrase ‘ZenoCorp is committed to/prioritises customer safety/service/satisfaction – tick the box, choose the word. Hospitals are good at this too. Having killed several patients through carelessness or malpractice they refuse interviews, issue statements which invoke their dedication to ‘patient welfare’ and reassure us that ‘lessons have been learned and procedures put in place.’ Do these include education on the meaning of the word ‘obfuscation?’
But whatever the human condition in all its tragic and laughable variety, we must trust our media to have a word for it.