Cross head 06-06-03

The trial ofBBC style

A press release arrives announcing that the new BBC News Styleguide (www.bbctraining.co.uk) bemoans the growing use of clichés in the media. “The guide urges good television and radio journalists not to use them,” the release says. “Urges?” It is hard to find a verb that strong in this mealy-mouthed guide, which appears so confused and frightened of the bureaucratic machine that it could have been written by Josef K.

It repeatedly stresses that it is not an attempt, God forbid, to impose rules. “This is not a ‘do and don’t’ list but a guide that invites you to explore some of the complexities of modern English usage and to make your own decisions about what does and does not work” (page three); “… not a collection of rules and regulations … not a dictionary and it is not a list of what is acceptable and what is not” (page eight); “We are mainly dealing with advice, not rules … The most interesting writing often involves creating something unexpected, and rules tend to get in the way” (page 15); “The words and phrases in this list are not banned. There will be occasions when you choose to use some of them, but at least be aware that when you do you are straying into the superficially attractive word store which produces second-hand, second-rate writing” (page 25).

So, er, what is the point? It is when we get a hint of inter-departmental politics that it becomes pure Kafka. “It is the policy of BBC Radio News that collective nouns should be plural, as in ‘The Government have decided’. Other departments, such as BBC Online, have resolved that collective nouns should always be singular, as in ‘The Government has decided’. BBC Television News has no policy and uses whichever sounds best in context” (page 31).

The confusion continues on page 78: “The BBC is an empire made of many, sometimes competing parts. Your editor will have his or her own preferences and peccadilloes, which you are advised to learn within a week or two if you wish your stay to be a happy and productive one.” But it does appear to lay down a rule on page 32: “It is BBC style to use referendums and forums rather than referenda and fora.” Very brave. But is a “style” also a “rule”? What if the “style” conflicts with your boss’s “preference” or “peccadillo”? We aren’t told.

In the introduction, director of news Richard Sambrook speaks of the BBC’s need to set the highest standards in accuracy, but the press release mistakenly attributes to him a quote from the guide by BBC head of people development Nigel Paine. Perhaps, in the absence of a rule, accuracy is also optional.

Cross Head returns in two weeks

Next week: Dr Deadline

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