It’s not a ‘glitch’: Journalism’s euphemism addiction will never end

...and it’s not just a hilarious affectation.


I shouldn’t need to spell this out but here we go:

Words have specific meanings and choices to use or not use them by journalists carry more weight than the casual scatting of word chaff that often passes for reports today, particularly from political reporters who can have a tendency to just churn their mouths until the clock is run out, all heat and no light.

Here’s a ‘great’ example from BBC News’ Political Editor, Laura ‘Sources’ Kuenssberg:

The word “glitch” carries the implication that the problem was almost out of the control of those who designed and operated the system in a question, an unforeseen landmine exploding in code. In reality, it was an incompetently designed and operated process. The word “cockup” is probably not very BBC, but others such as “error”, “mistake” or “disaster” would have been more accurate and have avoided carrying the impression — which often dogs Kuennsberg’s reporting — that she is giving the government a benefit of the doubt that she would not offer a Labour administration.

Discussing words that only journalists use is an occasional chucklesome parlour game among hacks. But I find it less funny with every passing year.

“Why?” you ask, forced into the role of invisible interlocutor by my clumsy rhetorical device.

Well, because journalese is a kind of alienating device and also represents a contempt among certain hacks for the people who read their journalism.

The Sun, one of the worst offenders, seemingly has an editorial line that holds readers too stupid for the big words, preferring to address them in a pidgin English that might be spoken by a lost tribe of uber-bloke plumbers. Please note: That’s no shade on plumbers, a profession that is real work unlike this word puzzling I do.

Here are some examples of tedious tabloidese:

  • As a child, I thought Darren Day’s full name was “Love Rat Darren Day”

  • Do you even have a perverted love life if you’re not accused by The Sun of participating in a “sex act”?

  • Similarly, why have sex when you can have a “romp”? Extra points if it’s a “drug-fuelled romp.”

  • You cannot ‘look into’ something, you must — especially if you are a ‘cop’ (never police officer) — “probe” it.

  • Women are not attractive, they are “stunners”. Men are not handsome, they are “hunks”.

  • Important bosses are “chiefs”, experts are “boffins”.

  • In the same vein, a senior Civil Servant is never anything other than a “mandarin”.

  • Women, who tabloids feel you must be reminded daily have breasts, are “busty”, “petite” or “full-figured” depending on the male gaze on them. If they go outside while in possession of a female body they are “flaunting their curves”.

  • Despite working in newsrooms where swearing is rife — former Daily Mail ‘chief’ Paul Dacre was notorious for his practice of ‘double cunting’ people — tabloids insist on referring to the “f-word” or using stars for a f****** fun guessing game, presumably designed for total c****s. The idea that tabloids are ‘family’ newspapers is also common, despite containing more pictures of nude or half-naked women than a copy of Razzle.

Obviously this is all enormously amusing until you start to think about why every story from some bit of fluff about Little Mix releasing a new album to a front page splash about going to war or the continued erosion of democratic norms comes wrapped in this shit. It represents a total lack of seriousness, or rather, the impression that nothing is serious.

That’s the point: Both broadcast political editors and the hacks hurriedly pulling together the tabloids share a contention that politics — both with a big P and practiced in Westminster and the lower case version that infiltrates every part of our lives — is a game, rather than something that results in life or death decisions being imposed on people, often very vulnerable people.

For the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg or The Sun’s Harry ‘Bunter’ Cole, the whole exercise is about ‘stories’ and how things ‘play’ in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ and with the mysterious creatures who live beyond its plasticine grasp.

The cartoonish language only serves to make everything that little bit more trivial and weightless. That’s fine if you’re in six-figure comfort as a political editor, rather less so if you’re on Universal Credit and staring at the prospect of more cuts, instituted this time by Rishi ‘super’ Sunak, who the press assured you was just a simple ordinary son-in-law of a billionaire.

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