Anatomy of a manufactured controversy


A strange story appeared in the UK press today:

This is not a piece of news: there’s no event being reported here. It’s a report about someone saying something about someone. Now these kinds of non-news-stories are very common in the UK press, but usually it’s clear where they come from: they originate from public relations companies pushing a product (as in the case of the Telegraph piece “Formula for a perfect shopping trip revealed” which generated a bit of free publicity for a shopping centre) or pressure groups pushing a cause (as in the Telegraph piece “Fish ‘should be rebranded as sea kittens’” which reported on a publicity campaign by an animal rights group). I wish journalists wouldn’t do this, but I guess that staffing levels and the pressure of work mean that they have basically no other way to meet their allotted word count; the blame lies with management who allow their organizations to be used as mouthpieces for PR flacks.1

But in the case of the Latin story it’s completely unclear who’s doing the pushing. The Mail and the Telegraph attribute it to unnamed “classics scholars”; the AP to “Britain’s Greek and Latin aficionados”; the BBC to “some Latin scholars”. So who’s behind this?

A couple of people give quotes: Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University and Peter Jones, “an academic and founder of the charity Friends of Classics”. Are they the culprits? This article on their website suggests not: that they were asked to comment by the media rather than being the source of the story.

What about Mary Beard? Here’s where it gets interesting. Her blog has a recent post on the issue, “It’s bonkers to ban Latin”, which says:

I was contacted last week by a Telegraph journalist, The Telegraph had uncovered, he said, the fact that local councils were banning Latin words from all official documents and in their dealings with the public more generally. This was information the paper had obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. (Hang on… do you really need the FOI Act to find out about this, or did the horrid truth emerge during a trawl for something even more sinister?)
Gerald Warner, columnist for the Telegraph.

This strongly suggests that the story originates with someone at the Telegraph, someone obsessed enough with the issue to send out FoI requests to councils for their language policies. And a bit of further digging strongly suggests that the man with the bee in his bonnet is Telegraph writer Gerald Warner (pictured), who wrote a piece on the issue, “Local council cretins ban Latin as ‘elitist’, pro bono publico”, on November 2, a day before the story broke elsewhere.

And my goodness, Mr Warner certainly feels strongly about the issue:

Councillors and their staff are the most ignorant and pretentious people in Britain. They are so superfluous to any conceivable requirement, the constraints of the English language inhibit adequate expression of how unnecessary, unwanted, useless, unfit for purpose and generally de trop (whoops!) these municipal excrescences are. These priggish, politically correct, climate change-obsessed, social engineering, provincial Hitlers (forgive me for not coming off the fence and saying what I really think) are as useful as a code of ethics in a New Labour Cabinet.

In fact the whole piece is so full of raving right-wing reactionary drivel, that I can hardly believe it’s intended seriously. Read the whole thing for the full head-exploding experience.

Now one could try to refute him on the facts: of course public bodies have guidelines on how to deal with the public, and of course they have to deal all the time with people for whom English is not their first language, and who are not highly educated. Having guidelines on communicating simply and effectively doesn’t amount to a “ban” on Latin.

But really there’s no point, because he makes it completely clear why he wants to preserve the use of Latin in official language:

Latin is a useful litmus test. It separates the civilised, as in past centuries, from the Goths and Vandals.

It’s a “litmus test”. If government services use Latin, then people who have not studied Latin will find it harder to use to those services, and people who have studied Latin will gain a relative advantage. People like him.

So shame on the press for picking up this absurd defense of privilege and running it as a news story. I hope you didn’t fall for it.

  1.  Credit where it’s due: I got this narrative about the media’s relationship with PR, and the two examples, from Ben Goldacre.

Update: also discussing this chez gerald-duck, language hat, and language log.

Further update: Bournemouth Borough Council have issued a press release on the issue:

Bournemouth Council must correct inaccurate reporting in several national media.

The Council has not banned any Latin words or phrases. Two years ago, we issued advice to our staff to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at.