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Culture and technology
12 September 2013

Journalists not politicians are the real masters of spin

In its political sense, the word 'spin' is comparatively recent. No one talked about 'spin doctors' until the 1980s, though there are references to ‘verbal spin’ dating to the 1960s. However, you can go back to the beginning of the 19th century, if not earlier, to find references to ‘spinning a yarn’ – as in telling a story.

Long before the democratic age, journalists were earning a crust by telling – and selling – stories. Thus they’ve had more practice in spinning than the politicians, which is why they’re much better at it. Indeed over these long decades they’ve developed a language of their very own, a sort of parallel English through which they feed us the news.

Rob Hutton, the UK political correspondent for Bloomberg News, provides a guide to this strange tongue in a book out this month – and provides a taster in the Daily Telegraph:

  • “Where is everyone in a lab coat a ‘boffin’? Where is ‘bubbly’ either ‘guzzled’ or ‘glugged’? Where do ‘drunken yobs’ go on ‘booze-fuelled rampages’? You know the answer: in Britain’s newspapers. Just under a year ago, a late-night comment on Twitter led me to become an accidental collector of ‘journalese’, the language of reporters. It’s a world in which unnamed backbench MPs are always ‘senior’, where any adjustment of policy is a ‘humiliating U-turn’. Where the police ‘launch probes’, presumably with Nasa’s help. Where two people who disagree ‘clash’, typically after one of them has ‘slammed’ the other.”

Headline writers have played a major role in the development of this vocabulary. Words like ‘probe’ and ‘boffin’ are easier to fit into headlines than words like ‘investigation’ and ‘astrophysicist’. But as Hutton argues, there is much more to journalese than mere concision:

  • “It’s everywhere, and once you understand it, it changes how you see the world. Last week, I turned on the radio to learn that ‘momentum is building for an attack on Syria’. To a non-speaker of journalese, that might sound exciting. I knew the real meaning: ‘the story hasn’t changed since last night.’”

What this parallel language enables journalists to do is fictionalise the news – not usually in the sense of making it up, but in forcing it into a pre-determined narrative structure. 

Is there anything wrong with this? After all, real events are like real dialogue – a complete mess that needs to be tidied up by skilled writers. There is, however, a point after which journalistic narrative distorts reality as well as repackaging it.

A good example is the coverage of Ed Miliband’s misfortunes as leader of the Labour Party. Throughout the summer this was the number one domestic political story (and it looks set to continue). And yet, if you look at the opinion polls over this period almost all of them show Conservative support in the low thirties and Labour support in the high thirties – a sufficient gap to put Miliband into Downing Street.

We’re so enrapt by the Labour-in-crisis narrative, that we’re willing to ignore the real story. Only the other day, there was a flurry of excitement over a poll showing Labour just one per cent ahead of the Conservatives. This turned out to be the ICM ‘Wisdom Index’ for the Sunday Telegraph, which asks people who they think is going to win the next election, not who they would actually vote for.  How’s that for the complete confusion of perception and reality?

The word ‘spin’ is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root word meaning ‘stretch’. This makes sense when you consider the ancient method by which yarn was teased out of raw fleece. These days, however, it’s not wool that the spinners stretch, but the truth.


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