As I Please
Tribune, 21 April 1944
In a letter published in this
weeks Tribune, someone attacks me rather violently for saying that the B.B.C.
is a better source of news than the daily papers, and is so regarded by the public. I have
never, he suggests, heard ordinary working men shouting Turn that dope off!
when the news bulletin comes on.
On the contrary, I have heard this frequently. Still more frequently I
have seen the customers in a pub go straight on with their darts, music and so forth
without the slightest slackening of noise when the news bulletin began. But it was not my
claim that anyone likes the B.B.C., or thinks it interesting, or grown-up, or democratic,
or progressive. I said only that people regard it as a relatively sound source of news.
Again and again I have known people, when they see some doubtful item of news, wait to
have it confirmed by the radio before they believe it. Social surveys show the same thing
i.e. that as against the radio the prestige of newspapers has declined.
And I repeat what I said before that in my experience the B.B.C.
is relatively truthful and, above all, has a responsible attitude towards news and
does not disseminate lies simply because they are newsy. Of course, untrue
statements are constantly being broadcast and anyone can tell you of instances. But in
most cases this is due to genuine error, and the B.B.C. sins much more by simply avoiding
anything controversial than by direct propaganda. And after all a point not met by
our correspondent its reputation abroad is comparatively high. Ask any refugee from
Europe which of the belligerent radios is considered to be the most truthful. So also in
Asia. Even in India, where the population are so hostile that they will not listen to
British propaganda and will hardly listen to a British entertainment programme, they
listen to B.B.C. news because they believe that it approximates to the truth.
Even if the B.B.C. passes on the British official lies, it does make
some effort to sift the others. Most of the newspapers, for instance, have continued to
publish without any query as to their truthfulness the American claims to have sunk the
entire Japanese fleet several times over. The B.B.C., to my knowledge, developed quite
early on an attitude of suspicion towards this and certain other unreliable sources. On
more than one occasion I have known a newspaper to print a piece of news and news
unfavourable to Britain on no other authority than the German radio, because it was
newsy and made a good para.
If you see something obviously untruthful in a newspaper and ring up to
ask Where did you get that from? you are usually put off with the formula:
Im afraid Mr So-and-So is not in the office. If you persist, you
generally find that the story has no basis whatever but that it looked like a good bit of
news, so in it went. Except where libel is involved, the average journalist is astonished
and even contemptuous if anyone bothers about accuracy with regard to names, dates,
figures and other details. And any daily journalist will tell you that one of the most
important secrets of his trade is the trick of making it appear that there is news when
there is no news.
Towards the end of May 1940, newspaper posters were prohibited in order
to save paper. Several newspapers, however, continued to display posters for some time
afterwards. On inquiry it was found that they were using old ones. Such headlines as
Panzer Divisions Hurled Back or French Army Standing Firm could be
used over and over again. Then came the period when the paper-sellers supplied their own
posters with a slate and a bit of chalk, and in their hands the poster became a
comparatively sober and truthful thing. It referred to something that was actually in the
paper you were going to buy, and it usually picked out the real news and not some piece of
sensational nonsense. The paper-sellers, who frequently did not know which way round a
capital S goes, had a better idea of what is news, and more sense of responsibility
towards the public, than their millionaire employers.
Our correspondent considers that the public and the journalists rather
than the proprietors are to blame for the silliness of English newspapers. You could not,
he implies, make an intelligent newspaper pay because the public wants tripe. I am not
certain whether this is so. For the time being most of the tripe has vanished and
newspaper circulations have not declined. But I do agree and I said so that
the journalists share the blame. In allowing their profession to be degraded they have
largely acted with their eyes open, whereas, I suppose, to blame somebody like Northcliffe for making money in the
quickest way is like blaming a skunk for stinking.
One mystery about the English language is why, with the biggest
vocabulary in existence, it has to be constantly borrowing foreign words and phrases.
Where is the sense, for instance, of saying cul de sac when you mean blind alley?
Other totally unnecessary French phrases are joie de vivre, amour propre, reculer pour
mieux sauter, raison detre, vis-a-vis, tete-a-tete, au pied de la lettre, esprit de
corps. There are dozens more of them. Other needless borrowings come from Latin
(though there is a case for i.e. and e.g., which are useful
abbreviations), and since the war we have been much infested by German words, Gleichschaltung,
Lebensraum, Weltanschauung, Wehrmacht, Panzerdivisionen and others being flung about
with great freedom. In nearly every case an English equivalent already exists or could
easily be improvised. There is also a tendency to take over American slang phrases without
understanding their meaning. For example, the expression barking up the wrong
tree is fairly widely used, but inquiry shows that most people dont know its
origin nor exactly what it means.
Sometimes it is necessary to take over a foreign word, but in that case
we should anglicize its pronunciation, as our ancestors used to do. If we really need the
word café (we got on well enough with coffee house for two
hundred years), it should either be spelled caffay or pronounced
cayfe. Garage should be pronounced garridge. For what
point is there in littering our speech with fragments of foreign pronunciation, very
tiresome to anyone who does not happen to have learned that particular language?
And why is it that most of us never use a word of English origin if we
can find a manufactured Greek one? One sees a good example of this in the rapid
disappearance of English flower names. What until twenty years ago was universally called
a snapdragon is now called an antirrhinum, a word no one can spell without consulting a
dictionary. Forget-me-nots are coming more and more to be called myosotis. Many other
names, Red Hot Poker, Mind Your Own Business, Love Lies Sleeping, London Pride, are
disappearing in favour of colourless Greek names out of botany textbooks. I had better not
continue too long on this subject, because last time I mentioned flowers in this column an
indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois. But I dont think it a
good augury for the future of the English language that marigold should be
dropped in favour of calendula, while the pleasant little Cheddar Pink loses
is name and becomes merely Dianthus Caesius.