In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Lout Language as an Abuse of Power


This piece was mostly written in the second half of October 2013. The UK Privy Council (quaint relic of a powerful medieval institution, suddenly back on stage) had just turned down a recommendation for a new form of self-regulation put to them by various representatives of the Press, the vast majority of these of a Right or Far Right political perspective. Paul Dacre, Editor of the Mail, recent slanderer of Ed Miliband’s dead father, was one of them. Dacre had featured large in previous press self-regulatory arrangements and appeared to like them – perhaps for their utter ineffectiveness, perhaps for his prominence in them. Perhaps for both reasons.

So the Privy Council’s dismissal of this latest recommendation for Press self-regulation was a necessary act and good news. But it was disturbing to learn that a decision on the alternative version had been delayed and we are still waiting for it. This version is more in tune with the Leveson Report, allows for regulation by an independent body and is supported in parliament by all the political parties, democratically elected and accountable. Trust is in short supply these days, for very good reason, and I do not trust this delay. I fear chicanery is at work, with perhaps a dash of Oxfordshire LOL and a solid dollop of self-serving calculation. The 2015 election is hoveing into view, after all, and as things stand, most of the Press are Tory blue in tooth and claw. The less regulated the better, yeah ?

In the meantime, the resistance put up by so much of the Press to the recent moves to make it behave properly is quite extraordinary, considering the extent and seriousness of the misconduct of so many of its representatives in recent times. (We are presently being reminded of these by the simultaneous trials of Andy Coulson, once advisor to our Prime Minister, and of Rebekah Brooks, once our Prime Minister’s riding companion).

Or perhaps the resistance is not so very extraordinary. Louts dislike being called to order.

One way that Press regulation is being painted by those who oppose it is that Leveson et al represent an attack on Free Speech, one of the foundation stones, or key-stones, of Democracy. Therefore, in resisting regulation, Dacre and his like are defending a crucial principle, the power and freedom to hold the “sticky-fingered” politicians to account, albeit sometimes “raucously.”  Democracy itself, their argument seems to go, relies on their ability to obtain stories exactly and only as they themselves see fit, however illegally and outrageously they do so, and however inaccurate, misleading, biased or abusive the end-result. A further justification or fall-back argument seems to be that in a tough old world, we poor chaps have to make a profit somehow. You should pity us.

One wonders how they dare.

In the meantime, voices keep being raised in favour of regulation : Alistair Cambell in his two Cambridge lectures on journalism, published in the Guardian ; Steve Richards in a good piece for The Independent ; a few days’ later, a petition organised by “Hacked Off,” and signed by a long list of people, ranging from Polly Toynbee to Gary Linekar, urging the Press to sign up to the Royal Charter proposals ; then at the end of November, David Yelland’s lecture at the Media Standards’ Trust.  But still no clear developments or decisions, at least out here in the park, where we wait. In the meantime, sharing the wait in my small  corner, I have decided to go ahead and upload this piece. For I believe that in the final analysis, the issue is wider than journalism and regulation. It concerns our use of language and how we need to address each other if our society is to hold together and work not just for the few, short-term, but for the many, all of us, long-term. It concerns social responsibility and the use and abuse of power in this Society which we like to think is Free. I think my piece has something to say on all these things.

Here are three illustrations, based on recent history, which I think might be helpful in throwing some light on what is really going on here (as compared to what some people claim is going on).


The late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and dissident, was deported to the West by the Soviet State in 1974.  Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet Head of State at the time and presumably decided that the novelist would be less trouble flown out than held in. For a while, Solzhenitsyn stayed in Germany in the house of a friend, then moved to Switzerland and then to the United States.

At that time, the Cold War between East and West was still in full swing. Germany was still split between Soviet East and Democratic West. A whole string of East European countries such as Poland and Rumania were still part of the Soviet Union. Censorship in that totalitarian empire was strict. Until his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn’s writings had either been smuggled out to the West for publication or been read clandestinely in his own country, the manuscripts passed from hand to hand.

His arrival in the West was therefore big news. The free press pounced and crowded in. Eager to obtain sight or sound of him, they swarmed about his friend’s house, where he had taken refuge after all these lonely years of being hounded by the functionaries of a repressive state.

The free press of the West clamoured for a juicy morsel. They pushed and shoved, elbowing each other for the best take, the best view, the most profitable angle. They flattened parts of the garden hedge to give themselves a better shot. They trod on the daffodils.

Solzhenitsyn’s friend eventually protested. Quite true, these raucous abusers of his privacy and peace, casually flattening his carefully cultivated garden, did not carry guns. They were not a threat to his life and could not deprive him of his tongue. But they were nevertheless acting with a similar contempt for individual rights and dignity as that shown by the bought creatures of a tyrant state. Enjoying a freedom from tyranny Solzhenitsyn had never experienced, they were now imposing on him a tyranny of their own. The friend pleaded with them to treat Solzhenitsyn and himself with more respect. Freedom cannot be just a licence to abuse. A Society whose people are allowed to live free from enforced and excessive, de-humanising regulation, will not flourish if those people simply use their freedom to encroach on the freedom of others, acting not according to a standard of sound principle, but whatever they can get away with. He begged them, a Press largely unregulated, to show an adult capacity to regulate themselves. He pleaded with them, in other words, to grow up.

Did they ?


Once upon a time, UK citizens out walking their dogs were left free to allow their pets to shit freely in the park, without regard for their fellow-citizens whose children might wish to roll around on the self-same sward soon afterwards. In consequence, dog shit piled up over all our parks, in steaming, stinking celebration of free enterprise without responsibility. And our children’s health suffered. Perhaps some dog-owners recognised that leaving dog-shit all over the park was anti-social ; but was that recognition enough for them to get out those little black plastic bags on a self-regulatory basis ? If any did, they had small influence. The majority needed a law that would make them. Now that the law has been passed, self-evidently sensible, most dog-owners seem to respect it. But without the law, I think we should be realistic and accept that the nation’s dog-owners would have carried on with their careless and anti-social behaviour and the shit of their dogs would have continued to pile up in parks and on pavements.

I find the image and principle of dogs shitting in the parks of our community quite a useful way of evaluating human behaviour, and distinguishing between the real nature of an action, and what the doer of that deed claims is its nature. In this case, when is conduct the expression of an essential freedom, a fundamental and necessary right, product and sign of a healthy community ; and when instead is it just anti-social, a walk in the park with your dog, which leaves shit there when you go home ? When Dacre and his colleagues at the Mail recently cast malevolent aspersions on the character of Ed Miliband and his father, were they acting as responsible members of the Free Press, the Fourth Estate, holding a politician to account, as they claimed ? Or were they not rather acting just from personal spite, using language inaccurately, improperly and with malign intent, in other words abusing their position, their public role, their licence, the power of public words, and just allowing their dog to shit in the park ? And, further, is the Mail’s owner Lord Rothemere meeting his social responsibilities as a “wealth creator,” when he arranges for the income he passively earns from his newspaper and its doings, to reach him via more than one tax-haven (as reported in the Guardian) ? While he allows his attack dogs to shit in the park, should he not at least be paying the tax that is due from him as a citizen ?

Who are the real skivers here, the real spongers, the real enemies of the community ?

Can these people really claim to be representatives of the Free Press, the Fourth Estate, “holding the Executive to account” ? I suggest that, on the contrary, they are just a bunch of hooligans gleefully making mayhem in the Forum for as long as we let them get away with it, their activities an unhygienic and anti-social dog-mess that needs cleaning up.


Trade Unions have been a necessary force for good in democratic industrial Societies. Formed in the UK some time after the Industrial Revolution had taken hold, they helped protect and defend the working population from the worst depredations of a governing class drunk with the power and opportunities which the new manufacturing industries offered, many of that class quite unscrupulous in treating their employees as mere means to the end of their own personal gain. Hence the conditions described so vividly by the novelist Charles Dickens – the child labour, the inhuman working hours, and so on. And the mind-set of Gradgrind, the industrialist featured in Dickens’ “Hard Times,” is worth a second look ; in the globalised world of the twenty-first century, Gradgrind speaks in many languages and flies rapaciously from capital to capital.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, appeals to conscience or morality were insufficient to stop many captains and managers of industry from acting towards their employees, not as fellow citizens, but mere numbers of hands, less than human. And if they lived wretched lives, it was said, they had only themselves to blame. They were merely “feckless”. (“Fecklessness” is a nineteenth century version of “skiving”).

It was the Trade Unions whose campaigns and collective action ensured that proper and humane standards emerged over time, sometimes using industrial action to force the issue. In a sense it was the Trade Unions who reminded the UK, the first industrialised economy in the world, how to sustain community and remain civilised in this new urbanised society so tumultuously taking shape.

But by the late twentieth century, the Trade Unions by and large were no longer defenders of the disenfranchised poor, standing for fairness and equity and proper standards. In too many cases they had become just another power-base, less correcting injustice and defending communities than merely exerting and often abusing their power in self-serving fashion.  Their old rallying cries still rang out, but too often no longer applying to present reality. Those cries, those claims, became a cover for motives altogether less noble, just pushing for whatever they could get, at whatever expense to the wider community of which they were part. When Thatcher moved against them in the 1980s, limiting their powers, with whatever questionable mix of  intentions, she was confronting a force that had drifted away from its own true nature and origins, like a suit of clothes adrift from the body that had once lived in it. In her own mind, Thatcher was perhaps taking on what they truly stood for. But in reality, they no longer stood for that thing. Robin Hood had settled down. He had taken out a mortgage. He had invested in shares.

It begins to look as if new champions of the Have-nots are needed now, to challenge the new anti-social abuses by the Haves and their representatives. But these champions will need to take a different shape and the muscle at their disposal will have to be different too. The unions used strike action, the withdrawal of labour, as their bargaining tool of last resort. But this is not now the simple powerful thing that it was when the national economy relied on its own manufacturing base, and hence on the workers employed in its own factories.

But the main point I am making here, is that no Society stays still. No element or component of Society ever stays still. The old names hang on, but almost always soon describe new and different realities behind those names, often (though not always) pale shadows, or corruptions, of the originals. But how do you know when the outer form or title is no longer a true expression of the spirit within, merely a mask, even a form of lie ?

Or, just as hard, how do you unmask an individual or body claiming a role or purpose accepted as Good, Virtuous, Socially Beneficial, when their true purpose and activity is absolutely different, absolutely opposed to the Good they claim ?
Still these masked apologists lay claim to the old names, the flags of the Good,  even though the body inside the suit can be an absolutely different entity from the body the suit was made for, even though the name has actually become a lie.

I suggest that, as the Trade Unions became at length something of a lie as far as their original and true spirit were concerned, so it is most certainly a lie for newspapers such as the Daily Mail or the Sun to lay claim to the title “Free Press.” Whether or not they once acted as true members of this body, this necessary element of British life, they do so no longer. They are something else instead, a mere power-base and vested interest, war-lord citadels full of creatures and mouth-pieces serving at table, suppressors of fact and real democratic argument, at odds with real free speech, at odds with a healthy community. They are dogs running loose and feral in the park.

Now some conclusions :

We live by language. As a carrier and currency of truth and the shared recognition of truth, language connects people in a way that makes community life-enhancing and a healthy democracy possible. But this will be true only of language which we can trust to carry and exchange the truth. A society without sufficient trust or sharing of truth is simply not a society. It’s a bear-garden, a collection of caves, each armed against all others, on watch. Before we can lay down our arms and form a society, it is not enough just to speak to each other ; to a sufficient extent we have to trust each other’s words.

But language is just as prone to be a carrier of deceit, propaganda, lies and manipulation as it is of truth. In that case, it becomes the tool of the enemies of a healthy community – dictators, oligarchs, worshippers of self and acquisition and power, irresponsible or dishonest politicians, time-servers, self-servers, dishonest salesmen, bought creatures, parrots. Language becomes not the expression and life-blood of democracy, but its enemy, clogging the roads and fouling the rivers which connect people.

Human nature is flawed, we know that all too well ; we see the evidence and consequences behind, before, around and within us. As we are flawed, so is our use of language flawed, no escape.

And not only flawed, but in our market economy, consciously and overtly manipulative – on screens, on walls, everywhere we look and hear, language deployed not to share truth but to sell a product, a mere selling technique, some catchy jingle that will lodge and settle in the mind whether or not it is true or valid. Politicians use the same technique, deploying words less to communicate than to sell and win over, ever more skillfully and unscrupulously, perhaps even unconsciously, as if some of them have lost all sense of the difference between saying what they really mean and believe is true and saying what they think will lodge in people’s minds to their own narrow advantage, however wrong, untruthful and ultimately poisonous to the body politic.

But I have three sons, I hope with a liveable human adult life still before them. I hope that life is not in doubt for them. I hope that a reasonable set of possibilities awaits them, despite the threats and dangers we all see, the vast majority of those brought upon them by the flaws of previous human generations, including my own.

And for the sake of my three sons, and all their peers everywhere, we have to seek at all times to review, redeem, renew the ways we address one another, the ways we speak, how we use words, how we sustain the connections of community. So that the next generation is equipped with a society that works and provides a liveable human world to live in.

And to help us, we need a genuinely free Press, in whatever form, a politically independent and responsible way of gathering and publishing news and information and intelligent analysis which we can trust, to help us understand as best possible the tumultuous world we live in, so that we can act responsibly in it. Yes, we do need a Press that will hold politicians to account, yes, we do need a Press that will be fearless in casting light into murky corners, where activity is taking place which threatens the well-being of all of us.

But the newspapers which most of us seem to read, and which still appear to be a force and influence in Society, strong enough at any rate to frighten politicians, do not constitute a free Press in that sense at all. They are not even newspapers. At best they are noisy hooligan soapboxes. At worst they are themselves murky corners, pirate strongholds, platforms for insidious propaganda and news manipulation which either reflect the hates and prejudices of a few individuals of extreme views and often extremely questionable behaviour, or else deliberately play up to and encourage the fears and prejudices of their readership for their own immediate gain. Or both. The owners have a lot of money and want to use their wealth and their possession of these organs for the purpose and pleasure of using and abusing power. They work through their creatures, bought functionaries who misname themselves journalists. In selecting and recounting what “news” to publish, the criterion these creatures use is less the need to feature topics and events of real public moment than those which reflect their owner’s particular prejudices and obsessions and the paper’s need to sell. When a representative of the Mail newspapers, seeking to defend Dacre’s loutish and indefensible doing-over of Miliband’s late father, gave an inch of ground by saying they perhaps should have categorised the piece as “Opinion,” he was presumably seeking to imply that at least some of the Mail is given over to News. The implication was of course misleading. The way the Mail and similar hooligan operations write News is always to colour and cover it thickly with opinion, always with the intention to win over, manipulate and direct the opinions of others to their own self-serving ends. The Mail and its fellows are daily acts of language pollution purporting to be newspapers. They feed on prejudice and fears in the body politic, cultivate and grow fat on them. No wonder they are so keen on maintaining the present status quo. While Miliband senior was a credit to this nation, respected across the political spectrum by students and peers, these street roughs are a disgrace to us all and do great harm to our nation’s standing and social health.

Earlier, I referred to the world of advertising and to the fact that it too uses words in exploitative and manipulative fashion. But it is worth noting that, in that world, there is at least a code of conduct which seems reasonably effective, so that when excessive misuse of language is deployed in the market-place, real action is taken to rectify the fault.

There is no justification whatsoever for absolving the Press from similar rules of behaviour. Such rules need to be stringent and effectively enforced.

(And politicians ? Is not the language of politics dripping with lies, distortions, sales-tricks and falsities of all kinds ? Should there not be a strict code of conduct for the way politicians use language ? Should not those politicians who tell and keep telling lies in order to gain advantage in the political race, be as liable to penalty as dog-owners are, who allow their dogs to shit in the park ?).

The hooligan press, as presently constituted, are not defenders of democracy or of free expression or of truth.  On the contrary, they are enemies of all these things. They seek, through often disgraceful means, to foster in the Many lies and prejudices that suit the interests of a very Few. In that sense they are also the enemies of a truly free press and they drag both it and all of us into their dirt. In the final analysis they are enemies of language itself, highjacking and perverting it as a way of winning and wielding power and influence which they then grossly abuse to the cost of all of us, present and future. The park and our children need defending from them.

Let’s finish this long piece with a short poem :

Word Play

May words work.
May mine
look you in the eye
and having found you out
work on you right there.
Fraud and mobster play
with words, seeking
only to deceive and buy
and sway you to their will.
I must work a cleaner way
my words releasing you
to where you belong.
Words must truth-tell
sound the soul
make us well.

Rogan Wolf
September 2013