Language Matters

Article 50
Above: Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, in full.

Evidence of what Lord Justice Leveson termed our moronic media’s “powerful reputation for accuracy” was on display for all to see—and have a good laugh at—in The Independent on Sunday this weekend. The front-page headline read: “Brexit: We’d Have No Say On The Terms—EU rules insist other member states would dictate UK’s new deal after 2017, campaigners warn”. Perhaps some generous benefactor would like to provide the typewriter wielding monkeys who mashed together this slur of syllables with a dictionary so that they might ask an adult to look up and read to them the definition of the word “negotiation”—for this is what would follow Britain’s submission of an Article 50 notification to the President of the European Council.

According to that fount of all wisdom and knowledge on the Web, Wikipedia, “[n]egotiation is a dialogue between two or more people or parties intended to reach a mutually beneficial outcome, resolve points of difference, to gain advantage for an individual or collective, or to craft outcomes to satisfy various interests”. Clear? Negotiation is “a dialogue between two or more people or parties”. In other words, neither side can nor will “dictate” terms to the other. Certainly, there will be compromises. That is to be expected. But the aim of such a negotiation would be to arrive at a “mutually beneficial outcome” on which both parties can agree. Simple, right?

The Boiling Frog was quick off the mark, doing the hard work of providing a detailed refutation of the Independent‘s abject misrepresentation of the facts before the day was out. I would highly recommend also reading his detailed description of the Article 50 withdrawal process, as it is defined in the Treaty of Lisbon and in accordance with international law. It is difficult to imagine how anyone with the reading comprehension of an eight-year-old could fail to understand that the text for Article 50(4) (above) simply says that the withdrawing Member State shall not be allowed to sit on both sides of the table during negotiations to agree a suitable exit settlement. Embarrassingly Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, who still has not responded to my challenges to his false assertions regarding Britain’s EU membership, is quoted in the piece, supporting the illiterate Independent view. Whoops!

Turning our attention to the way in which one-time broadsheets—The Guardian, nominally on “the left”, and The Telegraph, nominally on “the right”—consistently refer to the EU referendum campaign as an “In/Out” contest, one could be excused for wondering if there is not a more sinister game afoot. Is it more realistic to imagine that a policy decision taken at editorial—or maybe even board level—to deliberately distort issues that are otherwise perfectly clear could explain the legacy media tendency to mislead or would the fact that the overwhelming majority of the reporters, leader writers and political commentators who write for these august journals are so lazy, ineffectual and incompetent that they have not yet grasped that the referendum will be fought between people and groups which advocate that Britain either “leave” or “remain” in the EU offer a satisfactory explanation of the persistent legacy media misrepresentation of even the most basic starting point for debate? Neither possibility is particularly salutary while both provide a compelling reason to begin to disengage from these incurious fools who presume to tell us how and what to think.

There are parallels between the “In/Out” idiocy and the policy of referring to the EU as “Europe”. Controlling language is a means of controlling thought, as George Orwell describes in Politics and The English Language. If the electorate associates leaving the supranational treaty organisation known as the European Union (EU) with “leaving” the geographical continent or broad civilisational dispensation associated with the word “Europe” then the proposition is instantly rendered laughable, silly, kookish. There is no need to actively argue a case because the “framing” privileges one perspective and disprivileges another.

The misleading designations, “In” and “Out”, which appear as a matter of routine in several national daily newspapers, should be a cause for serious concern among campaign groups on both sides of the debate. In their invaluable history of Britain’s only previous plebiscitary vote on the issue of our membership of the organisation that became the European Union, The 1975 Referendum, co-authors David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger explain:

… most pollsters believed that although phrasing could make a great difference in a hypothetical situation, at the end of a fully publicised campaign where the issue was clear the actual question wording would matter little.

In short, if we do not make the issue clear then the risk of an illegitimate referendum result increases. It is therefore the responsibility (née obligation) of everybody involved in the referendum campaigns to establish that we are making a choice to determine whether we wish for Britain to “remain” in or “leave” the European Union. To that end, all rhetoric aside, the media also has a serious role which is not presently being fulfilled. The propositions on the ballot paper are “leave” and “remain” and, according to the Code of Practice issued and enforced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the press “must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” and “whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

This loose use of language is highly corrosive, and not being a nuisance and making a fuss about it now is what allows newspapers the license to print full-blown distortions on their front page.

6 thoughts on “Language Matters

  1. On matters EU the Legacy Media demonstrates both ignorance and maleficence. It is certainly not on our side so we must take every opportunity to attack its misinformation. Thank God for the internet and social media which allows us to do this with speed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Total agreement. Both your diagnosis and prescription are spot on. The patient needs lots of long walks in the countryside and extended exposure to the natural light that evidence and reason shine on the subject!


    • I think that this is potentially an important issue that should be getting more attention. We can all laugh at the ignorant hacks—and campaigners FFS—whittering on about “in” and “out”, and even “yes” and “no”, but the Electoral Commission advised that the format of the question be changed to “remain” and “leave” for the sake of “clarity”. To now have a (presumably) leading campaign group, for the other side, calling itself ‘The In Campaign’ is only going to confuse matters further. I do not know if it is as serious as all that, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts.


  2. Good article! Language does indeed matter and Article 50’s has been very much misunderstood across the political spectrum. There’s a very thorough clause-by-clause breakdown of it over at (inspired, as it happens, by TBF’s original efforts which I felt stopped someway short of fully unravelling it). The analysis also places the actual provisions of the Article (rather than their assumed ones) into a straightforward and highly effective procedure for EU exit.

    Good luck with the blog.


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