Twirling towards freedom

Journalese and ready-made headlines from Canberra

Last November, veteran UK political journalist Robert Hutton began compiling a list of words and phrases that characterises the language of popular media. The meme quickly caught on. Organised under the Twitter hashtag #journalese the entries, as they say in Journalese, flooded in. “Hero: anyone who has ever worn a uniform.” “Arcane rules: ones we can’t be bothered to explain.” “Stealth tax: a tax we dislike, and will maintain is stealthy, despite it having been on the front page of the newspapers for a month.” “Spark: the means by which ‘fury’ is ignited.”

The Twitterstorm (Journalese for more than 15 Tweets on a single subject) continued to rage, and Hutton soon received enough entries to fill a book. Save for a few charming entries that are encountered only in Britain (“Romps, Tots and Boffins” is the title of Hutton’s book), the Journalese language is all too familiar to consumers of Australian news. Journalese is a dead language, but one that readers, journalists and increasingly, politicians, are all too fluent in.

A cursory scan of today’s headlines – “Razor gang look to make savage cuts”, “Paul Howes' olive branch may be game changer for Tony Abbott”, “Hockey targets corporate and middle-class welfare”, “Tax cuts fail to spark work surge” – reveals the sheer volume of banal, inane clichés that politics is letting loose upon us. Politicians devour the news, and the media in turn devours everything politicians say. As each side uses the same tricks to pump up their stories and statements, the spin becomes inseparable from the story. Tony Abbott’s claim last week that the ABC lacks “basic affection for the home team” was a ready-made headline, and the language used by Scott Morrison to obfuscate and conceal details of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is straight out of Journalese 101.

Treasurer Joe Hockey told ABC Radio on Monday that, “The age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun.'' But as Greg Jericho pointed out in The Drum on Wednesday, excluding those people on the aged pension, there are fewer people on welfare in Australia now than there were 10 years ago. “So the age of entitlement (if there ever was one) ended a while back in Australia,” wrote Jericho.

“If you hear any politician utter such a line, be aware they are feeding you manure and calling it chocolate.”

Abbott this week claimed that SPC Ardmona had paid a “generous wet allowance” to workers, amongst other “astounding” worker entitlements. But the company released financial records on Tuesday and revealed the only “generous” thing about such allowances was Abbott’s definition of the word. The wet allowance, worth just 58 cents per hour, was not paid at all last year.

People denigrate Abbott for reducing public debate to an exchange of hyperbolic slogans. It’s hardly his fault; he was a newspaperman before he was supreme leader and he’s carried the screaming headline with him, from the front page to the Prime Minister’s office.

Derryn Hinch has long been coined “the human headline” but perhaps we have a new contender in our man in Canberra.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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