CoJo Summer Tips #8
is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor
Not relatives as in great uncle Albie and his stern second wife. But relatives like 'better', 'worse', 'faster', 'slower'. They're words we use entirely innocently in most sentences we speak in everyday life. But for journalists - and especially journalists aspiring to impartiality and independence - they're pernicious little words that can do two things.
First, they can indicate that the journalist accepts, probably unquestioningly, one set of assumptions around an event. Second, accepting that set of assumptions closes off large areas of enquiry that are both legitimate and likely to yield a more interesting perspective.
Fortunately, most relatives - 'There's better news on interest rates ...' - are so obvious and prominent that any journalist would question the premise; 'better' for who?
But not all. Some, the really pernicious ones, aren't obviously 'relatives'; they don't have the clear word form of a relative with '-er' on the end.
'Progressive' and 'regressive' are such - especially when they're used in connection with the June Budget and the spending review.
'Progressive' and 'regressive' (P&R), like most of the words we use, don't have one, single, clear meaning. They sprawl over a whole range of possible meanings, even though, within the world of economics and financial planning, they do have a rigorous definition - though in relation, specifically, to tax.
And, in a sense, it's the fact that in this world P&R do have a well-defined meaning that makes them more pernicious. As it happens, those close definitions are, like most terms in most intellectual disciplines, without judgment; they are purely descriptive. But, of course, when they're used in the wider public discourse, it's rarely with that academic purity. 'Progressive' sprawls over a range of meanings on the 'good' side of the 'good/bad' line; 'regressive' is firmly located on the opposite side.
In normal, non-academic usage, they're relatives - relative to each other and relative to our view of the world. But it's more complex than that. They're not just relatives in the static sense; both imply movement. 'Progressive' from a goodish (or bad) place to a better one. 'Regressive' from a goodish (or bad) place to a worse one.
So when journalists use 'P&R' without careful thought, they're implicitly accepting that bundle of meanings which, roughly, contain progressive = good and the direction of progressive travel also = good. Plus, however precisely you intend either term to be understood, you can guarantee your audiences will bring their own meanings and judgments - much as above - to the words.
This matters, because the whole point of the June Budget and the spending review is to challenge whether the place we are on the disbursement of taxpayers' cash is a good place; and whether changes that intensify those assumptions are the way to go, or whether what's needed is a new direction. It's a matter of intense public debate and impartial journalists need to take extreme care.
Clearly, for those whose starting point is that an ever increasing amount of taxpayers' cash should be disbursed as welfare to the poorest in society, anything that changes that direction of travel is 'regressive' and ipso facto a BAD THING.
To those who believe that both the starting assumptions on public spending and the direction of travel prior to 2010 were wrong or unsustainable, the 'progressive'/'regressive' opposition fails to capture any meaningful description of what's going on. Hence Nick Clegg's response to the IFS report on the June Budget, arguing that it had missed the point of the Coalition's policy of moving people off welfare and into work.
So ... think hard before you use any relatives, but especially 'crypto' relatives like 'progressive' and 'regressive'. Who's using either term? Always attribute. And ask what they really mean and whether you need to spell that out. What does your audience need to understand to make full sense of that person's argument?
Most of all, don't just throw the terms around as if they can mean only one thing or that 'progressive' is obviously the way to go. Do that and you'll give the impression that, by default or lack of thought, you've accepted the premises on one side of the argument and aren't willing or able to challenge them.