BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Civil title

Tim Bailey | 11:13 UK time, Thursday, 7 December 2006

Reader P Harvey sent in this e-mail to The Editors:

    Why was the report on civil partnerships (Radio 4 Monday, 6.00 news) covered by the religious affairs correspondent? This is a secular matter.

An interesting point. And the answer is, I fear, very mundane. We used the religious affairs correspondent on this story for the simple reason that he alerted the programme to its importance and interest, and he offered to file on it. There was nothing more to it.

I, of course, accept that this is a secular matter. It may be of interest to note that BBC correspondents do cover a wide number of issues within their portfolios; none more so than the religious affairs correspondent. However I do think that, on reflection, it would have been better to have introduced the report with the words "This report from Robert Piggot", rather than what we did - "This report from our religious affairs correspondent Robert Piggot".

Shorthand

Tim Bailey | 11:39 UK time, Tuesday, 3 October 2006

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, has been criticised for appearing to refer to Gordon Brown as "autistic". There was a similar complaint from a viewer of a BBC TV programme over the weekend, when a presenter also used it as a term of political description.

It's a reminder that certain conditions can be wrongly characterised in the public mind - or even if they are accurately characterised, their use can be insensitive. Other examples include "Tourettes" for being foul-mouthed, "schizophrenic" for having a split personality. And it's a reminder perhaps that people who are affected by those conditions, either directly or indirectly, can be irritated when they are carelessly used as journalistic shorthand.

Different arrangement

Tim Bailey | 16:05 UK time, Friday, 1 September 2006

The case of the Stornaway schoolgirl Molly Campbell highlighted discussion about "arranged marriages" and "forced marriages". There are very important differences between the two; they are not alternatives.

Arranged marriages have a long and successful history in this country and elsewhere. I am sure I read figures that suggested the divorce rate among couples whose marriage had been arranged by a third party (usually their families) was lower than those of couples who fended for themselves, so to speak.

Forced marriages are completely different. By their very nature they involve compulsion of at least one - if not both - of the people involved as well physical threats and intimidation. They could well be the subject of serious criminal charges, such as rape.

It is no minor matter to confuse the two.

Sense of déjà vu

Tim Bailey | 15:48 UK time, Wednesday, 2 August 2006

A correspondent filed a piece on the reopening of the Bath Spa after a series of delays. She opened her dispatch with this sentence - "Many Bath residents will be having a sense of déjà vu". She went on to explain that there had been a ceremony to reopen the Baths three years ago. At the last minute the decision had been taken not allow the public in. Until now.

The correspondent used the word déjà vu to mean that the people of Bath would be reliving something they had already experienced.

However, according to the dictionary, déjà vu does not mean that at all; in fact rather the reverse. It means the experience of thinking you are reliving some event or feeling when you have not; you are experiencing it for the first time.

But this raises the question - when does a word change its meaning? Words are for conveying understanding, never more so than in radio reports when the audience has only one chance to hear what is being said. So if most people use a word to mean one thing, does that become its true meaning?

Tim Bailey is editor of the Radio 4 Six O'Clock News

On evacuation...

Tim Bailey | 13:59 UK time, Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Amid the coverage of efforts to get British people out of Lebanon, I'm hoping all my colleagues remember that people can "be evacuated" but they do not "evacuate", unless they are doing something quite different. (I've clarified this entry from earlier - there used to be a debate about whether evacuation could apply to people at all, ie that only buildings or places could be evacuated, but it's now of course quite acceptable usage to say that people are evacuated, and our style reflects that.) [Updated Friday 21 July 0930 BST]

Tim Bailey is editor of the Radio 4 Six O'Clock News

Graphic words

Tim Bailey | 11:36 UK time, Friday, 14 July 2006

Many listeners are concerned about the graphic content of some our radio reports. This is an example of editing on the grounds of taste. The original report came from our correspondent in Baghdad, and dealt with a video that showed the mutilated bodies of American servicemen. The soldiers had apparently been killed in retaliation for the death of an Iraqi girl.

The first paragraph of the original report included this phrase: "The camera lingers over the bodies of two American soldiers. Their torsos are terribly mutilated, one is headless, the head is swung in front of the camera. Now and then a foot appears to prod a lifeless corpse."

This was cut as I thought it was too strong for a teatime audience (although it is only fair to say not everyone here agreed). And this is what was broadcast: "The camera lingers over the bodies of two American soldiers. Their torsos are terribly mutilated; one is headless."

My own view was that conveyed a sufficiently powerful image.

Tim Bailey is editor of the Radio 4 Six O'Clock News

Mumbai/Bombay?

Tim Bailey | 13:04 UK time, Wednesday, 12 July 2006

One caller to the BBC complained that in the coverage of the bombs in India, the name Mumbai was used without an explanation that it was formerly known as Bombay.

There is no BBC rule about using Mumbai, just guidelines. It is up to each individual programme to decide what to say. Most use 'Mumbai' and nothing else; a few use 'Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay'. The thinking is the city has changed its name (some time ago) and Mumbai is now well known to most, if not all, the audience.

Tim Bailey is editor of the Radio 4 Six O'Clock News

No butts

Tim Bailey | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 10 July 2006

Forget all the furore about Zinedine Zidane's public shame, and the inglorious end to a glorious career. What is really getting some listeners irritated is the phrase "head butt". Is it tautological? And does the butt refer to the part of the victim's body assaulted, or the part of the part of the body used by the assailant? Should it be "chest butted", for instance? Or, slightly more long-winded, "butted in the chest by ZZ's head"? After much discussion (that bemused some of the people who heard it) we have agreed that Zinedine Zidane butted Marco Materazzi in the chest. Clear?

Words words words

Tim Bailey | 09:41 UK time, Monday, 10 July 2006

I approach this subject with a fair degree of trepidation. But a number of people have asked about the relationship between correct English grammar and BBC radio news scripts; in other words how important is correct usage of language for a news broadcaster?

The first thing to acknowledge is that for a section of the radio audience (primarily listeners to Radio Three and Radio Four, but not exclusively) the dictionary use of words is of vital importance; these listeners get very annoyed at errors or at sloppiness and they write in making their views know with what is known as great vigour. It is a foolish and arrogant broadcaster who ignores these people and their views. I most certainly don't.

Of course, most broadcasters are not foolish and they make every effort to use words correctly and to acknowledge the basic rules of grammar. And my own experience is that correspondents are keen to be told they have made a mistake - and equally keen not to repeat it. I have not come across a correspondent saying this sort of stuff is not worthy of attention.

This can be taken to extremes. I remember vividly a war correspondent filing on a phone from the battlefront with the sound of bullets and shells exploding all around him. He filed and the only response from the Radio Four desk was a producer shouting back through the sounds of war: "You have misused the word 'ironically'; you mean 'coincidentally'."

All radio broadcasters are aware that the listener usually gets only one chance to hear what they are saying; it must be clear, concise and easily understandable; there is usually not a second chance. And rules of grammar are, for the most part, agreed to ensure clarity, concision and comprehension. So there is no problem. All broadcasters should obey all the rules.

Up to a point. Radio news broadcasts are not compiled like that. They quite often deliberately break the rules. And the reason why they do so is to enhance clarity, concision and comprehension. And I think they are right. Radio news broadcasts are the illegitimate child of demotic speech and formal prose. The end - in this case informing the listeners - justifies the means: bending, if not breaking, the rules.

And of course the language changes all the time. This is a whole issue in itself. When does a word or phrase enter the mainstream; when does it become acceptable? Decisions on individual words are taken all the time. And I know a lot of people do not like the decisions. I know because they write in to tell me. The people who accept the changes, of course, don't.

So the debate goes on. As it should, and we should all take part.

Tim Bailey is editor of the Radio 4 Six O'clock News

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