24 April 2012

The language 'surfacing' from James Murdoch at today's Leveson Inquiry

At about 1.00 p.m. today, I was asked by a leading Scottish newspaper to write a 400 word piece on James Murdoch's performance at today's Leveson Inquiry - deadline 6.00 p.m. 

Tight though this was compared with the usual deadlines I work to, I agreed. Then, at about 4.30 p.m. just as I'd finished the first draft, another phone call from them: the revelations about Alex Salmond's involvement with the Murdoch family had wiped everything off tomorrows front pages so they wouldn't be able to use my contribution after all.

Not unusual in my experience with the media but, with a blog where I can post unfinished stuff, not much of a disaster either:

As one who spends most of his working life helping business people to communicate more effectively, I should have known better than to tune in to James Murdoch’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry today. But I can never resist the chance to collect examples of how and how not to do it.

Having heard Mr Murdoch in action before, I knew that he had a tendency to use management-speak to get his points across. What I now know is that he’s one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever come across.

He spoke about “negotiating some of the detail going forward”, an “undertaking in lieu”, of someone who had “gotten what they’d professed to want”, about “a case about whether or not there was an insufficiency with respect to…”; he “recalled concurring with that view” and “believed (he) would have appreciated assurances that the process would be handled objectively in the future.”

He had much to say about “our rationale for the transaction and our analysis of the plurality concerns” and even threatened to “take plurality off the table.”

Nothing (he) said to Mr Osborne would have been inconsistent with our public advocacy on the subject."

And he was lucky enough to have “a management board where senior executives … had ample opportunity to be able to discuss these issues and surface them.”

As his flat mid-Atlantic drawl droned on, it was like listening to paint dry. As for what it all meant to your average native speaker of English, much of it was anyone’s guess. And that, presumably, is the point. Why else would so many business people become so addicted to the language of jargon and management-speak.

After all, the more long words of Latin origin you use, the more obscure your message is likely to be. Better still, saying that you “concur with that view” rather than “agreeing with it” implies a degree of neutrality and detachment. As an added bonus, if your audience is trying to work out what your words actually meant while, at the same time, trying to listen to whatever you say next, they’re less likely to be able to understand that either.

Anyone in search of data for a treatise on the obscurantism of contemporary business language need look no further than James Murdoch – who also provides us with a variation on a famous quotation from George Bernard Shaw: he who can communicate communicates; he who can’t owns the media of communication...

P.S. Data for further research
Video and full transcripts of proceedings from the Leveson Inquiry become available shortly after each session at 'Hearings' on the Leveson website HERE. They hadn't been posted at the time of writing the above, but they have now. So, if you've the stamina for more management-speak, you can gorge yourself on gems from James Murdoch like the following:

"Well, I think this is a formal letter about the process, which is something that we would have -- I mean, again, most of these emails in here, as we continue to go through them, are really about the process and our concern that the appropriate things were being considered, that they were being considered in the appropriate way and that our legal arguments were heard around the place. I mean, this is a large-scale transaction that was in the hands, with respect to the decision-making process, of the department of culture, media and sport. We're going to get into, in a minute, the undertakings in lieu that were extracted, the concession, the remedy, if you will, and it was entirely reasonable to try to communicate with the relevant policy-makers about the merits of what we were proposing."

"… you point out rightly it's a very difficult question and it is a balance and I wouldn't presume to have the answer. However, perhaps I would just -- I would just say that the things that may be weighed up with respect to when you're considering up would be both a question of clarity around defence, really around criminal defence, and it may be a question of a stronger enshrining of speech rights on the one hand, coupled with a stronger set of consequences and either a self-regulating body or a statutory body that includes the press but also individuals that are not part of the working press today, so that just as one of the great learnings for us as a business has been not to allow an operating company to investigate itself without absolute transparency to the corporate centre, which I think is one of the learnings from the failure in 2006 and 2007 for News Corporation to get to the bottom of this, I also think it's difficult to allow an industry in and of itself to control itself on a voluntary basis, given the concerns that we obviously all have, and I think balancing a strengthening on both sides may be one way to think about it."