People die. Language dies. Trust dies


By Kenneth Roy

Although I have been out of Scotland this week, the main news from the land of the restless natives has continued to reach me intermittently. It seems that the natives of Islay have been more restless than most. BBC Scotland’s website reported the event under the headline:

Islay shook by earthquake

Next time James Bond orders a martini, he must remember to add that he would like it shook but not stirred. Perhaps there should be a new cocktail called the Ken MacQuarrie, named in honour of the BBC Scotland controller who is personally supervising the revision of English grammar and syntax at a cost to the licence-payer of only £200,000 a year.

Here is a sentence from the same website for which Mr MacQuarrie cannot be held responsible – except indirectly for publishing it without a translation:

The reports were going out to managers, they were going out to be actioned but what we didn’t have was a proper closure in the system back to evidence that the actions and the learning had been taken from these reports, and that’s not right – we needed to have that.

This is a quote from John Burns, chief executive of NHS Ayrshire and Arran. It is his attempt to explain the concealment of more than 50 ‘critical incident and adverse event’ reports, which are compiled when something goes seriously wrong at a hospital or clinic.

When a member of staff asked for a copy of one of these reports, concerning an incident in which he had been involved, the management told him that he was not entitled to read the report and advised him to file a freedom of information request. He did. The management again refused his request on the grounds of patient confidentiality. At every turn he was obstructed.

Kevin Dunion, Scotland’s information commissioner, has described the catalogue of failings at NHS Ayrshire and Arran as the most serious breach of FOI laws he has ever dealt with. Claims made to the member of staff turned out to be ‘wrong’. Assurances given to Mr Dunion and his colleagues turned out to be ‘unjustified’. Records of serious incidents turned out to be ‘missing’. This is a damning indictment of a public body which comes close to accusing it of lying.

The appalling use of language in the paragraph quoted is an important symptom of what George Orwell called ‘a bad atmosphere’ in public life. Orwell believed that, when the atmosphere was bad, language suffered. It is suffering here.

There is no sign of heads rolling at NHS Ayrshire and Arran. Indeed it would be difficult for the bigger heads to roll. Mr Burns is being described as the chief executive although he does not officially take over until 1 April; his predecessor seems to have left rather earlier than anticipated with a substantial public pension. Conveniently, there is also a new chairman. With this clear-out at the top, we might have expected a new atmosphere of candour. Not a bit of it. Faced with Kevin Dunion’s unprecedented condemnation, and an assurance by the first minister that lessons will be learned, the board’s new chief executive goes on insisting that there was no deliberate policy of concealment.

The appalling use of language in the paragraph quoted is an important symptom of what George Orwell called ‘a bad atmosphere’ in public life. Orwell believed that, when the atmosphere was bad, language suffered. It is suffering here.

‘Islay shook by earthquake’ is shockingly bad; it is almost beyond belief that it should have come from a publicly funded broadcaster of the BBC’s former high reputation. But at least ‘Islay shook by earthquake’ conveys a certain meaning. We learn from it that there was an earthquake and that it happened on Islay. What is the meaning of the statement in Mr Burns’s name? Does it mean anything at all to the patients of NHS Ayrshire and Arran, of whom I happen to be one?

‘Out to be actioned’…’a proper closure in the system’…’the actions and the learning’…Does Mr Burns speak in this extraordinary way in ordinary conversation? Does anyone?

Orwell wrote that the first responsibility of the public official is to get meaning as clear as it can be. He recommended trying to write official reports in the language of everyday speech and gave as an example a couple of lines from a poet, T S Eliot, who was often accused of writing only for the few:

And nobody came, and nobody went
But he took in the milk and he paid the rent

Most public officials do not write with this clarity. There are honourable exceptions in Scotland; another Burns – Sir Harry, the chief medical officer – is one of them. But most official language consists of euphemism and vagueness which are designed to conceal the truth as ruthlessly as those reports were concealed. Clean, popular language – the language of most intelligent people – is avoided in favour of prefabricated verbiage – ‘lumps of verbal refuse’ as Orwell called them.

The purpose of such language, said Orwell, is largely the defence of the indefensible. Nothing has changed. The statement from NHS Ayrshire and Arran is yet another defence of the indefensible: there is not a word of apology to its own staff; or to the families of the patients who died in some of the ‘critical incidents’ or ‘adverse events’, the reports of which then mysteriously went ‘missing’; or to the people of Ayrshire and Arran as a whole.

So with the death of language we see also the erosion of public trust. The two are closely connected.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review