The curse of quotation marks on the BBC website

Headlines on the BBC website are littered with annoying and often unnecessary quotation marks. They are used inconsistently and sometimes misleadingly.

Here are some of the funniest examples:

  1. BBC ‘to launch’ personalised iPlayerquotation marks
  2. Many Britons ‘fear mortgage arrears’
  3. Webber ‘proud’ of achievements in Formula 1
  4. Sochi 2014: British curlers ‘capable’ of medals

Here are six different ways in which the BBC website misuses quotation marks.  (more…)

Evading responsibility while looking responsible: another fine mess

Saying “I take responsibility” can help people evade responsibility, as I suggested in an earlier post: something goes wrong, but the person in charge only says “I’m responsible”, without saying what went wrong or what she will do to make things better. I used the example of Jose Mourinho – slightly unfairly, as it turned out, but the basic principle is still right.

And I also suggested that journalists often get taken in by this: they may report that someone has taken responsibility without noticing that actually there has been an evasion of responsibility.

Responsibility: somewhere over there

Responsibility: somewhere over there

Two days ago, there was an interesting example of both things – evasion of responsibility, and journalists falling for this. David Moyes, the Manchester United manager, said in an interview that he takes “complete responsibility” for Manchester United’s poor recent results in football.

The BBC duly reported this in a story called ‘Man Utd: I’ll take full responsibility, says David Moyes’. But there is nothing in the interview that added any substance to the claim of responsibility. Quite the reverse: when asked to explain what needed to be done better, his answer was “a bit of everything”: “play better”, “pass it better”, “create more chances”, “defend better”. Wow! Stunning insights.

The BBC story actually has zero content: there is no news, nothing of any substance. I call this kind of story ‘Mouth opens and words come out’.

Interestingly, the newspaper The Scotsman reports another comment of Moyes’s which suggests that far from taking responsibility, he is actually blaming the players. Their story starts unpromisingly: Moyes “has admitted” he takes responsibility (no, it’s an evasion not an admission), and “to the Scot’s credit, he is refusing to hide behind excuses” (no, he is refusing to say what went wrong or what he will do to improve things). But the newspaper then adds that when Moyes was asked if the squad is “good enough”, he replies instead that it is “big enough”. It sounds from the context as if he knew what he was saying – and the paper rightly implies that he is being evasive here.

If so, this latter comment suggests that Moyes doesn’t think the squad is good enough, and that this lack of quality is at least partly responsible for Manchester United’s current problems.

This is partly a long-term problem, as Sam Wallace argues. Yet Moyes is partly responsible for the lack of quality too, given that he contributed to United’s failure to buy top players over the summer, as Phil McNulty suggests.

But of course, a football manager cannot usually say in public that his squad isn’t good enough or that he made a hash of transfer targets. As a result, we end up with football managers saying nothing, and journalists – alas – reporting this as a genuine piece of responsibility.

How to present a BBC documentary

If you want to present a BBC documentary, you need to (1) use excessive, random hand movements, or (2) emphasise your R’s in a rrrreally irrritating way.

Here are some examples.


(1) Excessive, random hand movements

— Michael Mosley, The Genius of Invention — 

Watch the first 45 seconds of this clip to see how Michael puts his excessive hand movements in nearly all of the wrong places. By contrast, the excessive hand movements of his co-presenters, Cassie Newland and Mark Miodownik, are in the right places. No future for them as TV presenters, I’m afraid.

— Simon Sebag Montefiore, Rome: A History of The Eternal City — 

Watch 41.18 to 41.25 of this clip, where Simon gesticulates excessively at nearly every word in the sentence, before putting his exhausted hand in his pocket for the only word in the sentence that actually needed any emphasis.

At 53.40 of the same clip, Simon is holding a book, which appears to overload his brain, causing hand-mouth coordination to go totally haywire. Again, Simon’s hand is too tired to gesticulate by the end of the sentence.

The hand-waving approach to TV documentaries is brilliant parodied by David Mitchell here.


(2) Emphasising your R’s in a rrrreally irrrritating way

— Evan Davies, Dragon’s Den — 

In the last few series of Dragons’ Den, Evan has changed ‘dragons’ to ‘dRRRagons’. I can’t find a clip of the actual programme online, but you can hear him say ‘dRRRagons’ on this clip, at 12 seconds, and even more irrrritatingly at 23 seconds. But revealingly, he forgets to do it at 26 seconds – and I’m pretty sure that is how he used to say the word, in the good old days.

Sorry if I’ve now spoiled the programme for you!

— Jim Al-Khalili, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — 

At 3.35 of this clip, hear Jim Al-Khalili say that Michael Faraday “was surrounded by the gRRReat and the good, and he was about to listen to one of the gRRReatest scientific minds of the age” (3.35).

(I have a sudden urge to eat a bowl of Frosties.)

— Howard Goodall —

The king of R-rolling is Howard Goodall, who really doesn’t need to do it: unlike most TV presenters he has a sufficiently dynamic voice that he doesn’t need such gimmicks. He barely does it in his most recent series, The Story of Music, but you can hear it from time to time in his earlier series, as at 20.47 and 20.52 of this clip. Twice in five seconds … surely a touch rrrridiculous?


Please add more examples in the Comments, below. I’m particularly interested to know if there are any TV presenters who do both of these things at the same time.

I don’t want to sound churlish: TV presenters need to do a bit of this kind of thing. Watch Michael Ashcroft presenting Heroes of the Skies and you will see a nice impression of a block of wood.

And it’s not just TV presenters who need to do a bit of this. I pepped up my lecturing style after I saw a video of myself lecturing several years ago – standing still behind a lectern, looking and sounding boring.

Politicians, too. I’m pretty sure I remember Iain Duncan Smith being given body-language training about a year into his leadership of the Conservative party, in a failed attempt to make him seem more charismatic; but he wasn’t very good at it, and I remember one interview where he droned on while his hands did a bizarre tango. He’s got the hang of it now: excessive hand movements, but in the right places (e.g. at 30 seconds onwards of this interview).

When saying “I’m responsible” is an evasion of responsibility

We often complain that not many people take responsibility any more, but  sometimes saying that you take responsibility may actually allow you to evade responsibility.

One example came after Chelsea football club’s surprising 2-1 home defeat to Basel in the men’s Champions’ League tournament last night. After the match, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said:

When we lose I don’t speak about the players or individuals, I speak about my responsibility. I am responsible.

It’s costless for Mourinho to say this. He knows that whether or not he says things like this, he’ll get sacked if the results aren’t good enough, even if it’s his players’ fault. Think about petulant teenage-impressionist Gerard Houllier, blaming his players before he got sacked as France coach and after he got sacked as Liverpool coach. It made no difference and he would have been better off going out graciously.

Moreover, by saying what he said, Mourinho can avoid saying why Chelsea lost and thus who, if anyone, was responsible. Was it his team selection? The quality of players available? The formation? The referee? Did particular players mess up? Bad luck? His comment that “I am responsible” amounts to saying “I am sackable but I’m not going to say who was culpable”.

I am responsible, ergo I evade responsibility.

Mourinho is of course quite right to say what he did: from his comments on the video at this link, it sounds as if he did think that one or more players didn’t play well, but that he is trying to shield them in public. Fine – that is his job and, usually, the right thing to do.

My complaint, in fact, is as much about the BBC’s reporting of this story as Mourinho’s comments. The BBC’s actual headline is “Jose Mourinho takes blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. A more accurate headline would have been “Jose Mourinho avoids saying who was to blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”.

Or how about this one: “Journalist falls for Jose Mourinho’s comment that he was responsible for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. Not as punchy, but more accurate.


UPDATE (21 September 2013): in response to my criticisms, clearly, Mourinho has clarified his position, noting that his players are taking time to adapt to his style, and criticising Juan Mata for not showing enough adaptability.

So, my basic points still stand: we can evade responsibility by pretending to take responsibility, and we shouldn’t always take statements about responsibility at face value. But I was too harsh about Mourinho: he has actually been laudably clear about the situation, in suggesting that Chelsea’s form is in part a natural response to a change of style, and that at least one player isn’t changing fast enough.

Simplistic rhetorical questions in news stories

The titles of news stories often feature unnecessarily simplistic rhetorical questions to which the answer is obviously ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:

3D Character and Question MarkIs England a nation on anti-depressants? No.

Could cricket have a big future in China? Yes. (Will it? Probably not.)

Do slimming clubs work? Yes. (Do they always work, for all people? No.)

Can Tiger Woods end wait for a major at the PGA Championship? Yes. (Will he? Probably not, because there’s too much luck in golf, which makes it harder to predict the winner than for any other major sport.*)

* Discuss.

Please give your own examples by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ below!

Things you only hear on TV, not in real life

Here are some things you only hear on TV (at least, British TV), and never anywhere else.

(1) ‘for ever’. Real people say ‘she changed how we think’. A TV presenter will say ‘she changed how we think – for ever’. Adding a pause for dramatic effect is vital.

(2) ‘of age’. Real people say ‘he’s only 18’. A TV presenter – well, a sports TV presenter – will say ‘he’s only 18 years of age’.

(3) ‘exactly’. Real people say ‘Mary will tell us what happened’. A TV presenter will say ‘Mary will tell us exactly what happened’. Curiously, it always turns out that the word ‘exactly’ is used ironically here.

(4) ‘an historic event’. Real people say ‘It was, like, massive’. A TV presenter will say ‘It was an historic event’. The sad thing is that they think they’re being correct by saying ‘an historic’, but strictly speaking it should be pronounced with a silent ‘h’, i.e. ‘an istoric’, in the same way that some people say ‘an otel’, as opposed to ‘an hotel’. The only people who I’ve ever heard get this right are Quentin Skinner and Tony Blair. Everyone else who says it gets it wrong, hence shooting themselves twice in the foot with one unhistoric bullet.

Mouth opens and words come out

i-have-nothing-to-sayOne of my pet dislikes is news reports without any newsworthy content. This is particularly common in sports reporting: a sportsperson often says exactly what you would expect, and the journalist dutifully reports it. The title of such reports might as well be ‘Mouth Opens And Words Come Out’.

Here are two recent examples from the BBC website.


Mouth Opens And Words Come Out Champions Trophy: Jonathan Trott hopes England are peaking (21 June, 2013)

England men’s cricketer Jonathan Trott stuns the world by saying ‘I hope we are peaking’, and amazes us with his desire for it to be a ‘great’ summer for England. Winning the final of the Champions Trophy against India, states the controversial cricketer, would be the ideal preparation for the Ashes series against Australia later in the summer. (England lost to India.) ‘We deserve to be in the final’, adds Trott. Strong words!


Mouth Opens and Words Come Out Lions 2013: Sam Warburton Wants Series Won In Second Test (27 June, 2013)

British Lions men’s rugby captain Sam Warburton astonishes the known universe by suggesting that, having won the first game of the three-game series, it would be better to clinch the series by winning the second game rather than losing it. Battling his ‘nervous excitement’, which surely no rugby player has ever felt before, Warburton unexpectedly suggests that the Australians ‘are great competitors’ and will ‘come out firing’.


I honestly can’t see anything in either story which is actually worth reporting. Of course I completely understand why reporters write such stories: there’s a big appetite – from people like me – to see updates about sports we follow; many sportspersons don’t actually say much worth reporting; and there’s a limit to how much investigative journalism a reporter can do about sport.

Still, I’d love to see a website which is split in two: stories with Actual News, and stories which just involve Mouths Opening And Words Coming Out.

TV bullshit and its effect on clear thinking

There’s a mild kind of bullshit which is common, entirely understandable, and produced by many of us, including me. But it’s insidious, and I’ll suggest that it might contribute to bigger problems.

Bullshit as Harry Frankfurt characterises it – in contrast to Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit – involves phoniness, indifference to truth. (See my earlier post for a comparison of Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, and some examples.)

In my view, bullshit is a matter of degree, and a mild form of Frankfurt-bullshit can often be found on TV, especially at the start of programmes.

Here are two recent examples from British television. The first is from top chef Michel Roux Jr., or rather, from whoever wrote the words which he read out at the start of the programme:

There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than what, how and why we eat and drink. … Something I’m obsessed by, just as you are, is a phenomenon that has literally taken over the world: baking. We’ve gone cupcake-crazy!

(from Food and Drink, episode 2: Baking, BBC2, 11 February 2013)

I love Michel Roux Jr. – I admire him, his cooking, his ideas, his personality, and I get a genuine buzz when he’s on my TV screen. But these comments are hard to swallow. Is there really nothing he’s more passionate about than why we eat and drink? Has baking really taken over the world? Have we really gone cupcake-crazy? Of course not, and Michel Roux Jr. doubtless does not think so either. He said these things, I assume, to create a nice, warm, positive, exciting, inclusive start to the show.

My second example is from Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford professor, in a programme about measuring time:

Our modern day lives are completely driven by precise measurement. … Today, we can build clocks which lose one second in 138 million years. And now there are plans for a clock accurate to within one second over the lifetime of the university. What is it that drives us to such extremes of ever great precision? Why do we feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around us?

(from Precision: The Measure of All Things, episode 1, BBC4, 10 June 2013)

Of course, our lives are not completely driven by precise measurement, and many of us do not feel the need to quantify and measure. But imagine that Professor du Sautoy had instead said: ‘Why do some people feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around them?’ Clearly this would be a bad way to start the programme: rather than focusing on humans’ relationship with precise measurement, it would sound like a psychological exploration of why some people feel a bizarre need to quantify and order everything.

So, these over-generalisations are entirely understandable: they are an attempt to draw viewers in, make the programme seem important, in an accessible introduction. I’d probably do the same thing. In fact I’ve used similar tactics on this blog, implying that Derrida might be full of bullshit when I knew all along that I’d only be discussing one passage from Derrida which I didn’t even think was bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt says at the start of On Bullshit, we all produce bullshit; and there’s a slight whiff of bullshit to what I did there.

Nonetheless, while such mild bullshit is understandable, the problem is that it is also found in contexts where clarity and rigour matters. Consider these book titles:

  • Why Americans Hate Politics
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare
  • Why Americans Hate The Media
  • Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War
  • The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race
  • Why Americans Don’t Vote
  • Why Americans Still Don’t Vote

Wow! Poor Americans. Apparently, you all hate politics, welfare and the media. You all choose war. You can’t think straight about race. You don’t vote. And you still don’t vote.

My tongue is in my cheek, of course, but there’s a serious side to this: we can’t explain attitudes in the USA if we assume that all Americans hate politics, all hate the media, and so on.

Yet I often see this kind of overstatement in student essays. Similar overstatements crop up in academic studies of voting, as Patrick Dunleavy shows in his chapter in A New Handbook of Political Science. Richard Rorty, a prominent political theorist, often talked vaguely about what ‘we’ think. It’s very easy to make such mistakes – again, I know I do this too.

These aren’t examples of Frankfurt-bullshit: they are conceptual overstatements. But my worry is that the mild bullshit of TV programmes might contribute to these conceptual overstatements. I don’t have evidence for this – can anyone point me to any academic studies? – but my suspicion is that as we grow up, we learn to think in part by hearing how others speak, and mildly bullshitty conceptual overstatements that we often hear on TV can thus foster a looseness of thought that leads to non-bullshitty conceptual overstatements by academics. Mild TV bullshit isn’t the only cause: these errors were made long before TV! But the result is erroneous talk about what ‘Afghans’ think, how ‘the French’ behave, how ‘women’ and ‘men’ differ, and so on.

In short: however hard we try to get away from our upbringing, these older ways of thinking often sneak back in. My fear is thus that the mild bullshit of some TV programmes can sometimes have damaging longer term effects.

Was Shakespeare a schoolteacher? How sloppy are some journalists?

Several people have been claiming that Shakespeare spent a few years working as a schoolteacher in Titchfield, a village in Hampshire. The claims have some plausibility and may be right. But I’m interested in how sloppily the BBC reported the story. The BBC makes it sound like a definite finding. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail newspaper is more even-handed, as we’ll see. And the claims about Shakespeare make some interesting intellectual errors in their own right.