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.

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.

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.