Friday, November 15, 2013

Not Every Word Has to Go on the Record

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If we use ugly language with each other, does not make us ugly ourselves? Is contemporary language an evolving thing, where yesterday’s taboo is today’s commonplace, or is there a line where we lose articulacy and nuance, and revert a little to the level of the beast?

It would take a considerable level of denial not to have noticed that words that were once unthinkable in polite company and absolutely out of the question in broadcast or written media are now everywhere and, if anybody minds, he or she is keeping it very much to themselves.

This was brought home the weekend before last when one of the national papers published a short extract from rugby hero Ronan O’Gara’s (latest) autobiography. There’s a headline on the extract, and then a sub-headline, with what’s called a pull-quote from the story – the fruitiest stand-alone quote the sub-editors can find in order to entice the reader to read the full story. The seventeenth word in that pull-quote is a swear word. And not just any swear word, but their master and commander.

And the question is: why was it necessary for Ronan O’Gara to use that notorious word in his book, and why was it further necessary for the newspaper to print it in full, in all its still-shocking glory?

There are two questions at issue here. The first has to do with authenticity of how people speak now, in 21st Century Ireland. The second has to do with children, culture, future generations and the state of the English language itself.

The reason swear words are more commonly quoted and used in media now is because there is a ruling belief in media circles that authenticity is more important than prudishness. People swear all the time, and for the media to not report that accurately, word for word, is to dilute the truth. Better innocence be corrupted than a story not be fully reported, like Oliver Cromwell, warts and all.

And that’s fine, in theory. But if you go through most news stories, you will be hard put to find anywhere a synonym for a swearword will not get the message across to anyone with the wit to read between the lines. “The argument became heated, and the defendant implored the accused to ‘go away’ in the strongest possible terms.” It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what was said there.

But even that small example is a particular type of story, a court case. Court cases are important journalistically – you need special permission from the court to report them. They’re serious business.

Rugby, where we came in, is a game. Certainly it’s a professional game now and people invest a lot emotionally in it. But it’s still a pastime, something to worry about when you’re not worrying about the economy or the health service or the state of the roads. It’s important, but it’s not serious. It’s certainly not important enough for a national newspaper to deploy what is still one of the most shocking words in the language in a story where it isn’t needed.

It’s doubly disappointing because a Ronan O’Gara story in the newspaper will be devoured by children for whom O’Gara has been a hero for, literally, all of their lives. It would be an innocent child indeed who has not heard that word or its fellow travellers by now, but to see it used so causally in the newspaper gives the impression that it’s just another word, like cabbage, shoe or wardrobe. And it’s not.

The paper where the O’Gara story appeared prides itself on being the national “paper of record.” What that means is that they will print a news story even if it’s cripplingly boring because they think it’s important that there should be a record of that. In real terms, it means when you buy that paper, you are more likely to read a story about the Troika and European interest rates than who whacked whom on last night’s episode of “Love/Hate.”

And printing the Ronan O’Gara quote in full is part of that full record. By using the full quote, the paper wants to make sure the reader is in no doubt that O’Gara knew, when his phone rang, that his international career was at an end.

But again. This is a game, not an event of great importance. What great injustice to the truth would have been done had the quote been finessed a little. Like so:

“When it rang I had a look at the name. Declan Kidney. Oh no. Ignored it. Deccie obviously wasn’t ringing me to tell me I was captain against France.”

Would that have been such a disservice to the truth? The quote still reads authentically. The feeling O’Gara had when his phone rang and he saw the same is still crystal clear. What you don’t have is a child reading the paper and getting that one small slice less innocent before it is absolutely necessary for him or her.

Language is terribly important. Nothing has meaning without language, as it’s only through language we communicate. People are always going to swear, of course. Reader, if you are in McHale next summer and it happens that Roscommon beat Mayo by a late, late goal as in 2001, no-one will think any less of you if you if frustration overcomes you and you let yourself down for a moment by giving full expression to your dismay.

But when we’re writing, we do so in cold blood. Even under the lash of the deadline, we still have lots of time to choose which words to put in and which words to leave out. Reading the paper and becoming aware of the news is one of paths from childhood to adulthood. Papers should be aware of this responsibility, and remember that it is not, in fact, absolutely necessary that every word uttered goes on the record.