Dipped in Brit

Scots budget underspend will help fight virus carers ‘not coping’

The above headline in The National fair got my vital juices flowing this morning. The term ‘budget underspend’ is kind of a trigger for me. What it triggers is not exactly anger but intense frustrated irritation. The sort of thing that makes you clench your fists and half scream half growl through gritted teeth. I don’t know how to write that sound. The scream would be ‘aaarrrgh!’. The growl would be ‘grrr’. So I suppose noise I’m talking about would be something like ‘grrraaarrrghgrr’. But I’m not writing that. It may sort of convey what I’m trying to describe, but it looks ugly on the page. And it causes my spellchecker to start writing her resingation leter. Anyway! You know what I mean!

Where was I?

Oh yes! Language! Language matters. Language matters a lot. I don’t mean language as in English or Hindi. Obviously, if I was writing this in Hindi few of you would be able to read it. And I’d be off to the hospital with a suspected stroke. No! It’s not just which language you use, but how you use the language you use. The terms you choose. The context. The semantics and the pragmatics and the semiotics and all that stuff. (How do you spot a linguist? They all have lots of tics!) Stuff we don’t concern ourselves with as we communicate with each other. Things that we are all expert in without necessarily knowing the ‘proper’ words for them. It’s knowing the ‘proper’ words that separates the ‘experts’ from the rest of us. Things that professional communicators are supposed to know something about even if not enough to make it into the category of ‘expert’.

Journalists are professional communicators. They mediate messages. They are one of the main links between us and ‘out there’. The world. Journalists are trained how to use language. Which starts with learning how language is used. If you are aware of the way people express their thoughts then you can describe and explain the world in terms that people will best understand. There’s more to it, of course. A lot goes into a journalist’s training. They have to learn about the way print, broadcast and online media function at a technical level and how they operate as businesses and how to avoid buying your round in the pub and probably a couple of other things.

Training is important. Journalism is a profession with very stringent ethical standards and a powerful commitment to public service. I think it was Paul “Scalphunter” Hutcheon who told me that. Or maybe it was Tom “Hellhole Scotland” Gordon.

To be a lot more fair than most journalist seem to manage, they’re not all like that. There are a few who actually take at least a bit seriously at least some of that stuff about professional standards and public service. I’d even be prepared to accept that the bulk of them start out that way. They genuinely believe that they are setting out on a mission to speak uncomfortably disruptive truth unto power on behalf of the many. But something happens to them along the way. At some point they find themselves speaking appropriately mediated truth unto the powerless on behalf of the few.

A formalised understanding of how people express their thoughts not only makes it possible to describe the world accurately in a way that people understand, it also makes it possible to have people understand the world inaccurately by the way it is described. Journalists are not just messengers. They are mediators. They process messages for onward transmission in a form that serves the intended purpose of the author. They manipulate messages. They make their living from manipulating messages on behalf of others. The others being whoever is prepared to pay them. Or whoever they choose to seek/accept payment from out of a closed group defined by the ability to pay to have messages manipulated. The powerful. Even if only relatively.

In the main, journalists work for established power. They may do so as indirectly as is required to ease any residual conscience. But most journalists by far work for established power. They manipulate messages on behalf on established power. They manipulate truth for the benefit of those whose interests are best served by ensuring that truth is never spoken unto the powerless.

They don’t necessary lie outright. There is rarely any need. People can be deceived in many ways just by the way language is used. A mediated – manipulated – message may contain nothing that is untrue. It may contain only verifiable facts. And still it can deceive. The information can be filtered. The facts can be purposefully selected or omitted. The components parts of the message can be ordered in a particular way either for emphasis or to ‘adjust’ their perceived importance or relevance. Or to make it either more likely or less likely that selected parts of the message are received. All of this is related to language and its use. It’s not just the words chosen.

But words matter too. Especially the words in the headline and standfirst – the bit right at the beginning and usually in bold. The former is almost bound to be read. The latter is likely to be read if the headline succeeds in seizing the attention of the reader. (Something similar is true for viewers and listeners whose attention may be captured using different means.) Words matter. Words matter if they are read – if the message is received. Words also matter even if they are not read. Because the words used by the media tend to become the currency of public discourse. To a very significant extent, the media defines the terms of debate. Journalists take the language we use for our purposes and return to us the same language, but formed for other purposes. The purposes of those who own the media and/or pay the journalists. To a very significant extent, this returned – mediated, manipulated – language then comes to be the language which informs public discourse. You see where this is going? You see how it works?

Language itself creates and recreates the contexts in which language is used. But the tendency must always be for the language to favour or at least shield established power. Without exercising any direct ‘Orwellian’ control, the system works in favour of the powerful. In a very real sense, we all end up doing the same. To the extent that we use the language favoured by the powerful, we favour the powerful. We help to make that language and all its purposefully attached associations and connotations a defining part of the social and political environment. We do for free what journalists get paid to do. We probably don’t do it as effectively as they do. But there’s more of us. Each of us need only do a little bit even in the most half-arsed way and the aggregate has a major effect on that social and political environment.

It’s a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing process. It would be to the general advantage of those in the sub-basements of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which serve the few at perpetual cost to the many if the cycle was broken. Why hasn’t it been broken? Good question! So glad you’re still here to ask it more than 1200 words in.

The simple answer is that the cycle hasn’t been broken because it’s a self-perpetuation and self-reinforcing process. The advantage of this being true is almost certainly going to be outweighed by it being judged unhelpful – perhaps facetious. As if I would ever!

We need an explanation which is at least sightly better lest readers get to 1300 words only to feel cheated.

Remember the headline I began with? If so, well done you! I had to scroll back to the top of the page to remind myself. Remember the fuss I made about the language? Specifically the term “budget underspend”? What was all that about? And how does it relate to all that other stuff?

What the term “budget underspend” refers to is a fiscal phenomenon more usually called a ‘budget surplus’. In fact, it is always called a budget surplus. With only very rare exceptions. I’ll venture that the only exception anybody reading this is aware of is when the budget surplus in question is the Scottish Government’s budget surplus. What’s the difference, you ask? Aren’t ‘underspend’ and ‘surplus’ just different words for the same thing?

Again! Good question! Maybe even better than the one I remarked on earlier. My answer is that maybe they could be different words for the same thing, but in the context they definitely are not. In the context, ‘underspend’ implies something unplanned. A failure to meet set spending levels. A failure to effectively manage the budget. Even a failure to properly fund essential public services. All negative associations and connotations. All associations deployed through the media by those whose purpose is to undermine the Scottish Government, the SNP administration, the Scottish Parliament and all of Scotland’s democratic institutions.

Now you’re asking the best question of them all. Given the foregoing, what the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] is that word doing in a headline on the pages of The National? Why is a newspaper which is explicitly in favour of the restoration of Scotland’s independence and broadly supportive of the SNP administration using such language? Why do they use a word which would be more at home in one of those British Daily Express headlines breathlessly ‘informing’ us that the Scottish public are FURIOUS about something. Commonly something the Scottish public is largely unaware of or all but totally uninterested in. In this case, the fact that the Scottish Government has a budget surplus such as it always has because it is required to by law. Well, they couldn’t possibly (almost wrote ‘credibly’! Hah!) suggest that anybody might be FURIOUS about a budget surplus, could they? The term ‘budget surplus’ has entirely positive connotations. It’s the pursuit of a budget surplus and all the pursuant benefits which is used to rationalise the British state’s austerity economics. It has to be a good thing. And we don’t say good things about the uppity Jocks if we’re a journalist whose mortgage payments won’t be met just dodging rounds in the pub.

In Scotland, a budget surplus is unexceptional. It is unremarkable. It is commonplace. Everybody who cares about such things knows about it and doesn’t care. Call it an ‘underspend’, however, and the propaganda potential becomes significant. So that is what journalists in the service of the British state do.

But Roxanne Sorooshian – whose byline appears under the headline for which she may or may not be responsible – isn’t one of that disreputable breed, is she? She’s a Deputy Editor at The National! What the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] is going on? Isn’t it obvious? She must be a mole planted by the British Security Service to disrupt the independence campaign. I have it from a reliable source in a very fetching tinfoil Trilby.

Or it’s simple carelessness. But that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory explanation either. After all, it’s always called a ‘budget surplus’. It’s “budget underspend” that’s the unusual term. If it was a case of inattention then you’d expect there to be a default to the most common term. The default would be ‘budget surplus’. It’s where you’d go if you were on autopilot. Using the pejorative terminology must be intentional.

Well, yes! If you mean intentional in the sense of non-accidental. But not if you mean it in these sense of (invariably malign) intent. A better term might be ‘unwitting’.

What this demonstrates is the extent to which the heavily propaganda-laden language of the British state has permeated and tainted Scotland’s media environment. It must be effectively impossible to train as a journalist without getting the stuff on your hands and up your nose and in your hair. Every journalist comes dipped in Brit. So maybe we should cut The National some slack.

But I’m not going to. Because language matters. The National Is a great asset to the independence movement. It has the potential to be a great asset to Scotland. It could be the catalyst for a whole new Scottish media environment. But not so long as it remains contaminated by the British media culture. Not until it is rid of any tendency to call a surplus an overspend.

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7 thoughts on “Dipped in Brit

  1. “They don’t necessary lie outright. There is rarely any need.”
    Which instantly calls to mind :

    You cannot hope to bribe or twist / The honest British journalist,
    But seeing what unbribed he’ll do / There’s scarcely any reason to!


    Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember lines but not the sources.
        Have just reached 1200 words after a coffee break and respectfully note that you refer to a counterfactual condition without using the subjunctive ‘were’, call yourself a cunning linguist, would you know syntax from tin-tacks 😉


  2. At 1300+ words, you’re quite right the words _underspend_ and _surplus_ carry entirely different, at first sight contradictory, associations. Well spotted, it really did need pointing out and strongly supports the main thrust of this piece. Thanks! 🙂


    1. On further thought, the two terms are only equivalent for an organisation where any surplus/underspend can be carried forward or redirected to other purposes, as opposed to being clawed back or deducted from next year’s supply. Remind me how the Scottish government is financed, how much if any of its funds is it able to raise directly?


  3. When I was studying economics the status of the budget was always the difference between government revenue raised and expenditure incurred. Where the result of the latter was positive this was described as a ‘surplus’ whilst the vice-versa situation was termed a ‘deficit’. A perfect balance of zero was referred to as a ‘neutral’ budget.

    However, as a finance minister you can underspend the expenditure plan and not necessarily have a budget surplus. If actual as opposed to planned – revenues raised are less than actual spend then deficit still results.

    For instance, if the finance minister plans to spend £10m and only parts with £7m then that is clearly an ‘underspend’ (of £3m). The finance minister may have planned a neutral budget with anticipated revenues of £10m (to pay for the planned £10m spend) but if actual monies coming onto the books is only £5m there will be a shortfall of £7m – £5m =£2m. Hence, there is both an ‘underspend’ and a ‘deficit’.

    It is unclear to me at least whether the author of The National article is referring to a real underspend versus planned expenditure on the one hand or a surplus in the budget as a result of income generated being greater than expenditure carried out on the other. In both cases this might be considered commonly as a ‘saving’.

    There is no context to the article. So we don’t know whether to judge the ‘underspend’ a boon resulting from competent management or a haphazard fluke.

    All of which kind of makes the point about the significance of words, how they are used and the company that they keep.


  4. The fuss made by Unionists in previous years has involved unspent funds from Scotland’s annual Barnett allocation. While the article itself hasn’t provided this context anyone who has a rudimentary knowledge of the Scotland budget’s history will be aware.

    Liked by 1 person

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