by William Smook

Bonfire of the inanities

Don’t call thuggery, criminal neglect and lies anything other than what they are


The business I’m in—public relations —s sometimes derided as purveying “spin” – a form of propaganda. In the last 10-plus years since Going Over To The Dark Side from full-time journalism I’ve heard a few journalists deliver that brickbat as though they were the first ones to think of it. In that decade, quite a number of them have moved from journalism into public relations too.

It’s true that there’s some pretty awful PR stuff out there, where hyperbole replaces accuracy. But it’s also true that there’s some “journalism” I’d rather not have my by-line on, like the piece titled, “The BeyHive Is Attacking Chick-fil-A for Saying Its Lemonade Is ‘Fresher Than Beyoncé’s”. Um, what? So “spin” is more likely to be lazy shorthand for inane, weapons-grade twaddle, and there are other industries which are easily as adept at generating such guff as mine is. Having just bought a house, I reckon estate agents have a corner on the market, if you’ll pardon the pun.

We’ve moved into a pretty, sun-filled place with lovely wooden floors and which, it turns out, was wired by an electrician with murderous intent. A little chipping with a chisel showed that the damp, badly rusted conduit – housing the main electrics cable and connecting the house to the grid – is just behind the tiles in the shower. The electrics’ mains-box protrudes from the same wall, inches away from the shower-head. The two electricians who inspected this set-up were aghast that nobody has been electrocuted or that the house hasn’t burned to the ground. This was a house described by the estate-agent as well-built and it has wiring-certificates to prove it.

I’m relieved we’re alive, but I was a bit disappointed that the estate-agent didn’t also describe this set-up as “Doctor Crippen-chic” or “conjuring the rustic nostalgia of the ‘Old Sparky’-era capital punishment in the Deep South.” Must Do Better.

It’s not just estate agents who purvey such puerile patter, of course. Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but politics is a great bastion of toady euphemism. At the time of writing this, there’s a lot of coverage of yet more fisticuffs in Parliament, with black-and-white-clad “Chamber support officers” duking it out with red-clad EFF MPs. Ukraine-esque chaos is the overall result.

The goons in Parliament were hired thugs. Calling them a “security detail” is as weasel a term as any estate-agent telling you the house you’re seeing has “quirky” when there’s a urinal in the lounge.

Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of whose death was celebrated recently, coined many phrases that have entered common parlance, like “shuffling off this mortal coil” as a term for dying. But he’d wring his ruff at the way modern language is coiled and folded to smooth away facts.

Some of it is, let’s be honest, bollocks. Example: climate change is as scientific a fact as its symptoms: coral bleaching, extreme weather and habitat-loss. So referring to the climate-change debate—as though it’s a theory, like cattle-mutilations, UFOs, ancient aliens or Robert Mugabe’s mortality— is canny, calculated drivel. It positions climate science alongside, say, Giorgio A Tsoukalos, the fabulously hirsute chap whose coiffure evolves as he asserts that ancient alien astronauts hung out with early humans.

That’s not a new tactic, of course: the same lobbyists paid to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking and to “debate” whether HIV causes AIDS are now lucratively retained by those businesses which stand to benefit from inaction on climate change.

The unspun truth is that a lot what we PR types do, when we do it properly, is similar to my old job, journalism. We gather facts and present them in some or other coherent form. These days it’s known as “content”.

Trying to paint Parly’s bully-boys as anything but that is like estate agent’s “An opportunity to make it your own,” which involves getting the crime-scene team to deal with the fly-blown, mob-hit corpses first.

We need scepticism, even outrage, in the face of such absurdity. Not too long ago, the Nationalist Party’s “security details” would smash up opposition meetings. They were fond of black, white and red too, and wanted South Africa to side with Nazi Germany in World War Two. One of their leading lights, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, later became Prime Minister.

I’m all for free speech, although my inner Chamber Support Officer reluctantly hankers for rules. The wiring-inspector’s stamp of approval was a synonym for, “Thanks for the cash. Here’s the stamp for your paper. See ya!” It’s time we pointed out such inane deceit wherever we see it. No home may be called “sumptuously appointed” unless it’s built in the precise dimensions of Monica Bellucci, nor are you not allowed to call the place “light and airy” when there’s no roof.

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