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The New Gobbledygook


Opinion

Has the language of the fairytale taken over culture strategy?

Image of The New Gobbledygook

Artists and cultural workers have been invited to discuss Scotland’s new culture strategy with culture secretary Fiona Hyslop at an event in Glasgow on 26 June. The strategy, which is due to be published late next year, will focus on “access, equity and excellence”. The news sent a collective shiver down the spines of arts administrators. Many will have been victims of the impenetrable, byzantine officialese that the government, local councils and the nation’s funding bodies have used over the last several years.

Despite these organisations being widely criticised for their opaque, condescending management-speak (employed to suggest professionalism and growth) it’s something that they just can’t seem to resist.

Around 20 years ago, in an effort not to sound arty-farty, government culture departments and agencies mired their communications in the worst gobbledygook; weasel words borrowed from business that would make the stoutest heart sink. “Capacity building” (say what?) was one of the worst examples. Oddly this was a time when, in the business world, management consultants were advocating more meaningful wording; something artier.

There has been a subtle change at many arts and “creative industry” (ugh) organisations. The pendulum has swung the other way. It seems that PR departments do their damnedest to use the language of the fairy tale.

Kenneth Roy of the Scottish Review wrote of the culture strategy event invitation: ‘[Ms] Hyslop describes [it] as “a gathering of individuals from across the culture sector/s to discuss the development of a national culture strategy for Scotland”. She explains that the meeting will mark the beginning of a “collaborative journey” in which the strategy “is shaped by those immersed in our cultural life and who appreciate the many ways that culture supports, contributes [sic] and shapes society, now and into the future”‘. Roy described the wording as “semi-literate drivel”.

Some seven years ago Scotland’s newly-minted arts- and screen agency Creative Scotland was launched. Amid considerable misgivings within Scotland’s arts community the Scottish government in 2010 finally closed down the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and the country’s film agency Scottish Screen. The new organisation (dubbed the “new delivery model” by the culture minister), under its then CEO Andrew Dixon, attempted to reinvent what the national arts funder was all about. CS, under intense media scrutiny, fell back on tried-and-tested buzzwords in order to justify changes to the organisation’s funding structure which threatened several major players.

As elsewhere in the public sector the MBAs had taken over the asylum. Perhaps the most egregious example of obfuscation was pioneered at the BBC. Under the directorship of John Birt (between 1992 and 2000) the organisation was to become more market aware and more prepared for digitalisation. But Birt, who had come from commercial TV and later was a strategist for Tony Blair, had one lasting legacy of which he was less than proud. Private Eye has had a field day with BBC utterances – statements, job ads, missives from HR, extracts from strategy documents – ever since and runs a regular section called Birtspeak which pokes fun at the worst excesses of creative jargon: “escalator models” and “user-centre platform slates”. These phrases seem impressive but are just so much sound and fury signifying nothing very much. The BBC’s cloying, politically correct business-speak was further spoofed in the TV satire W1A.

In the Noughties arts organisations were struggling more than ever for funding from the public purse and commercial sponsorship. What better way of convincing others of your serious intent than presenting your case in management-speak with plenty of references to impacts and inputs and outcomes, portfolios and protocols, action plans and working groups.

‘Pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power’, wrote Don Watson in his 2004 book Gobbledygook. ‘Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that [those] who elevate the tone will [themselves] be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody’.

Politicians and their flak-catchers love these woolly expressions. After spending money (usually on expensive outside consultants) on research or “stakeholder” consultation it used to be common to see the expression: “the results will inform future thinking” – most definitely not that the organisation will act on or implement anything that comes out of the research/consultation.

The opprobrium that greeted the public announcements surrounding the arrival of Creative Scotland highlighted the importance of good clear communication. A jumble of buzzwords seemed like a smokescreen for bad decision-making. “Muddled messages mask mischief” goes the old saying. With the right jargon dictionary it’s easy to say a lot without being specific. But this wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all the watching arts world (which had recently been rechristened the “creative sector”). Writers, actors, playwrights, poets, novelists, critics, columnists, journalists spend their lives thinking about and analysing language. They were not to be hoodwinked by “robust, enhanced deliverables” or “facilitated stakeholder engagement”.

Ironically, clearer language ticked the diversity box. Simple English would be more understandable by more people including those for whom English was not a first language. Individuals with dyslexia and those with learning difficulties would also find plain English welcome. It seemed like a win-win. But politicians’ wishes and promises can look very wishy-washy with all those “outcomes” and “stakeholders” removed. “We will try to improve what we do” sounds so much weaker than “the ongoing implementation of our service delivery improvement framework agenda”.

What was needed was a knight on a white charger to come to this particular damsel in distress. So now there’s another source of inspiration for management gobbledygook…

Fairy tales have influenced most people’s lives. They are often the first stories we get to hear as children. Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment suggested that fairy tales can open up an understanding to the psyche’s deepest hopes and fears. And what’s Game of Thrones if not a Freudian reworking of the fairy tale? Bad corporate lingo these days has fallen in love with a poetry that has become just as clichéd as that in any dog-eared action plan.

Now every organisation is on an emotionally-loaded “journey”. Where they encounter “gatekeepers” and “gateways”, “roadmaps” and “pathfinders”. There are “gatherings” and “discovery markers” and plans that are no longer developed but “crafted”, “shaped”, “harnessed” or even “forged”. There’s much “enhancing” and “embracing” going on (“embracing change” is a favourite). Not to mention “seeking clarity”. Such expressions are warmer, cuddlier but no less fuzzy than the jargon of old. The emperor’s new clothes, you might say. Or maybe what’s found at the end of the rainbow – the same old crock.