Capital territory

12 Nov

In the world of globalised anglophone news, stories intended for one market can be hard enough to parse in other markets as it is. When a quirk of the style guide get in the way, it can make things even more difficult:

The headline, written by Guardian Australia for Australians but, as usual, globally available on the website, creates a familiarly steep learning curve for those unfamiliar with politics in Canberra. Ken Wyatt is the minister for Indigenous affairs and the IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) is a conservative thinktank; that much quickly becomes clear. But what are overseas readers to make of the phrase “… engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video”?

As the always-alert Memphis bureau, which spotted this story, writes

I found  the whole “voice to parliament” phrase very hard to understand at first – especially as it’s not clear that it’s a compound noun referring  to some sort of proposed consultative body. Initial caps on the words or hyphens or quotes or something would have made it clearer that “parliament” and “voice” go together to describe one thing. And I wouldn’t have been wondering what bigotry-in-voice is (talking in a demeaning way?), or which parliament video they were doing this to. But it’s not just the headline, the whole article reads oddly until you work out that the ‘voice to parliament’ is a (semi-)defined thing.

“Voice to Parliament” is indeed a thing: it is a proposal for greater Indigenous influence in Australian affairs and comes from the “Statement of the Heart”, the communique from the landmark Uluru Meeting in 2017 in which 250 Indigenous leaders met representatives of federal government to discuss constitutional reform. The statement proposed change based on three key concepts: Voice, Truth, and Makarrata (meaning “treaty” or “coming together”). The Voice to Parliament is an as-yet-unformed representative body based on the first of these that will communicate on behalf of the first nations to the government.

And it would be much clearer in the context of a sentence if the phrase were rendered in initial caps. Unfortunately, however, the Guardian is determinedly lowercase in these matters. As its style guide says:

Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents).

A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase, which in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society, has been accelerated by the explosion of the internet: some web companies, and many email users, have dispensed with capitals altogether.

Our style reflects these developments. We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity. As with any aspect of style, it is impossible to be wholly consistent – there are almost always exceptions, so if you are unsure check for an individual entry in this guide.

You feel that this is a case where consistency could have been sacrificed for clarity. Or at least, that’s how it seems from here in the opposite hemisphere. But perhaps the phrase is much better recognised in its own country, and easily spotted in the middle of a headline? In the world of globalised anglophone news, unintentionally baffling two-thirds of your audience is just something you have to live with. This is a piece written in Australia for Australians: it’s what sounds right to them that matters.

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