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Another day, another dollar

21 Jan

Stories of the disastrous Australian bushfires are winging around the globe, and donors, including celebrity donors, are responding worldwide. But while the multinational anglophone news services – the Mail, the Guardian, the BBC  –  are in prime position to spread the word of the millions being pledged, they are having trouble, not for the first time, deciding exactly what kind of millions they are.

We have previously seen how a libel settlement awarded in Australian dollars was reported around the world, even in the US, as being simply in “dollars”. But this time, it’s not the media that is being vague about currency – it seems to be the celebrity donors themselves.

Elton John announced simply that he would be donating “$1m” to firefighters, speaking live on stage at a concert in Sydney. Chris Hemsworth made the same non-specific announcement in a video on social media. John is a Briton with ties to both the US and Australia, but particularly the former; Hemsworth an Australian who works in Hollywood but now chooses to live in his home country. What denomination of currency does each of them think in when they are speaking off the cuff? What kind of dollars do they mean?

Other celebrities have joined in. The singers Kylie Minogue (Australian, famous in Australia and Britain, somewhat less so in America) and Pink (American, lives in America, popular around the world) both pledged “$500,000”. If one were to guess – and it would only be a guess – one might surmise that Minogue meant Australian dollars and Pink United States dollars. But if so, that creates considerable unease about allowing the sentence “The pop star Pink said she would donate $500,000, which is the same amount Kylie Minogue pledged.” Is it actually the same amount?

The Daily Mirror, which professes less global ambition than some of its British rivals, feels confident enough to convert Minogue’s pledge into pounds on the assumption that she meant Australian dollars: £265k (as opposed to something like £380k if she had meant US).

But they haven’t done the same for Hemsworth, her fellow Australian, who broadcast his pledge at home in Australia but was equally non-specific.

Of course, in a crisis of this magnitude, when aid is urgently needed, this is a detail that should only worry sub-editors. Or perhaps sub-editors and international hard rockers with an eye for detail:

Thanks, Metallica.

 

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.

Reports without borders

29 Oct

One hesitates to think of the Daily Mail being subject to even less regulatory scrutiny than it currently is, but you can understand why the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) has come to the following conclusion:

IPSO’s jurisdiction regarding material published by a global digital publisher is limited to content covering events in the UK, save where the content can be viewed in the UK and:

1. The content covers events outside the UK and:

a. Principally concerns a UK national or resident who is directly and personally affected by the alleged breach of the Code; or

b. In respect of the accuracy of the content, where the coverage concerns UK nationals, residents or institutions.

Or

2. The content is based on material published in a UK print edition of a title within the global digital publisher’s group.

This might read like something of a let-off for the British media organisations that Ipso regulates. The Guardian’s former investigations editor David Leigh – now on the board of Ipso’s regulatory rival, Impress – certainly appears unimpressed by it, tweeting a link to the news with the observation: “IPSO gives Mail Online exemption from ethics regulation”. And certainly it marks the end of Ipso’s previous approach, which was to award itself discretion to investigate stories by the foreign operations of UK papers when it chose to. But will this new proposal simply function as an exemption? I think there’s more to it than that.

All this has arisen in the wake of a row between the Mail and Ipso about an article published in 2015 making claims about a “bromance” between the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, and the actor Tom Cruise. Miscavige complained about the article to Ipso in the UK on the grounds of accuracy and won. But the Mail declined to accept Ipso’s jurisdiction in the matter because, it said, the piece was almost exclusively about American people, events and locations; it had been commissioned and written in its US office; and it complied with American law. Apparently seeing some justification in the Mail’s position, Ipso launched a review into the extent of its remit with regard to international news, and published the proposed form of words quoted above in 2017; they were finally approved by its membership last month.

For the last few years, this blog has taken an interest in the rapid expansion of British media groups – notably the Guardian, Mail and BBC – into other English-speaking countries and the emergence of a nascent Anglosphere news agenda in which stories from the UK, north America and Australasia become mixed together and served to all three markets. This expansion has by and large outstripped the ability of the courts or press regulators to keep up: they remain constrained by national boundaries while news organisations are going global. (The Snowden revelations about the British secret service, for example, were published in the US, where the UK’s Official Secrets Act could not prevent them emerging.)

Ipso’s self-imposed rule change might be seen as simply an acknowledgment of this humbling reality, and an immediate victory for the Mail. But it also contains within it the seeds of a strategy that, in the long term, could revive regulators’ potency.

Ipso can only regulate those organisations that agree to be bound by its rules, of course. But as a general principle, this new approach – in effect, basing regulatory jurisdiction on the nationality of the subject of a story, rather than the nationality of the organisation writing it – is a strong one. If similar rules were to apply to every news outlet in every country (admittedly a big if), they could greatly clarify the confusion over global regulatory coverage.

Take the example of Rebel Wilson, the Australian comedy actor – a transnational figure who lives and works in Hollywood and is known across the Anglosphere. In 2017 she sued an Australian magazine in Australia for defamation and won a landmark A$4.5m (later reduced on appeal), a victory that was news in every English-speaking jurisdiction. Under the new rules, an article about the case by the Mail’s bureau in Sydney would be covered by the Australian Press Council on the grounds that Wilson was an Australian with a suit in the Australian courts. Even if the Mail’s US office were to write and publish some follow-up coverage with a Hollywood angle, the content would still of course be visible in Australia and be about an Australian citizen, so the APC would remain the active regulator. But, for the same reason, Miscavige would be unable to approach a sympathetic Ipso in the UK, and be forced to test his case against the First Amendment in his native US.

By the application of a universal, easy-to-understand rule – articles visible in a country about a citizen of that country will be adjudicated by the regulator of that country, regardless of the nationality of the newspaper in question – regulators would have a mechanism to attach media groups much more firmly to a particular regime, including more restrictive regimes like the British one. Publishing stories for UK consumption about nefarious British institutions via an American affiliate would become more perilous for UK media groups, although they would get better protection in certain cases from “complaints tourism”.

There would be some anomalies: who would have jurisdiction, for example, if Guardian US published a contentious story visible in Britain about a US-UK dual citizen committing misdeeds in New York? And we are probably a long way from national media watchdogs agreeing a reciprocal set of jurisdictional rules with each other. But this proposal is more than just a feeble “exemption” for misbehaving journalists; rather, for the regulators, it’s the first glimpse of a strategy that might get them back into a globalised game.

Spruiking to the world

11 Jun

I know English-language news stories suffer from dialect problems when read outside their home country. I know that possibly the only solution for our rapidly globalising anglophone news sites is to “honour the author’s voice”* and hope overseas readers understand. And I know we’ve talked about this before. But strewth:

For those needing footnotes:

spruik (v) Australian archaic, slang to speak in public (used esp of a showman or salesman); to promote or publicise

doco (n) Australian informal short for documentary

And David Speers is a political journalist currently moving from Sky News to the less remunerative Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a move of some significance in Australian media circles since he “is famously paid a motza by Sky” (motza (n) also motsa, motser Australian informal a large sum of money, especially a gambling win).

Of course, this is an example of a piece produced by a global news organisation, in this case the Guardian, locally in Sydney for the local market. It has to be in Australian English or it would sound alien to its target audience. Even if you are outside Australia, however, you may well encounter it: it appears on the Guardian’s aggregator page for commentary, which (like its top 10 list) doesn’t differentiate between countries of origin. And although it may be possible to control who sees such stories using users’ geolocation data, no one yet – not the Mail or the Guardian, and often not the BBC – seems to be trying very hard to make that happen.

So, given that we may be encountering more antipodean English in the future, may I recommend a good reference source for unfamiliar phrases? The Australian National University’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms is full of helpful explanations if you should come across googs, nasho, pokies, firies** or somebody “shooting through like a Bondi tram”*** in your morning news report. I’m expecting to find it very helpful. Although you may not get to the point of having tickets on yourself, it should help you look less like a stunned mullet when the next barbecue stopper comes along.****

 

* This approach is followed punctiliously at the Tribune. I recently came across a piece that referred to Madonna’s notorious 1991 tour documentary as Madonna: Truth Or Dare. That was its title in the US, but in Britain and many other countries it was called In Bed With Madonna. I changed it for print, because the newspaper’s market is deemed to be the UK only. But what about the web, which is read globally? After a discussion, it was decided that, even though the film is American and Truth Or Dare is arguably its original title, because the article had been originated by the London culture desk, the author’s voice would prevail and In Bed With Madonna would win. Any article on the same subject written in the US, however, and reaching the same audience, would stick with the American title.

** Googs: eggs. Nasho: national military service. Pokies: slot machines, which in Australia often have a five-reel playing-card format that in effect deals you a poker hand. Firies: firefighters.

*** Departing in a hurry, in the manner of the now-defunct express tram to Bondi Beach, which would run non-stop (or “shoot through”) for part of its journey.

**** Having tickets on yourself: being full of oneself, feeling superior (origin unclear). Looking like a stunned mullet: being visibly disconcerted. Barbecue stopper: breaking news of such interest that it would even interrupt conversation at a barbecue. 

Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?

 

*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc