Ways to sway proles, we love 'em

New Media Language
October 31, 2003

The title, cover material and foreword to this book are all misleading, so here is a description. The 20 contributors are a mixture of journalists and academics, which means that reflections on professional practice stand alongside more scholarly articles. Some essays focus on language and the media, others say nothing about language. A few deal with "new media" as I understand the term - the internet, email, text messages - while others scrutinise newspapers, radio and television. The foreword by Simon Jenkins describes the book as "a user's manual", which makes me wonder if he read it; and the cover heralds "an accessible introduction to the study of sociolinguistics and the media" - also rather wide of the mark. There is in fact very little sociolinguistics here, and very little critical analysis.

One highlight in this volume is Martin Conroy's illuminating look at the language of tabloid newspapers. He rightly notes the tone of "popular, carnival disrespect and irreverent jesting and flippancy", which appears to express the views of the ordinary bloke but in fact serves the ends of powerful elites. With extensive examples of reactionary populism about asylum seekers, his discussion puts The Sun firmly in its place.

There is much food for thought, too, in John Carey's brief survey of reportage, a genre of writing with older roots and a more important cultural role than is often realised. The central paradox, Carey argues, is that the more horrifying the events described, the more important it is to assess the authenticity of the writing, but the harder it is to raise that kind of question. He cites a harrowing account by a man who saw the Nazis slaughtering thousands of Jews in the Ukraine in 1942, and points out that we tend to take such accounts on trust. To question their accuracy would be brutal (and selective scepticism, as practised by the Holocaust-denial industry, has a sinister ideological motivation). Having said that, historians face this problem all the time, and have fairly robust critical apparatus to help them resolve it.

Among the media professionals, the piece that stands out is by Malcolm Gluck, wine correspondent of The Guardian . With the gentle self-mockery that is such an attractive feature of that paper, he surveys what he calls "the pompous snobbery" of wine writers: when they assert, for example, that "the oak phenolics have stolen the fruit", it is more to give an impression of mysterious expertise than to say something their readers might understand. I was relieved to learn that "it is rarely wise to venture, critically, over 230 bottles in a single day", surely advice showing admirable restraint.

The book has two weaknesses, one endemic to sociolinguistics and one to media studies. The first is a tendency towards description for its own sake, based on the assumption that the object of study is so attractive that more profound analysis is not necessary. Of course, the language of email, newspapers and Radio 4 is interesting, but the best work in the field has an intellectual vigour, which rarely shines through in this collection.

As for media studies, this is a discipline that simply has to start from a critical standpoint. The media are an ideological battleground, and any investigation that ignores or marginalises this fact is bound to be superficial at best and dangerous at worst. Alan Partington's analysis of spin doctors in the White House illustrates this clearly: after examining the relationship between President Clinton's press secretary and the Washington press pack, his conclusion is that the protagonists themselves saw the relationship as "highly adversarial". He dismisses two allegedly extreme positions that challenge this: from the left the "propaganda model" of the US media put forward by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, and conversely the far-right view that the media are a cosy bastion of left-liberalism, which is remote from "middle America". Surely, though, these two "extremes" are crucially different: Herman and Chomsky present a grown-up analysis based on evidence and rational argument, while the far-right account is puerile rubbish. Studies that fail to make this clear have no place in academic discourse, in my opinion.

There is some worthwhile material in this book and, refreshingly, none of the contributors descends to the banal claim that "9/11 changed everything". Students, however, may need more help than this book provides if they are to pick up the healthy, critical attitude that the subject merits.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, University of Brighton.

New Media Language

Editor - Jean Aitchison and Diana M. Lewis
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 209
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 415 28303 5 and 28304 3

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