Baby P: the language of nothing says everything
The Orwellian public-sector doublespeak trotted out to Eddie Mair, conceals the failures behind a tragedy, says Antonia Quirke
Wittgenstein was right, of course, about language being everything.
"Our inspection identified a number of serious concerns in relation to the safeguarding of children and young people in Haringey," said Miriam Rosen from Ofsted on Radio 4's PM on Monday, defending the report that gave the borough's child care department a rating of 'good' a year ago.
"...And we found that the contribution of local services to improving outcomes and safeguarding is inadequate and needs attention and we've got a whole lot of detail, findings and recommendations that come out of our report..."
Interviewer Eddie Mair paused. There was something so unyielding in the woman's tone it was hard to predict which way he might take things. "Can you pick out something that most vividly expresses that there was a problem in Haringey?" he asked.
I’ve heard people being asked to stop talking shit. Occasionally they cough
Really, he could not have been clearer. In the circumstances it even sounded a little naive. But the most naive questions are often the only truly serious ones. And there isn't a more serious or tender interviewer – no-one better equipped to keep tones of impatience out of their voice - than Mair in all of the BBC.
"...One problem was that there wasn't sufficient strategic leadership and management oversight of safeguarding," replied Rosen. "This means there wasn't enough challenge to get underneath the data and find out what was actually happening with regard to these young people..."
I should add that Miriam Rosen is Director of Education at Ofsted, not some intern wheeled out in the hope that because it's 5pm nobody worth broadcasting to is actually back from work yet.
"Forgive me," said Mair (he delivered this phrase beautifully - not a jot of sarcasm). "It sounds a little jargony - 'underneath the data'. What in practice does that mean, when we're thinking about vulnerable children?"
I've heard people trapped in the vice of managementspeak on the radio before being asked to basically stop throwing up clouds of shit, and occasionally they cough, as though physically freeing themselves, or literally calling up something suppressed. But Mair's appeal to cut the jargon invoked nothing in Rosen at all.
She was lost in clusters of meaningless phrases and unrelated bullet points
She had a kind of serenity attained through being very careful to let other people do the thinking. "...One of the points that we highlight, is that the social care, health and police authorities weren't communicating effectively sufficiently with each other because in a case like this you do need to have full information coming from all the different parties involved so that a full assessment of the case can be made..."
Sure, sure, the lack of clarity in language and doublespeak and all that is scarcely a new gripe, but oh, this woman was so LOST, so inert, disappearing into little clusters of meaningless phrases and even running entirely unrelated bullet points together.
It's just that this sort of thing is usually fairly easily decodeable. But here was something stranger - a entirely chinkless way of speaking that had so replaced language altogether it could NEVER act as a complement to it, could never come off - like grease paint on a cotton wool pad - at the end of the day.
"...We found that managers did know that there were problems and inconsistencies and that the agencies weren’t working together effectively enough so that was known but not sufficient action had been taken to remedy it..."
"Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes", wrote Clive James in his poem Windows is Shutting Down. "A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad/Before they gets to where you doesnt knows/The meaning what it must of meant to had/The meteor have hit/Extinction spread/But evolution do not stop for that/A mutant languages rise from the dead/And all them rules is suddenly old hat."
"…Instead of working in isolation and supervision wasn’t always finding that out so there was a number of failings which our report points to and a number of actions that need to be taken to ensure that actions can be better..."It’s what Orwell meant when he wrote about language concealing thought
You know who this woman reminded me of? Miss Teen South Carolina 2007. Someone asks her during the pageant finale why a fifth of Americans can't locate their country on a map and she goes completely to pieces, like a CD skidding around, churning out the coached phrases of her particular tribe ("I personally believe that education, such as, like, such as in South Africa and the Iraq").
Both Rosen and Miss South Carolina have forgotten how to speak. Their talking is a form of speechlessness.
"...Well we looked at case files and it was very clear from the case files that people weren't always ensuring what happened, and that's one of the things where we say management oversight wasn't sufficient because that should have been picked up and they should have ensured that that happened..."
I mean, can you think of a more powerful expression of the power of the system than this? Obviously it's precisely what Orwell had in mind when he wrote about language as a means for concealing and preventing thought as opposed to expressing it.
But he also said: "It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes," and he's damn right because this unlanguage is political.
And these days it feels very Left. As though there is a residual suspicion on the Left of what might seem a nostalgia for plain English, that to speak well or clearly is elitist, a reactionary thing.
THIS IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE STATE: "...The report that we did in 2006 did point out shortcomings in the safeguarding arrangements and pointed out that there were a number of recommendations that weren’t good enough and we looked at those in 2007 and we didn’t do any new field work..."
Field Work. Collateral damage in the Blue Zone. Government employees rushing to embrace their idiolects.
"...We looked at how the council was getting on with some of the recommendations and ensuring that assessments took place in a timely way and there have been some improvements but when we went back in 2008 we found that there has been some serious shortcomings..."
OK, so, you didn't go round to the kid's house then.
And that’s what killed Baby P. ·
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