Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Weasel Words in the JEP Leader

SATURDAY'S march through St Helier, led by protesting teachers, broke new ground in the sense that it was the first event of its sort that the Island has ever seen. With placards, flags, whistles and chants, it was orchestrated to a level unseen in Royal Square demonstrations, the shape that Island protests ordinarily assume. It is doubtful whether middle-of-the-road Jersey has much appetite for marches designed to highlight industrial grievances. Indeed, many will dismiss the weekend's teacher-led protest as merely an attempt to challenge necessary, if regrettable, pay policy - in particular last year's pay freeze.

There will also be concern about the effect of the march on school pupils who witnessed it or will learn about it through the media. Some will claim that the spectacle will have undermined pupils' respect for teachers.(1)

Note the use of the word "some" in the above leader article. It is one of those slippery words which can be used to justify almost anything, from perhaps hundreds of people to a group of disgruntled beer drinkers in the pub bemoaning the state of society today. It is a meaningless and sloppy remark. What studies have been done? Can the writer cite anything which would qualify as scientific evidence - the kind of academic study that looks at samples and considers the effect of marches on pupils? I don't know that anything has been done, but I am pretty confident that the writer of that article has done absolutely no research on the matter.

And what people are these "some people"? Are they the kind of people who might be thought to know something intelligent on the matter? It is no good saying "some people" unless we know something about this population.

Wikipedia has a police on this. Articles written for Wikipedia cannot use "weasel words", which are defined as "phrases that are evasive, ambiguous, or misleading." On the use of the word "some" as in "some people" which is certainly implied in the leader writer, it notes:

"These phrases present the appearance of support for statements but deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint... . They may pad out sentences without conveying any useful information, and they may disguise a non-neutral point of view. Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proved should be clearly attributed."

With no particular evidence that this is the case, there is "concern" about the effect of the march on school pupils, in particular that it will "undermine" respect. On the contrary, it is equally likely to have the opposite effect. Teachers cannot use the classroom as a political platform to gain sympathy for their ends, and rightly so, but a public event can perhaps open the eyes of the pupil to the teacher's plight in a way that mere stories about failed negotiations or letters to the paper cannot. Pupils may respect the teachers more if they understand the nature of the dispute, and the way in which the pay freeze was simply imposed without consultation or arbitration.

I assume that it is the editor of the Jersey Evening Post, Chris Bright, who has penned this leader comment. There is a practice of leaving the leader unsigned, and this kind of leader, with its unsubstantiated slur on the teachers. G.K. Chesterton commented against this practice. He noted that:

I would do my best to introduce everywhere the practice of signed articles. Those who urge the advantages of anonymity are either people who do not realise the special peril of our time or they are people who are profiting by it.(2)

And he went to note that the disguise of anonymity means that the editor "can use the authority of the paper to
further his own private fads" because it appears as the newspapers point of view, rather than one individual's personal - and certainly in this case - ill-judged remarks. A clear case of "private fads" masquerading as "vox populi"

But this has been a long practice at the JEP, and this kind of bias was noted as far back as 1920, when in an editorial entitled "The demand for higher wages -Time to Face the Facts" regarded this as an impossible and warned its readers that demand, warning that " here in Jersey high wages must mean unemployment," for " we are not a producing community; we live, so to speak, on one another, and if wages get beyond a certain limit our economic system will be completely dislocated and labour will defeat its own ends."

In 1920, in saying " we are not a producing community," the JEP ignored the half-a-million pounds per annum from exported potatoes, while other agricultural exports and the benefits of tourism flowed into the Island as well. Jersey was most definitely a producing community, contrary to the leader writer's opinion on the matter. Nowadays, agriculture and tourism are no longer the main sources of income, and the finance industry is largely that, selling services overseas.

In this respect, Jersey is still a producing community, and education for all, properly financed, should not be let to slide because of a "regrettable pay freeze" which did not seem to apply to the likes of Stephen Izatt, who managed a healthy 7% pay rise.

Where the leader article is probably correct is in assuming that "middle-of-the-road Jersey" has much appetite for this kind of protest. That demographic population is not defined, but if we supposed it to be those who send their children to private schools, it is hardly surprising. As Peter Wilby noted:

"The state schools will never improve as long as the leaders and opinion-formers of our society send their children elsewhere. Why should they support paying higher taxes to educate other people's children when they are already paying fees to educate their own? Why should they take any interest in the teaching methods or quality of teachers? Some means, therefore, must be found of ending the division between private and state and bringing the professional elite into the latter system." (3)

And when cuts lead to no music lessons in our local public schools, these greater lessons will still remain to be learnt.

(1) http://www.thisisjersey.com/2010/04/26/a-protest-that-cut-little-ice/
(2) G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered
(3) Tribalism in British Education, Peter Wilby, New Left Review, 1997

1 comment:

Faux Shizzle said...

" when cuts lead to no music lessons in our local public schools"

Yes, only Pollard is entitled to guitar lessons at public expense :)