‘Slippery and ambiguous’ language used by ministers during Covid briefings, study says


Language used by the government during its Covid-19 briefings throughout the pandemic was “vague, slippery and ambiguous” so as to reduce accountability, a new study has found.

Researchers from Nottingham Trent University found that ministers adopted “lexicogrammatical strategies” to share responsibility for policy decisions with the pubic.

Ambiguity in the briefings centred on the use of the word ‘we’ by cabinet members, which the experts said is left open to interpretation as to whether it refers to the government, a political party or the general public as a whole.

Lead investigator Dr Jamie Williams, an expert in linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Previous studies have shown that there are ethical, strategic and public health imperatives that require transparency in communications during public health emergencies.

“But on the basis of our analysis, some may argue that these imperatives were not fully met by the UK government.”

The researchers pointed to the example of a speech delivered by Dominic Raab on 21 May 2020, in which the then foreign secretary used “we” to describe the social distancing efforts of the public, before referencing government polices.

“We must all renew our efforts,” Mr Raab said at the time. “Over the course of this pandemic people all of across the UK have been making difficult but vital sacrifices for the greater good. So let’s not go back to square one.

“We can all play our part in the national effort, getting R down and keeping R down, and controlling the virus so we can restore more of the things that make life worth living. As we follow our plan, our testing regime will be our guiding star. It is the information that helps us search out and defeat the virus.

“Over the past few months, we have built a critical national infrastructure for testing on a massive scale. We have already put in place the building blocks. We have developed the test, we’ve built the test centres, and the lab capacity. We’ve created home testing kits.”

Dr Williams said: “The vagueness and slipperiness of ‘we’ are fundamental to its value to political speakers.”

“When using ‘we’ politicians can be collapsing the distinction between the government and the people, which implicates the public in policy decisions.

“But the public do not make policy decisions in any way. These are made by the government only.

“Such deliberate and strategic uses of ‘we’ allows politicians to claim consensus over political actions and of potentially controversial policies.”

In their study, the researchers stressed that the government was attempting to reduce, not dodge, their responsibility. Much of the language used by ministers sought to cultivate national unity, the experts added.

The researchers wrote: “While the government represented themselves as provider, helping and supporting, the inclusive properties of we were used to construct collective responsibility with the people for the political and social actions that were designed to directly tackle the virus.

“We found that, generally, the government speakers employed different lexicogrammatical strategies to reduce and mitigate the amount of responsibility to themselves solely, while increasing the amount assigned to the general public, using strategies that we have termed ‘grammatical distancing’ and the construction of a ‘hierarchy of responsibility’.

“At the same time, we argue that the government strategically invoked the inherent ambiguity of we over the course of briefings to render opaque precisely who is responsible for key, contextually pertinent processes and actions in fighting the virus.”

“Moreover, we found that this also occurred in the expression of slogans, which turned the very pieces of language designed for clarity and precision into ambiguous messages.”

The study has been published in the Critical Discourses Studies journal.

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