Core cliches rival the Oscars

I wrote the following blog before Kevin Rudd’s dramatic resignation in Washington last Wednesday, and Julia Gillard’s response by calling a leadership spill for tomorrow morning in Canberra.

The drama prompted me to write a blog on the coverage of the crisis on Wednesday night by Sky News and ABC24 (Sky won, in my opinion, and you can read about it in my previous posting below), and hold this one over. But given that we are all getting sick of the soap opera seriously rivalling tomorrow’s Oscar Awards ceremony, I won’t say anything else about the leadership crisis, except that the coverage should be worth watching.

So here is my blog on clichés. It all started with the following email:

“Good afternoon stakeholders, This is the sixth stakeholder update email on the consultation process to support the new Local Centres LEP for Ku-ring-gai.”

This was an email from a consultancy, Straight Talk, “specialising in community engagement and strategic communications.” (Their website: http://www.straight-talk.com.au/ ) The firm has been holding workshops (see photo above) with stakeholders, looking at the controversial issue of Local Town Centres in Ku-ring-gai on Sydney’s North Shore, where the Government-imposed Planning Panel approved high-rise buildings in suburbs from Roseville to Turramurra in 2009.

Fortunately, the Friends of Turramurra overturned that decision by seeking legal action in the Land and Environment Court, which declared the plan “invalid and of no effect.” But the disgraced plan has been used as the starting point for workshop discussions, after the Ku-ring-gai Council appointed Straight Talk to consult the residents and find out what they wanted.

And there’s the rub, when did residents become stakeholders? Suddenly, the word stakeholder, which is defined by the OED as “a person who has an interest or concern in something, esp. a business,” is being used everywhere.*

The Schools Education Minister, Peter Garrett, in an interview on Ten’s Meet the Press last Sunday talked about “close consultation with stakeholders and states laying out a work program of what we think needs to be done once our response is public” on the Gonski Review of School Spending. (Here’s a link to the transcript: http://bit.ly/eyW3kg)

In an interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast last Monday , Mr Garrett went on to mention the “education stakeholder group” waiting to hear what was in the review. And in a subsequent interview with Fran, Bill Daniels of the Independent Schools Council of Australia praised the author of the review, David Gonski, because “he’s made it his business to understand the views of the various stakeholders.” (Here’s a link to the interview: http://bit.ly/zl9hKt )

Frankly, I thought we were all stakeholders in the education of Australia’s children.

I believe stakeholder is just a cliché bordering on euphemism, a word used to make the spokesman or woman sound more important than they are, or as Robert Fisk, the award-winning journalist for the British newspaper, The Independent, puts it:  “words of emptiness and exclusion, of elitism and trend.” His examples include “space,” instead of “place,” as in “attractive space”; “plenary sessions” for “academic conferences”; “progressed” as in “an international agenda that should be ‘progressed’ over Libya”; “thinking outside the box” and “outside of my comfort zone.”

I have always hated clichés and I have written about them before in a previous blog (http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-B), where I mentioned an article by John Rentoul, the chief political commentator of The Independent on Sunday, about his 3-year war on clichés. He’s since published a book on the paper’s banned list of cliches, and has updated the list in his blog: (http://ind.pn/wNQZBk)

Among the 10 supplementary clichés, my favourites are: “Massive own goal,” used more in politics these days than sport; “It is what it is,” It is a cliché, it is!; and “psyche,” as everybody seems to have a “psyche” these days.

In his blog, Rentoul commends New York University’s William Easterly’s collection of Aidspeak,  decodings of aid/development jargon the economics professor picked up on Twitter (http://bit.ly/wMEmYs ).

My favourite, for obvious reasons, if you’ve read this far, is participatory stakeholders, which a global health centre in Sweden, @UCGHR, decoded as “people who should solve their own problems.”

And Professor Easterly says he was inspired by novelist Janice Harayda, whose One-Minute Book Reviews blog, posted 40 Publishing Buzzwords decoded by Twitter experts (http://bit.ly/xjbEra). I recommend her blog, by the way.

In this category, my favourites are: “accessible,” which writer and consultant @MarkKohut decoded as “not too many big words”; “epic,” which novelist @sheilaoflanagan said meant “very long”; and “acclaimed” equals “poorly selling,” and “erotic” means “porn,” both from publisher Peter Ginna @BloomsburyPress.

And there are two more clichés to add here: the first is the one Kevin Rudd used this morning in his interview with Nine’s political editor, Laurie Oakes, on Weekend Today. It is the adjective “core,” which seems to be in the vocabulary of a growing number of politicians. Mr Rudd talked about the “core business of governing the country,” “four or five core issues,” “core challenges facing the government,” and a “core point.” And, of course, the second is “faceless men,” which has been used so often by both sides in the leadership crisis that it has lost all meaning – all the faceless men now have faces. (For overseas readers, the term refers to backroom operatives who decide who will lead the party.)

The famous British novelist, Martin Amis, writes in a preface to a collection of his essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché (2001): “ … all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”

All lovers and writers (some might say stakeholders) of fiction and non-fiction should become active participants in the Amis campaign.

*Straight Talk considers stakeholders “as those with an interest in a specific precinct or site, special interest stakeholders (such as those with an interest in the environment) and developers.” The workshop I attended was interesting, but it was crowded: too many stakeholders!  Wouldn’t it be nice if councils could actually “engage” with residents without having to resort to a consultancy firm? Sorry, that was rather old-fashioned of me!

And I haven’t written this blog because Straight Talk did not select me to take part in a Community Summit to be held tomorrow night in Ku-ring-gai. Alas, I am too old. There was an over-representation of people over 60 at the workshops, and the consultancy was trying to encourage people under 45 to attend. Fair enough.

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