Cliches: A test of time

Gonzo Meets the Press #3 April 20, 2011

When I first got into television 28 years ago, I came from a
literary background. I was literary editor of The Australian, as well as the TV critic, and I loved books (still
do, of course).

A mate and long-time television producer, both at Channels
Seven and Nine, John Muldrew, now looking after his lobster pots on the NSW
south coast amid occasional forays to Nine’s Canberra bureau,  said during a session at the Bridgeview
Hotel, that I should aim to make television “more literate.”

It sounded like a good idea at the time, so I embraced it
with enthusiasm in my first job as foreign editor of Channel Seven. Whenever a
visiting author arrived on our shores, I urged the producers of 11AM and Newsworld to do an interview or a story.

In the early eighties, Seven reporter Andrew Fowler now a
star with the ABC’s investigative unit, went out to interview Jeffrey Archer
(now Lord Archer), and I asked Andrew to say hello if he remembered me because
I had interviewed a few years before for The Oz. Andrew came back with the
tape, put it in the machine and told me to watch. There was author Archer
saying: “Krause, have you written that f—ing book yet. Get off you’re a—and
write it!” He had remembered a conversation we had about my novel on television
(it’s been written, just thrice rejected)!

I continued to promote literature on television and good
writing, and was at my happiest at Sky News when Sunday Agenda’s Helen Dalley
interviewed 2008 Miles Franklin winner, Steven Carroll, about his book, The Time We Have Taken. I always wanted
to do an interview with a Miles Franklin winner on a program I produced.  Incidentally, the short list for the prestigious
2011 Miles Franklin was announced this week. Read about the books and a bit of
controversy in The Australian’s literary
editor Stephen Romei’s excellent blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws — (http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/alr/)
– a blog highly recommended.

And a bit more on literary prizes.  I was on The
Australian
in 1981 when Allen & Unwin’s Patrick Gallagher launched The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. Next
week, Allen & Unwin celebrates the award’s thirtieth anniversary  with the 2011 prize to be presented by Tim
Winton, a former Vogel’s winner (and four-time Miles Franklin winner), at an
elegant event – as always – at their Sydney headquarters.  The award has gone from strength to strength
under the sponsorship of the publisher, the newspaper and the Vogel’s family,
and is now worth $30,000.

All of which is a long introduction to my latest campaign to
make television more literate: get rid of the clichés! My favourite awful
cliché is “Time will tell.” I can’t believe it’s still being used by
journalists and others in the communications industry. Even as I write this, I
hear Labor MP Nick Champion say on Sky News,
“Time will tell and we’ll have to wait and see,” in reference to Barnaby
Joyce’s bid to snare Tony Windsor’s seat.

I often use the expression as a greeting to a prominent
Channel Ten journalist,  who once used
the phrase in a piece to camera from South Africa, for Channel Nine. He was a
young, good writer, and I berated him for the flagrant use of the most overused
cliché on television. He took it well, and we often exchange “time will tell”
bon mots when we have time – if you’ll excuse the expression! And another
phrase in similar odour is: “It remains to be seen.”  Of course, it remains to be seen. I think
what they are trying to say is they can’t predict the outcome, but are afraid to
admit they don’t know so they use the safe, but tired phrase. All I can think
of when I hear “remains to be seen,” is a policeman at a crime scene talking
about a body still to be forensically investigated.

And in television, it often
happens in the last ten seconds of the story when a reporter is trying to sum
up the narrative, or predict an outcome, in a sometimes unnecessary piece to
camera. It would be better to just sign off!

The Media section of The Australian
on Monday has a good little column on the same page as Caroline Overington’s Media Diary
(http://bit.ly/ggSieI). It’s called Cliche of the
Week
by Chris Pash (http://bit.ly/eAv3PZ),
a Dow Jones director who monitors word usage by journalists and politicians.

Last year Pash found that the
most overused cliché was “at the end of the day.” Not surprising, because when
politicians are trying to think of something to say, they usually say “at the
end of the day.” It does crop up in television news scripts as well – too
often.

And I don’t know about you, but
the worst, absolute worst, overused cliché – yes, even worse than “time will
tell” — is “going forward.” Politicians, journalists, chief executives,
business managers, just about everybody, uses it. I even heard President Barack

Obama, an author and a master
wordsmith, use it.

What makes it worse than the
others is that it is so easily replaced – just say “in the future” instead or
take it out altogether. The sentence will still make sense.

I am not against clichés per
se. One of my favourite and overused books (you can tell by the dog-eared
cover) is Dictionary
of Cliches: The Meanings and Origins of 2000 Overused and Under-Appreciated
Expressions
by James Rogers (A & R, 1985).

In his introduction, Rogers
says for people who think about their phrasing, “clichés can serve as the
lubricant of language: summing up a point or situation, easing a transition in
thought, adding a seasoning of humour to a discourse.”

So to television journalists in
particular, a final word of advice: Think about what you are going to say, and
if you want to use a cliché, know why you are using it, and if it adds a
“seasoning of humour,” sprinkle freely on your story!

To continue the metaphor and
end on a planned cliché, I hope this blog provides food for thought!

*Ironically, Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel is titled: Only Time
Will Tell
(Pan Macmillan), the first of a five-part series on a
family in Bristol. Given all the above, the cliché in the title is approved by Gonzo Meets
the Press
.

Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always have been.

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