Bad language and the BBC

Next year, the BBC’s Royal Charter will expire. This is the official statement that explains what the BBC’s purpose is and guarantees its independence, so writing a new one is a pretty big deal. And because the BBC is a public broadcaster, the government have set up a public consultation that we can take part in by filling out an online survey. They want to know what you think of the BBC, and how you’d like it to change and improve over the next decade.

Or do they?

Here’s question two:

Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?

Elements of universality? Eh?  

Activist organisation 38 degrees reckons that the government has made the questions so difficult and full of jargon that nobody will respond. So they’ve translated the questions into everyday English and sent the survey out to their members. Apparently they’ve had over 70,000 responses so far.

Here’s their translation for question two:

This question sounds a bit like gobbledygook! It looks like it’s asking about the BBC’s aim of ‘providing something for all of us’. The BBC has TV and radio channels, as well as being online. It produces children’s programmes, drama, documentaries, entertainment and news. It also shows national events like Wimbledon and the Royal Wedding. You could talk about whether you think it’s important that the BBC produces this range of programmes and content. You could also talk about whether it’s important to you that these things come without adverts!

I did the survey and, without the comments and translations, I’m not sure I would have known how to answer some of the questions.

Whether or not the government deliberately tried to bury this public consultation in bad language in the hope that nobody would respond, we’ll probably never know. It would be a sneaky and cynical ploy, but it could well have the desired effect. People are very unlikely to respond to surveys (or any form of communication for that matter) if the writing is unclear and the instructions difficult to understand.

So thank you 38 degrees. For using nice, clear language to put the ‘public’ back into ‘public consultation’. Government departments could learn a lot from this.

The consultation closes on 8th October so there’s still time to have your say.

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