Alex Massie

Public Services vs Government Services

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During the latest bout of America's interminable health care wars, Fox News decided that its presenters should refer to the "public option" as the "government option" or "government-run health insurance". Big deal, you may say and you would have a point, but this has people in a tizzy about Fox's "bias". As if this had previously been a mystery! Happily Jack Shafer is on hand to defend what Andrew Sullivan calls, oddly, the "indefensible":

The call to refer to the program as the government option instead of the public option came from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Media Matters and Kurtz report. But this shouldn't disqualify the new term from the Fox News stylebook. Government option is superior to public option in that it emphasizes that the government—and thus the taxpayers—will be footing the bill. As a modifier, public has many nongovernmental uses, as in public appearance, public figure, public display, public-key cryptography, public editor, public enemy, public storage, and public opinion.

But when government is used as an adjective, there is no such confusion. Does that make Fox News' semantic solution superior? I've always thought that Social Security should be renamed Government Ponzi Scheme. I'd also like the Export-Import Bank to be renamed the Government Subsidy Depot—but that's another column.

That Sammon issued a memo directing Fox News reporters to use a phrase he considers more accurate hardly constitutes "spin," as the headline to Kurtz's piece has it. If government option is spin, isn't public option spin, too?

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But if you - we - talked about government-run services and government spending we might view these matters differently. Slashing government spending doesn't seem so wicked as cutting public spending does it? People may not object to the idea of £620bn of public spending; ask them if they think government spending should be that high and they may view the matter differently. They'd be right to!

Language matters. Similarly, reforming public services sounds risky and fraught with danger; reforming government-run services seems bloody sensible and the least any semi-competent government could do. Talking about making public services more efficient and responsive to consumers worries people; doing the same for government-run services is the kind of thing voters expect. The same rules apply to public sector jobs and public sector pensions; the use of public cloaks these things in unwarranted nobility. Let's talk about government jobs and government pensions instead.

Responding to Shafer, Jon Chait complains that, well, it's just wrong for Fox to behave in this fashion:

I suppose [Shafer's argument] might be a reasonable defense in a world where news organizations scrutinize every phrase for maximal accuracy. That, however, is not the practice at Fox News, or anywhere. Standard news practice is to simply keep using terms that have come into the public discourse and gained wide usage even if it is not the most technically accurate or neutral term. If you had a left-wing news network that decided it can no longer refer to military spending as "defense" because that presumes it is never used in an aggressive way, that would be an act of bias, regardless of the philosophical merits.

War Department

The notion that media outlets should just accept government-sponsored framing because, well, that's the convenient or customary thing to do is, well, strange. Especially when, as in this instance, it's actually the wicked chaps at Fox who are using a more accurate, or at least an equally descriptive, term. At the very least let's not pretend that one side's language is loaded and the other's pure and innocent and simply factual.

(I confess I've been bad about this too. Memo to self, don't talk about public services and public spending so often. Find different terms.)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietymedia