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Accountability for COVID-19 policies was blurred during televised briefings, study shows

Language used during government COVID-19 briefings was intentionally “vague, slippery and ambiguous” in order to reduce its accountability for its own policies, an NTU study has found.

The study was carried out by linguistics experts at NTU

Accountability for COVID-19 policies was blurred during televised briefings, study shows

Language used during government COVID-19 briefings was intentionally “vague, slippery and ambiguous” in order to reduce its accountability for its own policies, a new study has found.

Research by Nottingham Trent University – which examined 92 of the televised COVID-19 briefings – found that members of the cabinet used ‘grammatical distancing’ to reduce the amount of responsibility they took for their own policy decisions.

While much of the language was seen as a genuine attempt to cultivate national unity, several instances have been identified in which the government used ‘lexicogrammatical strategies’ to share the responsibility for policy decisions with the public, the study shows.

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.”

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

A key example was in a speech by Dominic Raab on 21 May 2020 in which ‘we’ was initially used to describe the social distancing efforts of the public, before that context was switched the subject of government policies. He stated:

“We must all renew our efforts. 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.”

“The vagueness and slipperiness of ‘we’ are fundamental to its value to political speakers,” says Dr Williams, of the School of Arts and Humanities.

“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.”

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

Co-investigator Dr David Wright, an expert in forensic linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The claim here is not that the government is encoding themselves as having no responsibility, but that there is an attempt at linguistically encoding reduced responsibility.

“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.”

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with nearly 39,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).

    NTU is ranked 4th most sustainable university in the world and 1st in the UK for sustainability-themed Education and Research in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 24 August 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities