I’ve been pondering yesterday’s story in the Sunday Telegraph about almost half-a-million pounds of British taxpayer-funded aid for Somalia falling into the hands of the al-Qaeda offshoot in East Africa.
As the Telegraph reported it: “The terror group’s Somali franchise, al-Shabaab, ‘confiscated’ the equipment from DfID contractors in multiple incidents over at least three months before any action was taken.”
Note how the journalist puts ‘confiscation’ in inverted comas, as if saying “That’s Dfid’s word, not mine”. He was right to do so. It’s hard to think of a more glaring example of the misuse of language by Whitehall bureaucrats.
In fairness to Dfid, the actual entry in the department’s accounts says that the loss “relates to a write-off of £480,000 following the theft between November 2011 and February 2012, by Al-Shabaab in Southern Somalia, of DFID funded humanitarian materials and supplies from the ofﬁces and warehouses of partner organisations, to which DFID had provided funding to deliver projects and programmes. DFID’s partners had no prior warning of the conﬁscations being carried out and therefore had no time to prevent the loss by relocating goods.”
So they do use the word “theft” but the fact that the word “confiscation” was used at all is mind-boggling.
Most dictionary definitions that I can find describe “confiscation” as a seizure of property that is carried out by government or somebody else in authority. Using this term to describe a raid by terrorists is totally misleading.
It’s typical of how many people in public life try to soften or hide the full impact of something negative that’s happened by the use of obfuscating language. After all, when most people think of “confiscation” they probably have the following scenario in mind:
Schoolteacher: “Johnny, what are you doing behind your desk?”
Johnny: “Nothing, miss.”
Teacher: “So why is Susie crying? She’s sitting at the desk next to you, what have you done?”
Johnny: “Nothing, miss.”
Susie: “He keeps hitting me with his ruler, miss.”
Teacher: “OK, Johnny, you’ve been a naughty boy and I’m going to confiscate your ruler.”
A bit different to a bunch of terrorists attacking aid supplies.
Quite rightly, in reporting the Somali story most of the media replaced the word “confiscated” with ‘real’, and indeed more accurate, words like “pillaged”, “looted” and “seized”. The problem with “confiscated’ is that it sounds as though Dfid is trying to hide or make opaque the full scale of what happened. It’s part of a linguistic mind-set by so many people in authority who seek to palm off the public with meaningless gobbledegook.
It’s similar to how the word “problem” has been replaced with “issue” – for exactly the same purpose. It’s now seeped so deeply into everyday language as to be absurd. I think I shall go mad if I hear Sky’s cricket commentator Nasser Hussain say once again that Kevin Pietersen has “issues” with left-arm spin. No he doesn’t. He has “problems.”
Returning to Dfid’s reference to “confiscation”, it’s symptomatic of how there is an ever-growing distance between governments and the people. If governments have difficulty in explaining what they are doing to the electorate, here’s an example of why it happens.
Right, I have to stop writing this blog now. A gang of armed and masked thugs have just smashed down my front door, they’re holding a gun to my head and are confiscating all my goods to a van waiting outside.
I have an issue.