The subversion of language — contd.
For decades one of the most objectionable aspects of British tabloid journalism has been its sanctimonious determination to ‘name the guilty man/men’ whenever there’s been a disastrous accident or a horrific organisational cock-up. This always seemed to me (and my academic colleagues) as a desperately wrong-headed way to look at complex issues. Often, these large-scale failures reflect not so much the deficiencies of individuals as the complexity of the systems in which they are enmeshed. So (we argued) they are more productively viewed as systemic failures.
But now, guess what? The phrase ‘systemic failure’ has been picked up by the government’s spin machine — and used in a novel way: to ensure that nobody has to take responsibility for what goes wrong. It’s not clear when this started but my colleague Ray Ison thinks it may have begun with the Butler Inquiry into the failure of UK Intelligence services in the run-up to the Iraq war. I’ve just looked at the report and can’t find the word ‘systemic’ in it anywhere, but Ray’s right in one respect. Lord Butler decided that the cock-up over intelligence about WMD was a “collective failure” and then used that to argue that it would be inappropriate to fire John Scarlett, the Chairman of the Joint Intellegence Committee which cleared the infamous (and ludicrous) dossier on which Blair took the country to war.
Whatever its provenance, though, it’s clear that ‘systemic failure’ is now synonomous with “nobody’s responsible, Guv.”