The use of the pronoun ‘we’ has always been a bit of a problem for me in the broadcasting business; so much so that it is one of the main reasons I stopped listening to Today on Radio 4 (main culprit John Humphrys) and, after watching Newsnight last week I decided to contact presenter Evan Davis about it. He very graciously wrote me a thoughtful reply and a copy of our exchange is published below – with Davis’s permission.
And here is one of the more egregious recent examples of Humphrys’ use of ‘we’, as spotted by Twitter user James Melville.
Kevin Telfer wrote:
You may think this a small thing; and in some ways it is – just a word
with two letters: ‘we’; but I think that the use of this word has
significant implications and its overuse on the Today programme in
particular is one of the reasons why I stopped listening to that show.
Did I overreact? Well, maybe, but I don’t think so.
I’m a professional writer and I believe that words matter – even little
words like ‘We’. So, to pick on just one example, when you said on
Newsnight last night: “Richard Painter, can you help us with where we
stand now”, it seems innocuous enough and in a way is a kind of
shorthand for saying – ‘what’s your view on today’s developments so that our viewers can form a more informed position’, were it not for the fact that there is also an insidious sense in which it also means ‘help us to form a collective objective viewpoint on this matter’. That’s the ‘where we stand’ bit. I’m all for asking for opinions, but less keen on being invited to be part of the self-identified ‘we’. There are going to be many different viewpoints on the Trump saga and I want to watch your show to find out what some of those viewpoints are. I have banged on about this before, but my main point is always – who is ‘we’? Unless you explicitly define this, it is simply an inaccurate use of language.
As I know that you know, this is an era of starkly polarised political
opinion. My feeling is that it isn’t for the BBC to posit the view of
‘we’, but to faithfully report the facts as they are known and the
viewpoints about those facts on either side – with analysis and
interpretation and challenge and debate – and let the viewers make up their own minds without feeling patronised.
As I said at the start, I may have overreacted but my feeling is that
this cuts to the very heart of the fake news debate – and people feeling pressured/coerced by mainstream media to adopt a certain narrative when they have access to many different sources of information, and feel able to define that narrative themselves.
It’s a little like the weather – weather broadcasters on TV and radio
still often feel the need to have a standpoint on the weather: ‘It’s
going to be another lovely sunny day, today’, for instance. I understand why they do this – they are trying to form an emotional connection with their audience and add personality to what is essentially a pretty dry relation of information. But as a gardener I got fed up of hearing this summer that ‘it’s going to be another lovely sunny day’ – more than anything I wanted rain! That’s one of the reasons that I rely on internet weather forecasts – I don’t want interpretation, I want facts!
For what it’s worth, I think you do an amazing job under enormous
pressure – and I am an armchair critic full of admiration for those who
do their work in the full glare of the spotlight and as such become
magnets for iron filing nutters like me.
All the best,
Evan Davis wrote:
You deserve a longer reply than I have to time to offer.. but I am most grateful for your thought-provoking and intelligent comments.
You are not the first to make exactly this point, but you do so more thoroughly than anyone else I’ve heard it from.
And you are also right to note why we do it – to give a sense of connection to an audience, that together (the audience and presenter) form some kind of community.. we have a shared interest. I think it makes us sound more engaging and audience aware, and I think you appreciate this as a legitimate objective.
But you basic critique is embedded in one line: “there is also an insidious sense in which it also means ‘help us to
form a collective objective viewpoint on this matter’.”
I think that if I accepted this, I would be forced to concede your point about the word we. But I don’t.
If I say “we now need to find out x..””what are we meant to think about that?…” or “where does this leave us” I do not really see myself as coming down on one side of a divide. The “we” isn’t “we right-minded metropolitan liberals like myself”; it is “we citizens who are trying to come to a view on this bewildering development”. Almost think of it as a game we are all playing, all trying to work out a puzzle. We can be playing against each other, but still be a “we” of players.
Now I dare say you will find examples of me using “we” in the wrong way.. as you will find me overstepping the mark of impartiality in other ways from time to time. But that is just because I am (we are?) impefect.
Sorry to disappoint you by not agreeing.. but I also think TV news/current affairs has to have an informality, and humanity.. and I think the “we” adds to that.
I hope it at least that makes you think I’ve thought about it