Consider Rephrasing?: an editor’s look at the EU referendum

This is an emergency post, tenuously linked to this blog’s theme of reading and publishing by a gimmick: at the start of this referendum week, I shall demonstrate how, as a proofreader and editor, I would receive and correct the Leave campaign’s public communications. Spoiler alert: lots of it would be sent back to the author before publication.

Part of an editor’s job is to fact-check. Even highly renowned academics can mistake 1967 for 1966 every now and again, and as a publisher of serious (often but not always scholarly) non-fiction, I want to make sure that we’re informing people correctly. This is even more important when it comes to potential cases of libel (which I’ve written about a little here). The short version is this: if you quote someone as saying something controversial or central to your argument, you’d better be damn sure they actually said it. Justice Minister Michael Gove could have done with an alert editor when he gave the following, entirely personal reason for wanting to leave the EU:

“my father inherited a fish merchant’s business in Aberdeen from my grandfather and that business went to the wall, partly as a result of the common fisheries policy.”

Unfortunately for Gove, the father in question came out last week to say that no, actually, . “It wasn’t any hardship or things like that. I just decided to call it a day and just sold up my business and went on to work with someone else.” A back-and-forth has since ensued about who has put words into whose mouth and which version is actually correct, including a Vote Leave ‘corrective’ officially written by Gove Snr reaffirming the responsibility of the Common Fisheries Policy for his misfortunes – but in my line of work  anything this ambiguous would have to go. If you’re still in doubt that Gove is slapdash with his facts, check out his passionate elegy regarding the “port of Peterborough” – a landlocked city in the Midlands with no known fishing industry.

On the subject of facts, fishermen are one of the few significant groups with non-immigrant-related reasons for wanting out of the EU, holding that Brussels bureaucracy, by imposing fishing quotas on member states, is crushing one of the few natural-resource industries Britain has left. It’s true that one of the most important roles of EU law is to regulate environmental, agricultural and industrial practices, to try and preserve our wildlife and planet for the future – my personal belief is that this is a welcome intervention, since endless climate change conferences have shown that national governments have very, very little interest in legislating for this purpose. But I understand that some people may differ. What those people can’t deny, though, is that although the EU does restrict who can fish where, Britain actually receives more than its fair share of the waters – its percentage of the quota is higher than its percentage of the EU’s coastline.

The editor’s job is to draw out the author’s meaning, by making sure that they’re using the right words for what they actually want to say. If an author phrases something slightly wrongly or ambiguously, they can inadvertently end up stating an untruth, or even the opposite of their argument. Here’s an example of such an untruth, from the Vote Leave leaflet that came through my door last week:

“The EU costs us at least £350 million a week.”

Sorry, Brexiteers, but this statement is false. The sentiment behind it may be true – that not everyone believes ANY part of our budget should be allocated by a non-British institution – but the sentence itself is factually incorrect. £350 million is the amount that goes into the EU pot – and then rather a lot of it comes back again, in the form of subsidies for everything from, yes, fishing to medical prescriptions. The dictionary definition of the verb ‘cost’ (and, yes, I do use a dictionary every day at work) is ‘to be priced at’. The price of our EU membership is nowhere near this amount in direct cashflow terms – let alone more indirect financial/economic benefits of our membership, such as favourable trade tariffs.

Speaking of favourable trade tariffs, I, like everyone in the constituency of Chipping Barnet, recently received a delightful letter from our MP, Theresa Villiers. Somehow, despite being a prominent Brexit campaigner and being reviled by many Irish on both sides of the border (as per murals I’ve seen in Belfast and Derry), Villiers has managed to hold onto her post as Northern Ireland Secretary. Some in the Remain camp, including major NI peacebrokers John Major and Tony Blair (wildly unpopular ex-PMs but also men without whom the Good Friday Agreement would not exist) have expressed concern about the stability of the peace process if Britain exits the EU. If you dismiss this as more scaremongering from Remain, there’s also the fact that Northern Ireland also undeniably benefits (more than some other parts of the UK) from EU membership, through subsidies for its third sector, its agriculture, its corporation tax… How has Villiers not noticed the conflict of interest here?

I digress, sorry. In any case, Villiers conspicuously signed this letter to Barnet residents not as NI Secretary but as MP for Chipping Barnet. In it, she promises (the tone of the whole letter is very much one of trust-me certainty):

“If we leave… We can boost job creation by… negotiating a free trade deal with the EU.” 

This isn’t a broad, general statement assuring readers that Britain will continue to have a trade relationship with the EU, or an expression of opinion that the EU wants to trade with Britain enough to offer us favourable tariffs even if we leave – it is a categorical statement that we will still enjoy free trade with the Union in the event of Brexit. Villiers does not know this. No one knows this. And the people on whom it depends – the leaders of the Union we will have left – certainly aren’t suggesting that it’s the case. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has made a categorical statement of his own: “In is in. Out is out.” Britain can’t have its cake and eat it too by voting for Brexit and then retaining access to the single market. Bear in mind that Germany is one of the member states that had been thought, by both Leave and Remain, to be most open to Britain retaining single market membership.

Villiers’ letter also exhibits the more common type of ‘truth’ found in Vote Leave literature: the insinuation. She says:

The safer choice is to vote leave so we take back control over…controlling our borders.”

Well, first of all, my copy-editing also involves occasional rewording to avoid inelegant repetition – Villiers might have had a reread and noticed that she’s used ‘control’ twice in the same sentence. But my point here is that she has not explicitly stated, “We don’t have control of our borders.” But there’s this thing in linguistics called pragmatics. It’s about meaning. Semantics is the meaning of the words you use. Pragmatics is the meaning of what you’re saying overall – the meaning you’re putting into those words. By saying that voting leave will allow us to take back control, Villiers is offering two basic assumptions: that 1) we don’t currently have control and 2) it’s because we’re in the EU.

Because she hasn’t actually said these things, it’s very difficult to challenge her on them. Instead, we’re forced to respond on her terms: whether or not leaving would allow us to improve border control. By then, we’ve skipped over a whole, fundamental section of the debate.

(If we visit it for a moment, as someone who’s studied European immigration law at length, I can tell you that the UK absolutely has border control. Our elected government and its civil servants decide which EU citizens to exclude from entry to the country – and thus decide that everyone else allowed in should be there. The only way in which it’s true to say that we don’t have control over the borders is the fact that, short of building a Trump-like wall around the island and manning it with machine guns, it’s impossible to prevent any undocumented migration – this has been true for as long as nation-states have had borders, since long before the EU. And this has a far lesser effect on an island than on continental Europe – it’s just quite hard to get here, as Hitler, Napoleon and suffering Syrians who have a legitimate claim to asylum have discovered. If you want to come back at me and say that she means we don’t have control over labour migration, it’s true that EU membership involves freedom of movement, i.e. the right to work, without us applying quotas for certain professions or sectors – but this isn’t about border control. Border control is about knowing which humans are stepping across the line. Be precise.)

It’s quite common for authors to keep their assumptions to themselves, because they’ve become instinct – I often have to remind them to lay out for their reader what the thought process behind their analysis is. Villiers would be forced to go back and add several sentences openly explaining her position on the nature of human migration – and to make, explicitly, the distinction between border control and economic migration policy.

These are just three examples that have crossed my path in the last ten days. There are thousands more – I have studied the history and the present workings of the European Union, as well as the history of Turkey: they’re NOT in the queue to join; I specialised in European immigration policy during my final year: NO state on the continent has an open-door policy – and this post could have been much more profoundly evidenced and considered, if I’d had more time. But I wanted to try and make a point: one side in this debate is knowingly, cynically manipulating and misusing language. If you hammer these messages into people’s heads for long enough, they will stick – regardless of whether or not they’re true.

Some of my authors have agendas. All of them have an opinion. Pretty much all of them, however, are sincerely trying to provide a nuanced, balanced picture. Sometimes, I have to help them do that. The kind of campaign material that we’ve seen from the Leave camp would simply not pass muster if it fell on my desk. I don’t discriminate in my  editing between the pro-Putins, the anti-Obamas or the ex-Islamists. One thing that they all have in common with me, though, is the fact that they have researched the history of this continent and of the world, and the present nature of power and conflict. It’s a global game. The USA recognised that when they chose to intervene in two European ‘world wars’ – the EU was set up at the end of the second to try and prevent such a conflict from ever engulfing the continent again. How arrogant are we, to assume that this period of peace (unprecedented in European history, which I’ve studied from 389 AD to the present day) has nothing to do with that project?

Isolationism didn’t work for the USA watching the Nazis swarm across Europe, it didn’t work for people starving in the USSR, it didn’t work for the post-war economies of Latin America, and it won’t work for us. The desperately hungry and the dangerously fanatical supposedly on our borders don’t care if we’re members of the EU or not. If the Leave campaign is so eager to persuade us that we can carry on trading with the EU as before, then why is it claiming that stepping away from the EU will solve our economic problems? The world isn’t going anywhere – it gets closer and more integrated every day. We will not make it on our own.

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2 Responses to Consider Rephrasing?: an editor’s look at the EU referendum

  1. Pingback: I Eat Brexits For Breakfast And Right Now I’m Very Hungary | toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish)

  2. Pingback: Brexit: Burning our bridges | Just an anglophone

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