The way the old saying goes, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Somewhere along the line, though, there seems to have been an edict that, from now on, we should use soft, children-friendly words, just in case.
Plenty of businesses and governments — our provincial government included — like to trumpet things like “transparency and accountability.”
Some actually even manage to walk the walk. But most get caught up in talking the talk.
Because, in the midst of softening the blow or trying to cover their posteriors, many like to hide behind weasel-words.
And whether they can see it or not, that kind of lying can’t help but foster cynicism.
This week, the Lonely Planet travel book empire, under new ownership, began to shed staff and writers: over 100 in all.
Did they say they were no longer going to be in the guidebook business? No — they chose to say they “were no longer in the business of content creation" and “these changes will allow us to liberate the enormous potential the business has moving forward.”
They might have opted for a more straightforward statement that the travel guide business is now far weaker than it was, and that there are plenty of Internet sites that offer similar services at the touch of a computer key. Facing that competition, they had to shrink or perish.
They might have said, “We can’t afford to make these books anymore. They’re not selling enough to pay for themselves.”
Instead, as is so often the case, they had to trumpet a retreat as a victory.
I mean, things happen: money runs short and the world changes.
So why not just say it?
Take this province’s decision to privatize Adult Basic Education (ABE). We’re in a fiscal year where the province is going to lose money, despite huge oilfield revenues. Cuts have to be made. A responsible government would naturally have to look around to see where possible savings can be made.
But how did the government describe the changes to ABE?
“Changing the current delivery model for Adult Basic Education will provide a more flexible education model and will allow adult learners to better avail of employment opportunities to help them gain the work experience necessary to achieve long-term employment. This change will include the transition of the program out of College of the North Atlantic, and the engagement of new training providers through a Request for Proposals process. Service to clients will also be improved by achieving efficiencies within program delivery and making the Adult Basic Education program more responsive to labour market conditions.”
That’s right: a provincial service was going to be cut, but it would automatically be “better,” “more flexible,” “improved” and “more responsive.”
Why not just ante up the straight goods? Cuts had to be made and the government felt this was the best place to make them.
Contrast the ABE announcement with the plan in the same budget that saw all of the province’s English-language school boards merge into one mega-board: the rationale for that change is blissfully simple: essentially, it says “we need to direct the most money into front-line education, enrolment has dropped by 17 per cent, and we feel the best way to do that is with one board.”
Not a single “better” or “more improved” in sight.
It simply counts on someone reading the release to understand the practical realities of having to save money.
So, which approach is better? What do you think?
Sun Media recently announced more than 600 layoffs, saying “the downsizing is necessary to maintain a strong positioning for our news media outlets on all platforms, and more broadly to secure our corporation’s future success in an industry that is being revolutionized by the advent of digital.”
One of its executives, meanwhile, was quoted as saying, “We don’t have a choice, because if we don’t do this, we won’t survive.”
Businesses and governments have become addicted to offering up a serving spoon full of sugar to help every drop of medicine go down.
But people are not stupid: if every time you have to make a painful decision, you tell people it’s a good thing, how long are they going to believe it?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor.