It was the front page of The Times which made me snap. Yesterday the paper’s Political Editor was reporting the start of the Labour Party conference.
Ed Balls had called for the next mobile phone licence tax windfall to be spent on new houses. This call, the story went on, “risks fuelling Tory claims that, by prioritising more spending over reducing debt, Mr Balls has failed to learn the lessons of the past.” Put less archly and more plainly, the writer means that this claim will probably be made by Tories.
I’ve no reason to doubt it. But the over-use of the “risks fuelling” formula is starting to drive me nuts. It’s hardly the only tired and hackneyed phrase of its type in use in newspapers now. Cliché aren’t new.
It’s also unfair to single out The Times. For the simple reason that everyone is doing it, all over the world. People are fuelling risks every hour of the day. Just google the phrase if you don’t believe me. French magazines publishing cartoons of the Prophet, Norway’s oil development assistance, oil in Sudan, the Prime Minister and Barclays Bank – just now they were all risking fuelling something or other. That was just the first page of my search. Hardly surprising that oil often risks fuelling.
This ghastly phrase is now an epidemic. The harm goes beyond cliché crime. Formulaic patterns in stories are one of many reasons in the mixture of motives depressing newspaper circulations. They make written journalism read like something written in code or merely make the prose sound tired. In a digital world, no reader is forced to choose between only a few papers liable to use the same language. They can swap the tribal language of Fleet Street for something fresher at a click.
And before you point out the obvious to me: yes, I have used formulas of this kind. More than once.