Pensions News (PN) has written in the past about new words and expressions which have been introduced into the language without adding substance or clarity to it. In a previous edition, PN observed that the last Labour government cultivated a reputation for introducing new expressions into the language. The Labour Government may have damaged its reputation had it stopped introducing new expressions into the language however an alternative school of thought holds that the administration actually damaged its reputation by introducing somewhat anodyne expressions to describe what really were grave checks in its progress. It was the Labour Government of Mr Gordon Brown which, for instance, gave us the term “reputational damage”. This expression, at least, was clear enough to give anyone who heard or read it an idea as to what it meant. The same cannot be said of the expression “sustainable growth” - an expression which seems to promise a sense of responsibility but which, depending on the context in which it is used, could mean virtually anything or nothing - or the “socially excluded” – an expression which is, at best, a euphemism for the penurious and which is also strictly meaningless. PN would say that the term “post-truth” is similarly unhelpful yet it is this word [in truth, the term “ post-truth” consists of two words and a hyphen however PN is past the stage of quibbling with the Oxford English Dictionary - he only notes that the truth about the term “post-truth” is that it would be counted as two words in a quiz] that has been awarded a title by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The OED has awarded “post-truth” the title of word of the year for 2016. Considering that a number of decidedly odd and, in PN’s opinion, overused words and expressions seemed to gain momentum last year (“Brexit” and “fake news” for instance), “post-truth” has had to overcome some pretty tough opposition on its way to the title. At least “post-truth” has been defined by the OED. This, thinks PN, is just as well because without it, the public may have had to wait for the person who defined “Brexit” as “Brexit” to produce a definition. For those of you who would rather not look the word up on a Friday morning, PN can tell you that the OED defines “post-truth” as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
Further information supplied on an almost exclusive basis to PN by the OED shows that there were two distinct upsurges in the frequency that the term "post-truth" was used in 2016. The first so-called spike was in May / June and the second in September / October. Its use has been increasing steadily since then. PN read through the OED’s definition and found it somewhat odd that a new word was required to describe a process or situation which has probably affected every plebiscite, ballot, referendum and election since the history of elections and voting began in 77BC when, following a ballot in the Roman forum which was allegedly influenced by a senator whose opinion was that cinnamon was “unmanly”, the then emperor was forced to drink his Gallic wine without spices.
Back to the frequency with which our new word has been used. The most dramatic surge in the use of "post-truth" was September/ October 2016. That period coincides with the use of the same word or something similar to that word by the now President of the United States of America (USA). The present President of the USA has, throughout his career, tried hard or at least appeared to try hard to demonstrate his command of the language. The language he has shown himself determined to command is not necessarily the English Language or even its most American equivalent but his frequent tweets have shown that whatever it is that the President lacks, it is not verbal inventiveness. Very often, the President's innovative use of the language has caused commentators to ridicule him yet few of his so-called sound-bites have been completely impenetrable. One can generally tell what he set out to mean before the English language got its remorseless hands around his throat and squeezed hard. In this respect, the current President has not claimed the title of "King of Gaffes” from one of his predecessors.
The term “post-truth” has a clear application to pensions. PN has written more than one piece in which he predicted, in 2016, that the story surrounding the insolvency of the British Home Stores (BHS) chain had a long way to go before it neared its conclusion. On Tuesday 28 February, it was widely reported that the former owner of BHS, Sir Philip Green, had made good, in a sort of a way, his previous and well-publicised claim that he would “sort” the problem which applied to the BHS Pension Scheme. You, the reader, will recall that the BHS Pension Scheme had a particular problem in 2016 after BHS itself was declared insolvent. The problem was that it had a deficit of around £700m and no employer to pay it. The real story surrounding the demise of BHS was far too complex for anyone other than a pensions barrister to understand therefore writers and editors all over the UK decided that the public needed to hear the story as if it were a version of the late John Wayne’s most controversial film; the Green Berets. For those who have not seen this film, it distils the war in Vietnam into a Janet and John version of goodies –v- baddies. Clearly therefore, the BHS story needed a bad guy and this was the role chosen for Sir Philip Green; a former owner of BHS. Having been quizzed and stared at by a Parliamentary Select Committee, Sir Philip told the committee that he would “sort” the pension problem.
A number of newspapers explained, in language calculated to appeal to readers’ emotional and personal beliefs, that Sir Philip was a bad man who had profited at the expense of pensioners. As a matter of fact, it appears that, at the time that Sir Philip profited from BHS (mainly in 2004 and 2005), the BHS Pension Scheme did not have a material deficit and the company was profitable so; for those cool enough to take stock, the case against him was not clear. Unfortunately, there were relatively few who were that cool; certainly not those sections of the media whose response to any suggestion that there may be two sides to the one story was to out-shout those making the suggestion. The scene seemed to be set for more of the same demonization as Sir Philip prevaricated. The news that Sir Philip Green has now entered into a settlement worth up to £363m with the BHS Pension Scheme has been greeted with muted applause. That strikes PN as odd. It seems to PN that editors everywhere had been expecting the saga to run on and on and the fact that the beleaguered knight has agreed terms with negotiators so (relatively) quickly has probably disappointed those who were hoping for more comedy villain opportunities. Looking at the agreement itself, according to the Financial Times (FT) (decidedly not a publication given to the promotion of post-truth), Sir Philip considers that he has made a “voluntary contribution” to the BHS Pension Scheme. According to one of his chief adversaries, Mr Francis Field MP, the payment represents the equivalent of an “out-of-court settlement”. To the chief executive of the Pensions Regulator (Ms Lesley Titcomb), the settlement “represents a strong outcome for members” of the scheme and, to the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the deal “falls far short of justice being done”. In a translucent attempt to calm a situation it had helped to create, the "Daily Mail" called the settlement “Sir Phil’s £363m apology to end ‘sorry chapter’”. Evidently, the adjectives used by the protagonists in the saga varied according to which of them required the approval or, in some cases, the votes of individuals.
This brings us back to the new word which has worn out its welcome by being so much utilised over a relatively short period of time. The term “post-truth” is one of those terms, like “quantitative easing” or “ sustainable growth”, which has been coined to get around the difficult business of explaining what is happening. Like both of the other terms referred to, the term “post-truth” is essentially meaningless however it seems impressive enough to have a deeper meaning; one too subtle and complex for the average PN writer for example. In that regard, it is a relief that the OED defined the term before the current Prime Minister of the UK got her hands on it.
Perhaps another example of post-truth is on its way to impress readers. The Government has issued a Green Paper in which it is considering responses to a number of ideas (at this stage) which may or may not be implemented into legislation. Legislation which applies in England and Wales (PN leaves the business of applying Scots law to his esteemed colleagues in his employer’s Edinburgh office) requires occupational pension schemes to increase pensions in payment to protect their value against inflation. Some partial commentators have referred to this process as making pensions “gold plated” which gives the reader a somewhat misleading impression of untold riches. One of the Government’s suggestions for consideration (note; there is a distinction between “suggestion” and “Government policy”) is that some pension schemes may be permitted to apply less generous increases to pensions than (say) the increase in the retail price index. Part of the same suggestion is that financially distressed pension schemes with financially distressed employers may be permitted to apply no increase at all for a finite period in order to give the employer time to recover. How one regards this proposal generally informs one’s politics. You, the reader, will no doubt be surprised to read that businesses largely welcome the proposal whereas trades unions generally refer to it as authorised theft.
PN looks forward to a time where the business of introducing new words is managed by someone who would suffer reputational damage if he or she did anything other than apply objective facts. Specialist journalists (for instance) might find it easier to get some of their reputations back if they managed to avoid inventing, using and then over-using obtuse new language to describe or soften the impact of new setbacks. The term “post-truth” seems designed to have a philosophical air as if it referred to something deep and meaningful which only a fool would doubt but; there is no such thing as “post-truth”. There is only “truth" which can indeed be overlooked or obliterated altogether and which can be restored only if someone tells it.
Until next time……