After Johnson made his statement with the word “apology” in it, one of the first big figures to publicly come out of the gate in support of Boris Johnson was the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries. Three hours after the Prime Minister’s Questions, she tweeted,
PM was right to personally apologise earlier. People are hurt and angry at what happened and he has taken full responsibility for that. The inquiry should now be allowed to its work and establish the full facts of what happened.
I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanForJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation.
The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.
The PM did the right thing by apologising in Parliament. We should now let the investigation complete its work and I support the PM’s request for patience so that Sue Gray is able to do so.
And finally, we get a relatively minor figure, MP for Wolverhampton South West, Stuart Anderson who adds,
The situation regarding the garden party at Downing Street is very serious. I understand the anger – there have been so many sacrifices. The Prime Minister was right to apologise. We all want to see the results of the inquiry, but until then, this is why I’m still backing the PM.
Hopefully you have already spotted the interesting pattern, but in case you missed the helpful underlining, it’s quite remarkable how most or all of them refer to Johnson as PM, note in some way that he was right to apologise, state that we should let the inquiry/enquiry/investigation happen, and two even make an identically-phrased request for patience. You might argue, well, sure, of course they did. They’re all tweeting on the same subject, and this is where methods like corpus linguistics can again help.
There is a notion in linguistics known as the “uniqueness of utterance” principle. In its strictest sense it refers to the likelihood that two people will produce exactly the same sentence. In the shorter ranges of, say, three to seven words, plenty of phrases will have been said plenty of times, but once we start to get beyond ten words, particularly if our topic is, er, fairly esoteric, with every addition to the sentence, the chance that someone else will have produced that exact, word-for-word sequence begins to dwindle into microscopic figures.
The above examples aren’t quite the same, of course. We don’t have an exactitude of replication. But we also know that even when, for instance, students from in the same module are addressing the same question with the same wordcount using the same readings, the linguistic similarity even across a huge cohort of hundreds of essays is remarkably small. That’s partly a function of how rich the available lexicon is in English, and partly a result of our own general linguistic uniqueness – our idiolect. Can we maybe disregard the repeated uses of PM as a probable artefact of the Twitter character count? Sure. It’s one of the most efficient possible ways to refer to him. But remember how many other options there are – P.M., Boris, Johnson, Prime Minister, he/him. And when combined with the other features, this starts to suggest that something else is going on. What might that something else be? Well, there are a few possibilities.
It may be that Sunak vaguely modelled his tweet on Dorries’, and Barclay closely modelled his on Sunak’s, and so on down the line. However, this isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve seen this quasi-spontaneous mass-tweeting of intriguingly identical support before, particularly during critical moments. Given the machinery of Government and the severity of the escalating crisis, we might guess that a missive was sent out from a senior source instructing the troops to throw their weight behind their leader. The issue, of course, is that any show of support needs to look authentic and spontaneous and self-directed, otherwise it turns into comedy gold or it starts to look damagingly manipulative. Or both. However, Ministers and MPs are usually pretty busy, even if it’s not always with the things we imagine, and they might be tempted to whizz out a swift copy-pasta tweet if one is handed to them ready-made. Half a dozen identical bot-like tweets are going to look screamingly inauthentic (yes, the Conservatives appear to be especially bad at this particular strategy, but it crops up in other hilarious forms too) so we might surmise that senior leadership has learned that the missive can’t be a ready-made tweet. Instead we might guess that it is something like a series of bullets containing direction, talking points, keywords, and/or partial phrases, with the explicit instructions to (re)phrase it for maximum natural-seeming legitimacy.
Of course, we can’t know that this is what happened here, and perhaps there is a mix of higher-ups being directed and lessers following suit, but as I’ve said, this isn’t the first (or even the fifth) time it has happened, and if these were paragraphs from essays submitted for my modules, I would be asking searching questions about possible collusion.
If this matter seems somewhat trivial, there is one important angle that is often overlooked. It begs serious ethical questions about political accounts tweeting as direct voices from the politicians named on them versus being covertly used as mouthpieces for other, unidentified figures. It muddies the waters of how political power is being deployed and substantially reduces overall transparency.
Another intriguing moment arrived on the very same day when Priti Patel made a “rare appearance” in (one of) the Conservative MP’s WhatsApp group(s) with the following message, reproduced as exactly as possible:
Team, today the Prime Minister has given his heartfelt apologies and taken responsibility for what has happened.
Thanks to Boris’ majority, the work of this Government is so extensive, we continue to bring forward some of the biggest reforms in decades to Level Up – to the NHS, asylum system, housing & more. Now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel & back Boris to deliver on the People’s Priorities.
What’s linguistically weird about this? Well, when we communicate, we usually take into account the shared knowledge that we have of each other, and within that, the encyclopaedic knowledge that we each assume the other possesses. For instance, I don’t go into advanced linguistics with my four-year-olds (not least because they don’t care) and I don’t dissect the vastly superior merits of Hey Duggee over Peppa Pig with my students… Much. Except for when I’m making this point.
This schematic knowledge is important. We can inadvertently alienate others if we bang on about subjects they know (or care) very little about at a level where they can’t realistically meet us, and it can be deeply patronising if others start at beginner level on a topic we’re pretty good at. (You know, a bit like the chap who tried to explain the difference between a vulva and vagina to… a gynaecologist?) Anyway, pitching the level is an important linguistic skill and like any other feature in language, we can manipulate it for certain effects.
Back to Patel’s message. Consider the fact that she is sending this to Conservative MPs. You would hope that they already know about Johnson’s majority, about the extensive work of the Government, about these “biggest reforms in decades” to the NHS and so forth… And you would really hope that she knows that they know this. So why is she saying all this? Hopefully they are not so inattentive that, like a class of first years, they need continually reminding of why they are all here today. Or maybe they are, I don’t know. A more likely explanation (one hopes) is that the ostensible audience (Conservative MPs) is not actually Patel’s intended audience. Indeed, within seven minutes of it being sent, the screenshot had been leaked to Twitter, and I’m sure Patel was all <stop_don’t_wonka.gif>.
Notice, too, that her message is also coy about the specifics of the wrongdoing that Johnson has apologised for. Whatever it was, it is merely described as what has happened, and the rest of the message is dedicated to how wonderful he is. In short, when we try to piece together the implied audience for this message, the evidence suggests that it wasn’t written for a WhatsApp group of Conservative MPs who (should!) already know all this stuff. Instead, it seems to have been written as an intentional “leak” for general public consumption. A party (ha!) political broadcast.
You might ask, why bother going about it in this way? Why not just tweet support like everyone else? Well, to some, leaked screenshots of private messages might seem more authentic, especially when contrasted with half-dozen cookie cutter tweets that all seem to have been orchestrated by those trying to protect the person at the centre of the crisis. But again, it speaks to issues of political gamesmanship and transparency and the (in)direct route that messages are taking, sometimes through multiple interested parties before arriving in the public sphere.
That concludes the third chapter of multi-party politics. Tune in shortly for the next instalment.
(Yes, there’s more. No, I don’t know if this can or will ever stop. Help me.)