Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 17:49 UK

Martha Kearney's week

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

OK. I have really done it this time. I have been accused of using "the language of the street" on The World at One, before the watershed and everything.

Bookmaker at Sandown races
The phrase 'in the frame' is used in the world of horse racing

Before I began broadcasting on Radio Four, I had always thought of myself as erring on the side of pedantry.

One friend still has not forgiven me for correcting his phrase "quite unique".

I throw things at the radio if I hear the misuse of the word 'disinterested' (as in "I am totally disinterested in that lunchtime news programme") or 'refute' (as in "the government minister refuted that Gordon Brown was in difficulties").

Now almost every day I am guilty of a solecism.

'Street language'

On Monday, I said May 1st rather than May THE first: a vile Americanism.

Then came the letter accusing me of using the language of the street.

Brace yourselves.

This sentence passed my lips in a question to a guest: "Paddy Ashdown was very much in the frame for the job of UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan".

I agree "very much" is redundant there but that wasn't the main subject of complaint.

Our listener explained at length that "in the frame" is from the sport of thoroughbred horse racing.

Before the race the names of runners and riders are displayed in a metal frame.

Original source

As soon as they pass the winning post, the names are placed in a results frame hence the expression "in the frame".

Our listener ended the letter by asking "is it the BBC's intension (sic) that children should grow up bi-lingual, a language of the street and a language of sholastic (sic) achievement"?

Well, we weren't going to take that lying down. Our deputy editor Nick Sutton began his career in the BBC research department and will always track down original source documents where possible.

His reply included this:

......In fact, as you may be aware, 'in the frame' can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary as a colloquial phrase: in the frame: (amongst a group) singled out for or attracting attention; under consideration, in the spotlight; 1941 V. DAVIS Phenomena in Crime xix. 255 In the frame, 'wanted'. 1974 J. MCVICAR McVicar II. 186 A police officer spoke to Shay..and said, 'McVicar's in the frame, and he'll never come out of it.' 1985 Times 23 Mar. 15/2 Guardian Royal Exchange..emerged as the clear favourite to attempt a bid although BTR, Hanson Trust and the West German Allianz group were in the frame. Your letter has reminded us of the need to be careful in our phraseology but I'm afraid I don't think it's fair to accuse us of using the 'language of the street' for our use of a term that was in The Times newspaper over twenty years ago.


The precise use of language is very important in political life. It is often more interesting to see which words politicians refuse to use.

Take 'backdating' for instance.

'Clarified'

This term was at the heart of the government's U-turn this week which was designed to stave off a backbench revolt on the abolition of the 10p tax band.

Both Frank Field, the Labour rebels' leader, and John McFall, chair of the Treasury Select Committee (to whom the letter of surrender was addressed) believe that the help being offered to groups of people who have lost out would be backdated.

Yet the letter itself just specified 'backdating' for 60-64 year olds.

On Thursday the Chancellor 'clarified'.

He said that the average losses would be offset for this year but assiduously avoided the word 'backdated'.

Even our trusty wonks at the Institute for Fiscal Studies were baffled.

One possible explanation is that at the moment it is impossible to backdate tax credits which is a possible way of helping under 25s.

Listeners' anger

Overall the issue has caused a lot of anger as MPs discovered on the doorstep and we found in listeners' responses to an interview I conducted with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Yvette Cooper on Wednesday.

"Martha's interview with Yvette Cooper...made me cringe with anger. I am absolutely appalled by the nature and content of ALL this Minister's answers to Martha's questions. Not one question was answered directly or straightforwardly," said one listener.

Yvette Cooper
Yvette Cooper sparked an angry reaction with her interview

Another said: "I've just heard a Labour spokesman claim that although GB made a mistake it doesn't make him incompetent. If an engineer makes a mistake with the design of a bridge and it collapses then did he make a mistake or is he incompetent?

"You can't tell me that the Treasury doesn't have computer models that compare changes that tweaks to the tax regime make at the various levels of tax. If they don't then they are incompetent, if they do but no one bothered to look at the result, or they did use them and missed the result on the low paid. Either way this is what they are paid for and a failure is incompetence. It also may show incredible arrogance which is what will lose them the local elections and the next general election."

A third listener added: "Yvette Cooper couldn't say sorry could she. Instead she kept repeating Labour's mantra (heard from Brown's mouth over and over in PMQs) saying most people will be better of to the tune of 500 per annum. This is totally untrue. We are by no standard well off and we'll be worse off now. Thanks Labour!"

Victory for politics?

So how much damage has been done to Gordon Brown over this?

It certainly took a while for No 10 to realise quite how much trouble it faced.

Only three weeks ago the PM told a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that there were no losers after the abolition of the 10p rate.

Some have praised the government for being willing to listen to its backbenchers. Tony Lloyd, the chair of the PLP, told me on Thursday that while this was not a victory for the individual, it was a victory for the political process.

Other Labour backbenchers are not so sure and are raising wider questions about Gordon Brown's leadership. Our reporter Becky Milligan went out on the Commons Terrace to talk to MPs after the U-turn.

Once leadership plotting enters the bloodstream of a party, it is very difficult to expunge

Ian Gibson told her: "I was disappointed and I think many other people have been disappointed. We said, 'well what's changed, what's different?'"

The former Whip George Mudie added: "We expected a different type of premiership. We wanted a different direction of travel and he quickly embraced most of the reforms that Tony Blair had pushed and which we had great worries about."

And when asked how long Gordon Brown had to change, Ian Gibson said, "the general lection will probably come up at the latest 2010, earliest 2009, so it has got to be over the next six months. He's got to come up with something new or there's going to be a lot of hassle and trouble, I think, on different issues."

What is interesting about those two is that they both actively campaigned to get rid of Tony Blair.

Now the Labour Party risks having the same kind of problems the Conservatives faced after the coup which finished off Margaret Thatcher. Once leadership plotting enters the bloodstream of a party, it is very difficult to expunge.

So where does this leave the Conservatives? You would imagine rubbing their hands in glee but interestingly I was talking to a shadow Cabinet moderniser this week.

They showed the same kind of caution displayed by Blair and Brown in opposition.

Perhaps this could just be the same midterm blues which Mrs Thatcher went through in each of her parliamentary terms?

That is certainly the line I am sure we will hear from Labour if it does badly in the local elections in England and Wales on May THE 1st. Interesting week ahead.

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