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Book Review: Don Watson's flawed diatribe against consultant-speak

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Tuesday, 11 November 2003

There is an old New Yorker cartoon that I have seen pinned up in news rooms depicting an editor, wearing an eye shade, sitting at a desk and looking at a manuscript. A nervous writer - a cartoon drawing of Charles Dickens - is standing in front of him.

"'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,'" says the caption, "Come now, Mr Dickens, it can hardly be both."

Writers have always had an uneasy relationship with editors and sub editors, and both have had to rub along as best they can with the English language, in their long battle to produce cogent, readable pieces of prose. Is this battle being lost? Watson’s book suggests that both the battle and the whole war is lost and public language is decaying. The book is, in fact, one long diatribe about the abuse of the language.


Death Sentence has many targets but perhaps the main object of its scorn is the jargon-laden nonsense spouted by management consultants, knowledge management consultants and anyone else who can, without blinking, say "framework based upon pragmatic real-world systems".

As someone who has tried to make sense of what consultants say, for the purposes of newspaper articles - with mixed results - I can only add a hearty "Hear! Hear! Go for it, Don". Knowledge management experts, in my experience, can talk for half an hour without saying anything.

But there are flaws in the book. The purity of Watson’s argument is spoiled by repeated references to political incidents where his views are arguable. As expected from a former Paul Keating biographer - he wrote the best-selling Recollections of a Bleeding Heart - not to mention winner of a swag of literary awards (in this country, a sure sign of left-wing tendencies) Watson is thoroughly against the Howard government; complaining predictably about causes such as the children overboard affair and illegal immigrants in detention. As an example, at one point the book whinges about the phrase "queue jumping" saying, as an aside, "The refugees had broken no Australian law, and there had been no queue for them to jump". Someone from the Right may then, just as predictably, moan that if the refugees had not broken any laws it was because they did not get the chance, and that there is most emphatically a queue for them to jump.

A more serious point about these political asides is that they very quickly date the book. In two or three years, undergraduates will have to ask older students about the references to children overboard.

Another point at which I take strong issue with Watson's book is its lauding of US speakers as models in making vigorous, inspiring speeches. One of his themes is that there are no examples of inspiring Australian public speech. Perhaps. But holding up the Americans as being a cut above the Aussies in this sense is ridiculous. Americans invented all the terms such as "paradigm shift" (shudder), "implementation" and "empowerment", which Watson rips into in the rest of the book; and their modern political speeches are renowned for being empty, even compared to Australian speeches.

Faults aside, if ever you are feeling faint after reading phrases such as "strategic imperatives go forward" or "continuously improving customer focus" then this is the book for you.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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