As a former foreign correspondent I’m keen to read up on international news such as the horrible story of Libyan dictator Col Gaddafi cracking down on rebel forces. But I find that some journalists keep creating cases of tautology in referring to pro-government forces. A government force is, by definition, fighting for the government.
You don’t need the prefix pro, but have a look at these headlines over the past few weeks:
New York Times: Pro-Government Troops Challenge Rebel Forces in Libya
BBC: Pro-Gaddafi forces check rebel advance
I know that covering a fast-moving, complex story can be extremely difficult. I reported world news from more than 20 countries for many years while working as a correspondent for Reuters, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) respectively. In the heat of the moment you may sometimes write awkward or grammatically incorrect sentences that the central news desk will usually fix before publishing your piece.
But this is a systematic use of tautology. Google the words pro-government forces and you get nearly two million hits. It’s obviously not just about the Libyan crisis but also about events in countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
I suppose one could argue that, in the Libyan case, a pro-government force could be one acting independently but which supports the Tripoli government, for example African mercenaries flown in to reinforce Gaddafi’s regular troops. But most reporting doesn’t make such a fine distinction, and those units that have mutinied and support the rebels are not referred to as pro-rebel or pro-opposition forces as far as I know.
Some news organisations get it right. Reuters had this headline today, March 15:
Gaddafi forces seize key town, G8 stalls on no-fly
I realise that the point I’m making is trivial in light of the horrors unleashed by Gaddafi on fellow Libyans, but in my self-appointed role as grumpy old editor I do analyse how English is being used. I hope you enjoy reading my blog entries.
I asked a seasoned editor on the foreign desk at the AP in New York 30 years ago if he found the editing job hard. He shrugged: “A story is story is a story.”
Government troops are government troops are government troops.
I welcome your comments.