Investigating the Plain English Campaign Using Digital Newspaper Achieves – by Catherine Cox

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Hello, my name is Catherine, I’m a first year Modern Languages student and I worked as a Collaborative Research Intern in the Project “Exploring the Plain English Campaign: language and politics in late twentieth century Britain” under the guidance of Dr Joe Spencer-Bennett. I was excited to start this internship as I had never heard of the Plain English Campaign before beginning the internship.

The Plain English Campaign is a business that campaigns for the use of clear and concise English in public documents, forms and communications. They were founded in 1979 by Chrissie Maher and Martin Cutts and were at their most active during the 1980s and 1990s. They gave out annual awards for clear English and for gobbledygook to people or companies who they felt had used some particularly bad English each year. The Campaign was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s and managed to get things such as tax forms to be simplified, along with many different policies. However, the group became divided in 1988 and again in 1994 when Martin Cutts left the Campaign and set up the rival Plain Language Commission, which had the exact same aims as the Campaign and even gave out rival awards for clear English and gobbledygook. During the 2000s and 2010s, the positive coverage that the Campaign had previously received began to wane, and they suffered from increasing criticism. They were criticised for attacking the use of technical language regardless of the situation and were accused of being anti-EU and even anti-intellectual. While the Campaign continues to run to this day, there is now very little media coverage of them, and the influence they wielded has now faded.  

My role in this internship was to use digital newspaper archives to find articles referencing the Campaign and record them and the information expressed in them. I also used graphs to track the Campaign’s popularity in the media over time. I found this interesting as I’d never used newspaper archives before, so this is a skill that I have developed over the course of the internship and that will help me with the rest of my degree. Once I finished logging the articles on the spreadsheet, I created a timeline showing the key events of the Plain English Campaign and examining general trends over time such as their popularity and media coverage. I also had the opportunity to do an Instagram takeover on the CRI Instagram page. I had a lot of fun creating content and sharing my research and what I got up to in my internship.  

Some of the highlights of the internship were definitely learning about the split between Cutts and the Plain English Campaign, the Instagram takeover and finding the advert featuring the Gobbledygook monster! I have enjoyed looking at the news coverage of the Campaign and seeing how it developed over time – as well as how the different strategies the Campaign used changed.  

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed this internship, and it has allowed me to develop skills that will help me throughout the rest of my university experience and afterwards. I found the research interesting, and I enjoyed learning about the Campaign. I would recommend the Collaborative Research Internships, as they allow you to develop key skills whilst also learning about things that you otherwise may not have known about. 

Catherine Cox, BA Modern Languages