Weasels, wikis and the Beeb

A rather dubious claim has crept into quite a few recent BBC articles on the process for appointing the new European Commission:

The Commission is seen as the most powerful EU institution, as it drafts EU laws, ensures compliance with EU treaties and negotiates far-reaching trade deals with international partners.

“The most powerful EU institution”? Says who?

It’s true that the Commission drafts and implements laws, but what about the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, who jointly adopt them? Parliament also controls the EU budget, and elects, supervises and can dismiss the Commission. And the European Council, made up of the heads of government from each country, sets the strategic direction for the whole EU and is responsible for the international treaties that govern it, not to mention approving or rejecting trade deals.

Which of these bodies is the “most powerful”? I suppose that depends on your definition: do you have more power if you set overall direction or supervise the detail? But whichever you prefer, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that an institution that’s limited to a first-draft and implementation role can even come close, under any reasonable definition.

Of course, by including the phrase “seen as”, the BBC can give the impression that their claim is authoritative while simultaneously distancing themselves from it. This isn’t really good enough. Even the much-maligned Wikipedia’s style manual is critical of such weasel words, and gives the following advice to editors on how to stay impartial:

A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority, yet has no substantial basis. [These phrases] present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint. They may disguise a biased view. Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe, and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proved should be clearly attributed.

Itâ’s a bit depressing when BBC journalists uphold a lower standard of impartiality in writing than is expected of Wikipedia editors.

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