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Fought off

Crime and punishment

The Times and the Guardian both report the tale of a man who was jailed after he “fought off” knife-wielding intruders in his home. As the reports subsequently make clear, what Munir Hussain and his brother actually did was chase one of the fleeing intruders down the road and break a cricket bat on him, leaving him with a permanent brain injury. This may be an understandable reaction, but it is not exactly fighting off, is it?

  1. 1  Hey Zeus  December 15, 2009, 6:44 pm 

    Well, when the intruders entered his home he was certainly fighting them off. When he chased them out of his home he was fighting them off.
    I’d even say as he ran down the road swinging his bat he was fighting them off, (chasing them off?) but when he stoved in that bloke’s head, he was probably fighting them down at that point. Fighting them in?
    Fighting them into next week?

  2. 2  UnfitImproper  December 15, 2009, 10:09 pm 

    Perhaps it’s meant theatrically, as in the play within a play “Noises Off”. If the scene of the crime was the property, then the stage direction would read “fighting off”.

    Exeunt pursued by a Gun and Moore.

  3. 3  Dave Weeden  December 16, 2009, 12:41 am 

    Hussain, 53, made an escape after throwing a coffee table…

    I think it’s reasonable to interpret that act as “fighting off”. If I’m right, then he really had “fought off” the intruders in his home before the chase and the cricket bat assault. So, no unspeak about it. The Times doesn’t either say or imply that he was jailed for the act of fighting off – that the intruders were “fleeing” at the time of the offense makes the distinction clear.

  4. 4  Bruce  December 16, 2009, 1:06 pm 

    I think it’s a good example of “first paragraph unspeak”. Its effects are mitigated by reading the rest of the article, but if it were in the Mail or the Sun, there’d only be room for one paragraph on the front page.

    So, there was some “fighting off”. There was probably also some “cringing in fear” prior to the fighting off, prior to the “self-defence that went too far”, prior to the “Oh shit, I think we went too far” panic, etc.

    I suppose it would have made just as much sense for the Times to open with: “A businessman who cringed in fear when knife-wielding thugs attacked his family has been jailed for 30 months.” But in that case one wouldn’t imagine that the jail sentence resulted from the “cringing in fear”. However, it’s not such a stretch to imagine that “fighting off” might in itself lead to jail. And left with just one paragraph, that’s what we might imagine, whether or not we want to.

  5. 5  Alex  December 16, 2009, 2:34 pm 

    Reminiscent of William Hague’s bizarre crusade for Tony Martin, who claimed he shot a man in self defence – in the back.

    What did happen to Hague…oh shit…

  6. 6  Steven  December 16, 2009, 2:42 pm 

    The Times doesn’t either say or imply that he was jailed for the act of fighting off

    I think that’s exactly what the first sentences of both reports do imply, possibly in the hope of manufacturing controversy, or as the Guardian puts it, “reigniting” a “debate”.

    (Of course, as the judge put it more or less, it’s not that we should give a toss about the beaten-up thug; this was an offence against the rule of law itself.)

  7. 7  Dave Weeden  December 16, 2009, 3:48 pm 

    OK, you’re right. Going back to the first paras in each story, that is what’s implied, even if it’s later clarified. The thing is, both papers relate the facts, but they are a bit loose with how they’re interpreted. I’m more disappointed by the Guardian here, which is supposed to be better than that.

  8. 8  Bruce  December 16, 2009, 4:26 pm 

    I think both of you were right – it depends on whether “imply” is interpreted in a “strict” “logical” sense.

    And I don’t think it’s a trivial matter. The implication is made in a way that sort of avoids responsibility. I think this happens a lot in opening paragraphs (or headlines), and the defence of the newspapers would no doubt be that the “article as a whole” clarifies things. The problem is that readers often scan news – they don’t read the long-winded version.

  9. 9  Dave Weeden  December 16, 2009, 5:37 pm 

    I agree Bruce. My problem last night was that I was already familiar with the story, and I scanned the opening of the Times article, but only _read_ the bit further in. Also, I’d been in the pub…

    I was going to say that these stories weren’t examples of unspeak: but they are, literally, in the sense that it’s the bit which _isn’t said_ that’s important. It’s true that the intruders were ‘fought off’ and it’s very likely true that that took courage, and it’s true that Mr Hussain has been jailed, but there’s an important element left out of both opening paras. I know that journalists are taught that readers skim news, and that each paragraph is read by fewer people than the previous one, so the story should be conveyed as concisely as possible at the top. I think Steven was right to complain that this didn’t happen.

    However, I saw the print version of the Times yesterday, and on the page where the story was, there was another piece by a lawyer who explained where Mr Hussain’s actions “crossed a line.” In the print paper, the distortion was mitigated somewhat by the other headline.

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