Sexy Modals

Modals are used to describe how things are done, usually called modality. There are 9 of them and they really are very useful, especially to media.

We can do something or we must do it: which carries more strength?

We could do something if we want to or we will do something, again the meaning is very different.

We would do something if we had the ability or we should do something if we had the time.

We might and we may, are quite similar in meaning but we shall, gives us an entirely different reasoning

The entire construct of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) was built on modality and interpretations which, if challenged would not stand up but were difficult to challenge. What Saddam Hussein may have done is not the same as what he did. The modal may, for example, gives us an interpretation based on a presumption and, unless you had inside information as to what Saddam was thinking, you wouldn’t know what he had done or what he might have done and, unless you had the kind of information that Dr David Kelly had, you wouldn’t know what he did or what he could have done.

Dr David Kelly, a senior British inspector on the WMD report was a whistleblower, known at the time as a “mole.” He had been exposed as the source of a BBC report claiming that, despite PM Tony Blair’s assurances that there were, there were no WMD in Iraq; something the entire world now knows to be true but, in2003, died in an Oxfordshire woods apparently as a result of suicide. This is still widely disputed by not only his family but senior MPs who have investigated quite thoroughly. It was Dr Kelly and the ensuing BBC report which termed the phrase: “sexed up.”

What this has done is opened an entirely new method of writing news reports, headlines and forming public opinion.

I saw headlines this week which exemplify this completely. The US Navy is reporting, and mainstream media are amplifying that China could invade Taiwan by the end of the year. accessed 23rd October 2022

Well, there’s absolutely no doubt at all that they could. But there is every reason to believe they will not so, let’s change the headline and see what it looks like:

China has the ability to invade Taiwan within the year.

It’s still true, more factual but less provocative and unlikely to sell as many clicks in a media that equates to a shark feeding frenzy where China is concerned. Based on what Xi Jinping actually stated in his recent National Congress speech, while it’s true, it’s still an inaccurate interpretation, let’s look at his real words and see what interpretation we can gain from them: “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity”. I’m really not sure what interpretation we can put onto those words which will make a sensational headline for mainstream media, so let’s go with:

China commits to peaceful reunification — oh dear, that’s not going to get many clicks, or is it?

In all honesty, if a single mainstream media report placed that as its headline, I’m fairly certain it would get a lot of clicks as it’s completely different to the story every other headline is selling. People would want to know what’s changed about China and when they read the article, they’d see for themselves, nothing changed, China has always been saying this.

President Xi also stated unequivocally: “we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary. This is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots”.

I didn’t see that statement getting much traction in western media and, looking carefully at it, I see no modals, no ambiguity and no lack of commitment. Yet the headlines I did see related to it said something like: “China refuses to rule out force” a very common headline and completely misleading

The same modality, with the negative interpretations which don’t actually fit words used and deeds done by China, is utilised in everything related to every negative media article written about the country or its leadership. Which nowadays, is almost every article. So, why do they do it?

Obviously it suits the hegemonic USA to instill a threat or a fear of a threat from China. This threat is conveyed to the media and transmitted to the public. Most of the time journalists just don’t know what’s really happening and reporters are afraid to commit to an absolute — China will invade Taiwan by the end of the year is going to sell a lot of clicks but ruin the credibility of the organisation and the journalist when it doesn’t happen. China may have incarcerated as many as 1 million Uyghurs can later be dismissed as a misunderstanding based on interpretation of data by a person, they considered to be an expert but so far, we’ve never seen an international media outlet stating they have done this, only that it’s alleged they may or they could have. All based on the interpretation of a person who has been given a mandate from his god to destroy the Communist Party, or an analyst who writes for the military industrial complex and has never set foot in China.

When the truth about what is really happening in China is known to the world, it’s going to be very easy for headline writers and journalists to do the same as they did in 2003 when Dr David Kelly came forward and said this narrative is wrong.

And, if you will indulge me a moment, I’m going to use all 9 modals to express my view. They can tell the world that they might have got it wrong, they could have been misled and they will try harder in future. The credibility of some publications and some people will be challenged and may even be destroyed; in my opinion, it should be and I shall continue working towards that goal.



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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences