What part of the word “collide” don’t you understand?

May 11, 2010

Not before time the New Zealand government has begun to ask politely if the Japanese government would mind terribly sharing some information about its case against Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune.

Captain Bethune has been in a Tokyo jail for some weeks now and there is no indication that charges will be laid soon, or that he will actually receive any real justice while incarcerated.

Prime Minister John Key announced this week that he is seeking more information from Japan about the incident that led to the sinking of Bethune’s ship the Ady Gil in the Southern Ocean in January.

There was a collision and that is clear from the video footage of the incident, but what is in dispute (in a legal sense) is which vessel was responsible.

On the TVNZ news last night [8pm TVNZ 7 bulletin] it was reported like this by Guyon Espiner:

The Ady Gil collided with a Japanese whaling ship, the Shonan Maru.

That’s a slight paraphrase, but the simple subject-verb-object construction of this sentence is absolutely loaded with meaning.

The implication is that the Ady Gil hit or ran into the whaling vessel.

If this was the case we might expect the nose of the Ady Gil to be crumpled in the fashion that a car colliding head on with the side of another car will have a crumpled nose and the second (object car) will have dents in the side of it.

But the nose of the Ady Gil was sheared right off. A simple understanding of the laws of physics would suggest that for this to happen the impact would have to be to the side of the vessel, not directly front on.

The only way that this could happen would be if the Japanese vessel in fact collided with the Ady Gil.

This simple reversal of subject-verb-object changes the picture immediately and irrevocably.

TheĀ  Shonan Maru collided with the Ady Gil.

In fact, the video footage suggests that the Shonan Maru ran right over the top of Captain Bethune’s ship.

There’s a simple lesson here for journalists and journalism students.

Writing in simple subject-verb-object sentences is the right way to do it. It makes the meaning very clear, but if you get it arse-backwards as Guyon Espiner did in his report, the meaning changes.

Active voice suggests that the subject does the action [verb] to the object. In this example the reversal of subject-verb-object distorts the story in a bad, bad way.

As the caption on the Youtube video puts it using a slightly different construction:

“Ady Gil rammed by Shonan Maru”

This keeps Ady Gil as the subject, but the choice of verb clearly implies culpability lies with the Shonan Maru. This is an acceptable alternative because the verb clause “rammed by” makes it clear who was at fault.