Language does matter, as Laura Perrins pointed out yesterday. She was referring to Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, in BBC interviews routinely describing rape complainants as ‘victims’, before any offence against them has been established.
Thought corrupts language, and language can corrupt thought. George Orwell’s warning in his seminal essay Politics and the English Language back in 1946 crossed my mind.
How right Orwell was. The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts, he wrote. Language becomes ugly and inaccurate when our thoughts are foolish.
And what about the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language that he noted? Would Ms Saunders be so quick to pre-judge the male defendant as necessarily guilty, which the term victim implies, were she not so obsessed with rape as a feminist issue?
Predictably, this was not a point any of her BBC interviewers picked up on. But then why would they when they themselves use language to pervert meaning?
Their routine use of euphemism and hyperbole would give Orwell the material for a book of essays.
For example, even after the unspeakable murder of the Jordanian pilot, the BBC still persists with euphemism ‘militant’ to designate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as Islamic State
Why are they not using the word terrorist to describe this murderous, if not insane, group of fanatics? It is after all clearly one of the Home Office’s list of proscribed terrorist groups – and not one it minces its words about:
‘ISIL is a brutal Sunni Islamist terrorist group active in Iraq and Syria. The group adheres to a global jihadist ideology, following an extreme interpretation of Islam, which is anti-Western and promotes sectarian violence. ISIL aims to establish an Islamic State governed by Sharia law in the region and impose their rule on people using violence and extortion. The UK does not recognize ISIL’s claims of a restored Caliphate or a new Islamic State.’
The BBC, however, by describing ISIL as ‘militant’ behaves as though it does/might recognize ISIL’s claims.
It also disturbingly puts ISIL, in the public’s mind eye, on a par with other groups designated by or prefixed with the term ‘militant’. For example:
The Militant tendency – the Trotskyist entryist group who worked within the British Labour Party and dominated Liverpool’s Labour politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Now I am not saying that this was a particularly nice bunch and I know the Labour Party proscribed them; however, I am not aware that they engaged in public beheadings or other mass terror tactics.
Militant suffragettes – again I am quite aware that frustration within the Women’s Social and Political Union (founded by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst) led to the suffragettes’ adoption of violent tactics. But chaining yourself to a railing, smashing windows or setting fire to pillar boxes is hardly comparable to ISIL’s massacres of the innocent.
Militant animal rights protestors – yes I concede the Animal Liberation Front does engage in illegal ‘direct action’ and violence – destroying facilities for example – and it does operate clandestinely. None of this I condone but my point is that it is still a far cry from ISIL.
So what motivates the BBC? Critics like Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, have argued that, ‘By not calling these jihadists what they actually are, the BBC is effectively covering for them”.
He has a point. The Corporation’s response at that point was, bizarrely, that : ‘We try to avoid the use of the term “terrorist” without attribution. When we do use the term we should strive to do so with consistency in the stories we report across all our services and in a way that does not undermine our reputation for objectivity and accuracy.’ Their guidelines suggest journalists avoid the use of the word ‘terrorism’ too.
It’s a ‘difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones’, the BBC added and that: ‘We always think very carefully about the language we use’.
Really. ISIL’s latest atrocities clearly have not made them rethink this one carefully, let alone change their mind on.
Yet, despite their own rulings, they have proved pretty gung ho about the use of the word ‘survivor’ – and with increasing frequency in recent weeks. No, I am not referring to its use in connection with the BBC’s Holocaust anniversary and memorial coverage. I am referring to its repeated use with reference to the ‘survivors’ of child abuse.
If that is not emotive, I don’t know what is.
What is particularly vile is the inevitable equation it makes between what has no doubt been a horrendous and hidden pattern of child sexual abuse and the millions of Jews who were actually killed in the Nazi’s extermination camps.
The BBC’s ‘borrowing’ of the term in this new context is wrong. Survivor means from death – an air crash or a torpedoed warship – or from Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps. It creates a false comparison with the historic significance and scale of Hitler’s Final Solution and diminishes these genuine survivors.
Will the language issue cross Rona Fairhead’s radar? Will the BBC’s complacent new Chairman’s commitment to championing the BBC’s ‘dedication to finding and reporting the truth’ extend to language? I doubt it.
I also doubt if she’d understand why reading Politics and the English Language should be a pre-condition of employment with the national broadcaster.