Defining the other

The 10th anniversary of the ‘7/7 bombings’ in 2005 in London saw a range of remembrance events across the UK. These resulted in a great deal of media coverage. One BBC radio reporter referred to the four young bombers and described one of them like this:

He played cricket and worked in a fish and chip shop.

As I listened to this it occurred to me how easy it is to make observations like this and for them to offer listeners completely different meanings. The reporter perhaps intended his comment to underline the fact that these were ‘homegrown terrorists’. However, when I heard the line in the context of the overall report it was the opposite meaning that I took from it – as if the reporter subconsciously assumed that the four young men were clearly ‘other’ – not like ‘us’. The line is then a statement of surprise. They are terrorists. but they can serve up chips!

The language of media reports is often so ‘naturalised’ through repetition that we fail to spot how easily commentators slip into usages that we should question. So, trade unions ‘threaten’ strikes but employers ‘let workers go’. Some members of the Labour Party are always described as ‘left-wing’ (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn) whereas right-wing Labour MPs are more acceptable so their political position is not mentioned. In the UK, groups of people are described as ‘Asians’ but rarely as ‘white men’. Less dramatically, reporters often mention the ages of people or their status as a ‘mother of three’ or ‘father of two’ – even when this information adds nothing to the story.

Of course, sometimes using the most appropriate term is very important. International news media have been struggling for over a year to decide how to describe the various groups who have established themselves in Syria and Iraq, occupying territory and claiming to have set up a ‘caliphate’ (the historical term for the pan-Arab region in pre-Ottoman times). If they are called ‘Islamic State’ it conveys a certain legitimacy on them – as does either of the acronyms ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’ (Islamic state in Syria’ or ‘Islamic state in the Levant’). The Levant is the term that was used in French colonial times to describe that part of the Ottoman Empire that became Syria and Lebanon. A solution may be to use the term ‘Daesh’ which stands for “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham“. Although this is more or less the same description, in Arabic it has different possible meanings and it is argued that Arab speakers are immediately aware that using this term is an insult, a belittling of a group who want to claim legitimacy.

There has been pressure on MPs in the UK and government spokespersons to use ‘Daesh’ in official statements (see the SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh writing in the i on 6 July 2015). The Conservative MP Chris Grayling has called for the BBC to use ‘Daesh’, comparing this to wartime use of the term ‘Nazi’ when he argues that the BBC dropped the notion of ‘impartiality’. This looks like a case of another stick with which to beat the BBC (current Conservative policy) but it does illustrate the importance of specific language in reporting events.

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