There was an exchange in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon that ought to be a scandal but won’t. It ought to be a scandal because it involves a Cabinet minister undertaking to do something that, in any other context, would bring waves of condemnation from across the House. It won’t because the scandalous thing the minister pledged to do is endorsed by Good People with Good Intentions and could only be decried by Bad People with Bad Intentions.
The minister was Priti Patel and she was being questioned about the deaths of 27 migrants who attempted to enter Britain via the English Channel. The SNP's Brendan O’Hara said he tuned into Wednesday’s 10 o’clock news on the BBC and had been ‘absolutely appalled when a presenter informed me that around 30 “migrants” had drowned’. He added:
“‘Migrants do not drown; people drown. Men, women and children drown.’
O’Hara asked the Home Secretary to ‘join me in asking the BBC news editorial team and any other news outlet thinking of using that term to reflect on their use of such dehumanising language’.
Patel replied that he had made 'a reasonable point’ and confirmed she would join him in requesting that the BBC and other media outlets consider their use of language.
There are a number of points to unpack here but here’s one that comes immediately to mind: this is the draconian hanger-and-flogger, the Margaret Thatcher 2.0 whose reign of terror gives sleepless nights to liberals everywhere? Oh for the days of New Labour when we had proper right-wingers at the Home Office.
More substantively, there are two observations worth making. First, ministers should not be making representations to the BBC — either directly or indirectly via the despatch box – about editorial decisions in news reporting. That shouldn't even have to be articulated, so objectively wrong is the proposition. If a Tory minister demanded the BBC avoid certain words in any other matter, Twitter would go into meltdown, James O’Brien would have an aneurysm live on-air and the Guardian would print a 32-page pull-out, ‘The Jackboot Descends’.
In 2016, there were similar efforts to dissuade the BBC from referring to the Islamic State by its name, and calling on the Corporation’s reporters to refer to it as ‘Daesh’ instead. No doubt that was the decisive turn in the struggle against Isis but it was entirely inappropriate for MPs to behave in this manner. There is no such thing as warm ’n’ fuzzy political interference in the editorial independence of the BBC. All such interference is improper and dangerous, however good the cause, however virtuous those behind it.
The second issue relates to the unfortunate elevation of language in modern western thought and the hypocrisies of those who fixate on meaning and connotation. Language is important and it can shape understanding in different ways but making a fetish of it is inhibitive of action. Saying 27 migrants died in the Channel is no more dehumanising than saying 27 soldiers died in a roadside ambush or 27 police officers were killed in the line of duty. Those objecting to the use of the word ‘migrants’ do not object to ‘soldiers’ or ‘police officers’ and that is because this isn't about dehumanisation but about a belief that viewers ought to be primed to think a certain way about this incident – and, by extension, about the political and policy questions around immigration and asylum.
Progressive language games are riddled with hypocrisy. It is a catechism of American progressivism that ‘no human being is illegal’, and the global export of the political neuroses of overeducated Californians means this liturgy is incanted by the British left, too. It’s a nonsense, of course, because the environmentalist movement inveighs against ‘illegal loggers’, marine conservationists condemn ‘illegal whalers’, and the United States and Israel have set up specific protocols for dealing with ‘illegal combatants’. It's a nonsense, too, because the same progressives who object to the term ‘illegal migrants’ regularly decry ‘illegal settlers’ in the Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank. No human being is illegal –unless they're a Jew living in Judea.
When you don't want to take decisive action to stop people-smuggling operations that cause 27 deaths, you don't get to complain that neutral phraseology is an affront to human dignity. You don't get to dictate to the BBC how it should report news stories. You don't get to insist that the only thing that ought to be patrolled robustly in Britain is our word choice.