When talking about migrants in France we need to speak English with care

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass).

if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. (George Orwell – Politics and the English Language).

He who controls the language rules the world. (Variously attributed to Josef Goebbels and Josef Stalin).

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. (Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees)

Migrants, economic migrants, immigrants, illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers, illegals, bogus asylum-seekers, failed asylum-seekers, refugees, displaced persons, ex-pats.

The seemingly interchangeable and multiple-use Lexicon to describe those attempting – or have succeeded in – moving from one country to another.

Then there’s a whole load of other adjectives to describe their conduct and actions, such as: swarm (thank you, Prime Minister); marauding (we’re obliged, Foreign Secretary).

Once again, the subject of language used in reporting the European migrants’ crisis has come under the stethoscope; today it was the turn of the Jeremy Vine programme on BBC Radio 2 (which if you accept it as a current affairs, rather than a primarily entertainment show, which I argue you should, then it is has the biggest radio audience for any such programme in the UK). With his two guests and participation by listeners, Jeremy batted away on whether the BBC should use such terms as ‘illegal’ or ‘swarm’ in describing the human beings and their actions, specifically in Calais. (The segment begins at 33:00).

One gentleman defended the use of Cameron’s word ‘swarm’ which he claimed had no automatic pejorative meaning. “Come, come” suggested Jeremy. REALLY? It doesn’t suggest an attack of rather nasty insects. (Hmmm…just trying to think if I’ve ever heard of a “swarm of beautiful young women; of orchestral virtuoso or Nobel Laureates). Oh no! Says the punter. This is just typical BBC left-wing bias! And the BBC wouldn’t allow him to use other, even more descriptive terms! Mr Vine was perplexed at this and invited him to use the supposedly banned words. But this was ignored. There were other dispiriting examples of – to put it mildly – a lack of compassion for those landing on our shores.

Does it matter? Is it just semantics? Are those who worry and complain and argue about the use of words just too (here’s more words) sensitive,  pedantic, politically correct, ‘left-wing’, liberal, and overall, ya know, just typical hand-wringing, self-loathing, white middle-class Guardianistas?  Even worse – am I (we) hypocritical?

Margaret Thatcher was much exercised by the BBC’s use of words – not least in them using ‘British troops’, instead of ‘our troops’ in the Falklands’ War. In the context of Northern Ireland, the use of the word ‘terrorist’, for someone others might call a ‘freedom fighter’. And even a place name: is it Londonderry or Derry? ‘Stroke city’.

In another context, Thatcher spoke of people “drooling and drivelling”. To be fair, she immediately retracted the words and polarised – the most humbling performance from her that I can recall. It happened in a BBC TV interview with David Dimbleby on June 10, 1987 – the eve of that year’s general election (which resulted in her third general election victory with a three-figure Commons’ majority). This comes from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation:

Margaret Thatcher – Please. If people just drool and drivel they care, I turn round and say “Right.  I also look to see what you actually do”.

David Dimbleby, BBC (question paraphrased)

Why use those words? Is that what you think of people who say they care about people’s troubles? 


No, I don’t [MT pauses] I’m sorry I used those words. But I think some people talk a great deal about caring, but the policies which they pursue—and I’m sorry I used those words—the policies which they pursue do not amount to what they say.

Specifically on asylum-seekers, she opined that she would believe the sincerity of those who campaigned on their behalf if they were personally happy to open their own houses to such people.

Somewhat ironically, a piece I found about a 2002 Home Office report in to the reasons asylum-seekers chose Britain cited Thatcher as one of the main ‘pull factors’! (Admittedly, Manchester United and the Spice Girls were also high up there).

The use of the term ‘illegal immigrants’ – not once, twice, but THREE times, including the cue (introduction) in one interview about the Calais situation by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today motivated me to contact the Feedback programme on the same network, which broadcast part of an interview with my by presenter Roger Bolton (there’s a short ‘tease’ clip at the start and the interview itself runs from 08.00). Y

But, dear blog-reader, you’re a busy person, I know, so I’ll just elucidate my main point, which was that at the point of arriving in Europe (the main focus at the time was in Italy and the interview was with an Italian minister, Sandro Gozi, State Secretary to the Italian President in charge of European affairs), we have no idea of what their status is, or might be.  The fact that they have arrived at an ‘unorthodox’ point, rather than an established border, does not mean that they have used ‘illegal’ means or have illegal intent, for reasons which should be obvious who spends a few minutes investigating the circumstances that brought most such people there. They cannot ARRIVE at a normal border-point, because they cannot LEAVE by one. Try fleeing Libya and going to the airport to catch a plane to Europe.

It’s highly unlikely you’ll journey without being intercepted by one of the rival, brutal sects/gangs. You’ll likely be tortured, thrown into jail and your children kidnapped, with the dreams of their torture kindly being played down the phone, in order to export money off you. If you’re a Christian you’ve virtually no chance of making it out alive. Your only hope from escaping the most appalling brutality to you and your family is to pay a people-smuggler, and risk your life on a fantastically grotesquely dangerous boat, with various chances of being drowned, (or at the other end of the scale, dying from lack of  water), suffocated, or simply murdered.

If you make it to the shores of Europe your best hope is to spend months in a squalid ‘jungle’ camp and, eventually, just maybe find someone who can help you claim asylum. Thanks to the narrative, fed and re-enforced by the language of ‘illegality’, many of the citizens in this new, cold, strange land will regard you with at best deep suspicion and often active hostility.  You’ll likely be spat at, snarled at, even have excrement thrown at you. ‘Careless talk cost lives’ was a slogan during World War II. Sloppy use of language costs untold and completely unnecessary harm in this situation.

In the mean-time in limbo, displaced to  goodness knows where, barred from work and trying to exist on a few pounds a week – mostly paid in vouchers, which you cannot use for anything other than food or essentials; certainly not the bus fare to get you to see the immigration official to plead your case, which if you miss, of course, you’ll probably be thrown into a detention centre and await a flight back to the living hell from which you fled.

To describe such people as ‘illegal’ (leaving aside the point – and you’ve seen it on a T-shirt  – that human being cannot be ‘illegal’, only their actions) is a nonsense in what m’learned friends call ‘the normal and natural meaning of the word’.

The UN Convention – cited at the top of this post – makes clear that although there may be a technical illegality in attempting to enter a country other than by presenting yourself at its recognised border crossings, no-one who intends to claim refugee status should be punished for doing so. Now, if there is no punishment allowed under intentional law, it cannot be regarded in any meaningful sense as illegal. Yet that is what Humphrys – three times! – stated, not as a matter of contention, but as a matter of fact. THAT really is toxic and feeds into the worst and most heartless narrative. And, as I argued in the programme, it REALLY matters when Radio 4 and above all Today – generally recognised as the most influential current affairs programme in the UK on TV or radio – uses it. Once it becomes accepted and unchallenged there, then it’s almost like being accepted as a new word into the Oxford English Dictionary: an accepted fact.

Many complain on many of these programmes about this crisis about ‘sob stories’. They state – or suggest – that life in many of the migrants’ home countries isn’t that bad. Get real, they say. They’re taking us for mugs. To which my response is: NO – YOU get real!

For a start, there is oodles of literature from independent sources and insiders’ accounts of life in ISIL/IS/Daesh. And, of course, we have videos from the ‘state’ itself, posted on various websites. You need a strong stomach to view this stuff – I don’t mean the clips they show on the news, but the full, original videos. It’s not difficult to find them –  a few clicks of the mouse should do it. I know that to watch this stuff is playing ‘their’ game – this is what they want: to produce horror, revulsion and anxiety about their truly dastardly methods. To watch it is to succumb to their ‘terror click-bait’, and is probably a against there law to view, so if Plod reads this and decides to prosecute me for seeing and then writing about it, I hope I can rely on some of you to be character witnesses!

If you don’t fancy this, or take a risk (and I must point out I am not encouraging or inciting you so to do!), let’s  say I’ve looked at it so you don’t have to.

I can tell you can find, in full HD, with some exemplary editing and high production values, women being stoned to death for adultery; beheadings of course – nice and slowly using a carving knife, or a bit quicker using a power-saw. Lots of lingering close-ups and slow-mo, cutaways/reaction shots at the moments before, at, and straight after death and in full, living colour. There’s a rather inventive technique of packing men into cars full of explosives and then blowing them up; making them kneel in a line, with explosives strapped to their bodies and then setting them off in quick succession, with, again, nice close-ups and rewinds of the nice, gory bits, when heads, body parts and internal organs/intestines fly away from their bodies. But the ‘piece de yer actual resistance’ is perhaps the drowning cage. Here, manacled men are put in a locked cage which is then lowered slowly into a lake of some sort; their heads gradually disappearing under water and their outstretched arms trying to pull themselves out in a last, desperate and futile attempt to rescue themselves. Here, though, there is some nice underwater camera work, as we see their last moments in close-up. Then the cage is lifted out and some good close-up work showing that, although they are brain -dead, their lungs are still furiously pumping water out of their mouths.

Horrific though it is to watch this, even more disturbing in a way was that the site I saw most of it mixed this real-life horror porn with sex porn. As an inset in the right of the screen there’s a young, bare-breasted lady jumping and down, with various enticements to see more. The key search words are a mixture of this sex and violence. So, we must assume that many young (and maybe not so young) men are masturbating as they see these death scenes, aroused by both the violence and the sex. Perhaps they reach orgasm just at the denouement. Or just after, when, say, the decapitated heads are placed on the victims’ backs.  So much for our supposedly superior culture, eh? The comments are often less than sympathetic to the victims of these appalling acts – more relishing the sadism and suggesting ways in which the victims could have experienced an even longer, more traumatic death. No doubt a lot of it young men’s bravado. But we also need to recognise that, for many young men, violence really is exciting.

Many of those arriving on our shores have witnessed scenes like that at close quarters and have every reason to think they’ll be next. I’m not saying that ALL those who arrive in Lampedusa or Calais have escaped such horrors. Some of them may, indeed, be economic migrants – ‘merely’ seeking a better life in Europe, if only for a few years.

I am not arguing that we can take everyone who’d like to come to Europe, let alone the UK, on that basis. Clearly, we need to distinguish between those fleeing persecution and in genuine fear of their lives. As others have agued, if the EU is not for this, then what IS it good for?

The least worst option would seem to be a quota system for asylum-seekers (following an initial assessment). Each EU country taking a percentage, based on their current size, population and GDP.  ‘Genuine’ claimants for asylum will surely not mind if they are allocated to, say, Belgium. If they object to their allocation and say they want to go to the UK, or another state, the answer should be: “Well, I’m sorry, but you say you are fleeing for your life/from torture/persecution. If that is the case, you surely cannot object to going to ANY country in the EU, with its democratic, liberal basis, equality under the law, and so on. If you have trouble in accepting your placement, then sorry, back you go!” Economic migrants would then be left to each country’s internal policies. Such a system would , I believe and hope, be acceptable to most UK citizens – certainly all that had an ounce of compassion and ideas of fairness (let alone respecting our international obligations since 1951).

But when such an idea was proposed to David Cameron, at the time when most migrants were arriving in Italy and a safe distance and several countries form UK borders, he didn’t want to know. Now that the problem has peaked just cross the Channel and just by the Eurotunnel he is complaining that the problem is being left to just the UK and France to sort out! This is perhaps the biggest crisis of our time and the biggest test of our humanity since World War II. We desperately need real statesmen (and women!) of compassion, guts and imagination; unfortunately we are cursed with (taken as a  whole) a generation of political pygmies.

And although this Blog is – yet again! – far too long – I feel I should also stress that I utterly condemn threats made to our truck-drivers and others (and to truckers being fined for having migrants on board when they’ve made every reasonable precaution to secure their vehicles). I also have great sympathy for all the businesses affected, often because they cannot meet orders, as their imports and exports are held up. I’m appalled at the waste of millions of pounds of fresh food which is having to be dumped every week because it has gone ‘bad’, and I am sorry for all those people who have otherwise been inconvenienced in their business or leisure.

So, y no means are all the migrants ‘golden’. But to condemn them all as ‘illegal’; as being no better than a swarm of locusts; of being in effect less than human, should be beneath us as a nation and as individuals. I do believe that a test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable people. It takes guts and moral strength to stand up for those most vilified and those least able to speak for themselves. As I’ve indicated above, we need hard-headed, pragmatic  solutions. Ultimately, the only answer is for the countries from which people are fleeing to be made bearable again, for all creeds and religions. In the mean-time, compassion in approach and great care of language is called for.

And if that makes me one of the ‘drooling and drivelling’, then so be it,

About richardrudin

I'm a Senior Lecturer in journalism by 'trade'. My background is mainly in broadcasting, although I initially trained (and qualified!) as a newspaper journalist. I'm interested in what shapes people's views/attitudes, nature/wildlife, politics, reading, music (fairly varied but particular fondness from pop/rock/soul genres circa 1964-84 ish) and broadcasting history, as well as new technologies.
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