I heard a fascinating piece on the PM show on Radio 4 last week about an internal English Language department, staffed by a handful of linguistic experts. Their job is to ensure the BBC’s published and broadcast news maintain high standards of grammatical accuracy and a consistently impartial, authoritative yet approachable tone of voice
across its multiple channels.
There was a fun segment where the head of department took Eddie Mair to task over a slip between the usage of ‘among’ rather than, ‘amongst’. Minutes of prime broadcasting time were spent examining this quirk and we all nodded along, pleasingly distracted from the tedious rush-hour traffic.
I liked this piece because I love linguistics. I love it because language changes the paths of life. It is the vehicle upon which we load all the meaning we wish to communicate, before sending it out into the world. From parental ‘phone calls in Mandarin, love-letters in Swahili, to testimonies in a Dutch court, the choice of words matters; sometimes it matters dramatically. (Derek Bentley’s tragically ambiguous, ’Let him have it’; Kennedy’s near diplomatic slip, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.)
We know this. The BBC knows this, that’s why they (we) fund a department to ensure the news they impart reaches our ears, eyes and brains with all meaning intact, authentic pronunciations of difficult, rare or foreign words perfected, and a neutral perspective which allows us, the recipient of the news, to come to our own individual, personal value judgements.
Despite all political persuasions accusing the BBC of bias, their Mission Statement remains,
“To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” And to do this, “independently, impartially and honestly’.
Moreover, they promise, to, ‘respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.’
Language sets the culture. We no longer say, ‘coloured’ people, because that was the term of Apartheid South Africa and carries with it connotations of oppression. In the seventies however, it was seen as a perfectly legitimate term and confusingly for people for whom English is not a first language, appears quite lexically near to, ‘People of Colour’. But culturally they are miles apart; the abbreviation, ‘coloureds’ was dehumanising, the noun has become redundant. The BBC will have updated their style guide accordingly.
Why then, are they incapable of taking advice from other groups – not minority groups here, but MAJORITY groups; just as there are more POC on the planet than white people, there are more women than men – and adapt language referring to the oppression of women and girls?
Witness today’s headline, ‘Bristol Sex Gangs Jailed for Grooming Girls’.
When you read the word, ‘sex’, your eyes process the symbols, S E X and your synapses fire off images and connotations. They will include; interest (because sex is interesting to human beings), maybe even some sexual interest, (let’s face it – sex with young women, often called, girls, looms large in our cultural stimulus), and a degree of normality. It’s no big deal! People have sex. We see it on the telly, we read about it in our daily newspaper, we may have had it ourselves last night.
But. The girls are girls – real girls – for once the term is being used accurately. They are underage.
Therefore, legally they cannot consent to sex. Therefore, it is rape.
Rape is nothing to do with sex. Rape is a non-consensual act of power, in the vast, vast majority of cases from an empowered male over a subjugated female. It is an act of violence and oppression. It is under-reported, socially stigmatising, but can ruin a woman’s life. The girls were raped. They weren’t, ‘groomed for sex by gangs’, they were raped by multiple perpetrators.
If you use the wrong words, you create the wrong connotations, you alter behaviour. This diminishes an act of terror in the eyes of the BBC’s readers. These readers are law-makers and enforcers. They are the policeman a girl runs to after a rape, a member of staff at the hospital carrying out the rape examination, a person at the CPS evaluating whether to bring a case, a jury member settling down to come to a verdict.
Take your resources, BBC and divert them to listening to survivors of violence against women and girls and to women’s groups. Tell the Language Department to re-write the language of abuse. Stand them down from arguing over, ‘less and fewer’, ‘while and whilst’ and uphold your mission statement for the sake of the millions of women who fund your entire organisation.