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Pass the smelling salts: the BBC is right
Why is the Home Secretary endorsing an attack on objectivity?
A row has broken out between Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the BBC. I am absolutely on the side of the BBC.
I think I’d better go and have a lie-down.
The row is over the use of the word “migrants” to describe the individuals who are crossing the English Channel from France in inflatable dinghies and other wildly unsuitable craft, one of which sank off the French coast on Wednesday causing at least 27 people to drown.
This tragedy was as predictable as it was unspeakable. Thousands who are camped out on the French coast determined to migrate to Britain are being fleeced by people-smugglers and then crammed into often utterly un-seaworthy craft to make the dangerous voyage to British beaches.
As the BBC reports:
The Dover Strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world and has claimed many lives of people trying to cross in inflatable dinghies. Record numbers of migrants are making the crossing from France to the UK and it is thought at least 10 other people had died in the past few weeks while attempting to cross. This year more than 25,700 migrants have arrived in the UK by boat, more than three times the 8,469 that did so in 2020.
While Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson clashes with France’s president Emanuel Macron over the inability of both countries to stop this illegal and potentially lethal traffic, others have decided that tendentious whining is their most useful contribution to this issue. Thus a Scottish National Party MP has criticised the BBC for using the word “migrant” on the basis that this is “dehumanising language”. The Telegraph reports:
Brendan O'Hara, the SNP MP, told the House of Commons: "Last night I tuned in to the BBC 10 o'clock news to get the latest on this terrible disaster, and I was absolutely appalled when a presenter informed me that around 30 migrants had drowned.
Migrants don't drown. People drown. Men, women and children drown".
This objection is absurd. “Migrant” is a neutral and objective term. Some of these boat passengers are genuine refugees; some are asylum-seekers who do not fit the definition of a refugee; some are desperate folk to whom Britain owes a particular obligation, such as those who assisted British forces in Afghanistan; some merely wish to immigrate to escape the wretched conditions in their home countries. “Migrant” is the one term that accurately covers all these different categories of people making these unlawful Channel crossings.
What O’Hara was objecting to was precisely the fact that “migrant” is a neutral and objective term. By saying they should be described instead as “men, women and children”, he wants to detach them from the reason they are taking to these boats in the first place — to migrate to Britain in the all-too well-founded expectation that Britain will never send them away, even if they have no legal right to be there.
While one can deeply sympathise with the situation of many of them, they are participants in a criminal traffic with which, if it isn’t stopped, Britain will be unable to cope. O’Hara wants them to be presented instead as if they are simply individuals who, by some freak of circumstance, just happen to find themselves in unseaworthy craft crossing the English Channel and of whom a number have drowned in a wholly decontextualised and de-politicised tragedy.
In other words, instead of an onslaught against the integrity of Britain’s borders by criminal gangs unscrupulously using vulnerable people set upon migrating to Britain and in numbers which threaten to overwhelm Britain’s capacity to deal with them, O’Hara wants to reframe this as a decontextualised humanitarian challenge which no-one with a heart could possibly resist. And he is requiring the BBC to assist him in doing so.
The Home Secretary should have seen off this manipulative piece of verbal mischief. But she did not. Astonishingly, she agreed with it. O’Hara asked her:
“So will the Secretary of State 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 and afford these poor people the respect that they deserve?”
Ms Patel responded: "Even during the Afghan operations and Op Pitting [the UK airlift from Kabul of more than 15,000 people judged to be at serious risk from the Taliban because of their role in helping British forces in Afghanistan] I heard a lot of language that quite frankly seemed to be inappropriate around people who were fleeing. So yes, I will."
So because she heard inappropriate language about Afghans, the Home Secretary is going to complain to the BBC for its use of wholly appropriate language to describe a different group of people in a different situation?
Why is Priti Patel endorsing this attack on BBC objectivity — the very quality which the BBC is usually rightly accused of lacking? Why is she thus giving implicit succour to those who exploit the accelerating crisis in the English Channel — a crisis which she and Boris Johnson have failed to resolve — to denigrate those who wish to uphold the integrity of their country’s borders and the rule of law?
The BBC said in its defence:
We always think carefully about the language we use and in this report we have made very clear the human cost of this tragedy. It is not always obvious whether those making these crossings already have refugee status, are seeking asylum, looking for work, the stage of their journey, or whether they will try to enter a country illegally. We judge each story on a case-by-case basis.”
The BBC is often very wrong, but on this occasion it is absolutely right. When a Conservative Home Secretary takes up a position to the left of the BBC, something has gone very badly awry with British politics.
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