Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

Words will sometimes hurt me: how the BBC reinforces rape culture

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 maintains 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 Gang 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.

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.


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2 thoughts on “Words will sometimes hurt me: how the BBC reinforces rape culture

  • Liz says:

    I fully support what you are saying. I’d also like to take this opportunity to encourage those taking whatever section of the press to task to focus strongly on the headline on a story as you have done here.
    I am a retired journalist and spent a large percentage of my working life on various papers in editing stories and writing headlines. It is important to know that reporters and feature writers never write their own headlines – that is the job of the sub editors.
    In the 80s and 90s women subs were still a minority, but some of us worked hard at removing sexist language from the stories we handled. I think there are now far more female subs, so it is disappointing to see headlines like this.
    I think that contacting news outlets directly and asking for an opportunity to visit the paper or radio station and talk directly to journalists, particularly subs, would be a good idea.

  • Hecuba says:

    BBC has always consistently deployed malespeak language because men continue to believe malespeak language reflects male interpretations/male experiences of their male centric world.

    Malespeak language always minimalises/denies which sex is overwhelmingly committing sexual violence against women and girls and this is why that latest BBC misogynistic headline has that word ‘sex’ in its heading not this:

    Bristol males jailed for serially raping girls. But headlines which name sex of perpetrators and names the violence inflicted on females continues not to be reported by the men dominating/controlling their malestream media. The BBC has a very, very long his tory of male dominance/malespeak so women have to continue holding misogynistic BBC to account for hiding/minimalising/sensationalising pandemic male sexual violence being committed against women and girls.

    Language matters which is why men refuse to accept ‘mankind’ does not include females because ‘mankind’ cannot give birth!