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‘What’s in a word? It may be more than it seems…


“Change the story”. That’s the first lesson that any PR person learns on the job. When the news cycle isn’t going your way, change it if you can. 

This week, a key story has been Suella Braverman’s choice of language, describing the number of migrants crossing the channel in small boats as an “invasion on our southern coast”. Braverman has been slammed from several directions – social media, refugee charities,  and opposition parties have all criticised her use of “inflammatory language”. Even members of her own team have distanced themselves from her comments. 

This debate about language is vital to finding compassionate solutions for asylum seekers and refugees.  Cratus’s own Ashleigh McLellan spent three months researching the importance of language surrounding immigration, as part of her linguistics degree at the University of Sussex. She says, “It’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t the first time that UK politicians have been criticised for using dehumanising and provocative language when talking about refugees in recent years. In 2015 David Cameron used the word ‘swarm’, and in 2016 was accused of using a scripted reference to a ’bunch of migrants’, describing people as ‘breaking into Britain’.” 

And here’s the important point – inflammatory language has been used repeatedly in political conversations about immigration. From Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, to Farage’s 2016 ‘Breaking Point’ Brexit poster, and Braverman’s recent comments, we hear it time and time again. 

So is it just an accident? A mere slip of the tongue? A lack of care? 

McLellan doesn’t think so. 

“These are educated people who understand what they are doing and the implications of their words. I see this as a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the real issues around asylum seekers, refugees and immigration, and to avoid talking about the humanitarian story. 

Almost everyone will have a similar reaction when seeing images of the human cost of war or hearing the stories of individual asylum seekers, and that is one of sadness, shock and anger. Suella Braverman’s use of the word “invasion” not only removes any sense of individuality, and suggests that those involved are part of a wider group that is, in some way, attacking the UK, but it also redirects the discussion so it focuses on ideologies, rather than on emotions. It is much easier to control and manipulate a conversation once all emotions are removed.” 

So yes, language is important. We all have a responsibility to call out inflammatory and dehumanising words when we hear them. But please, let’s talk about the real issues as well, and not get distracted; we need to find a way to talk about these serious issues calmly, compassionately and with a view to providing real solutions that help humans in need. Let’s change the narrative, without changing the story.

‘What’s in a word? It may be more than it seems…