Last night, at Mungo MacCullum’s Overland lecture, I asked the journalist a question about the language of fear around asylum seekers: the terminology created at the time of the Howard government that has been adopted into common practice by many journalists.

Specific examples I gave were language about the rising tide or surge of boat people, as opposed to the ‘increase in the arrival of asylum seekers’, reports of vessels being secured and intercepted, rather than boats being met or boarded, and recognition that mandatory detention centres are actually jails.

My question, specifically, was what role journalists, particularly purportedly progressive journalists should play – what responsibility they have, if any – to rewrite this language of fear around the asylum seeker issue.

After acknowledging and condemning the existence of this ‘language of fear’, MacCallum said that journalists are not permitted to paraphrase politicians, and that this language needed to be changed by the ‘people at the top’. The implication, I feel, being that journalists themselves are powerless on the issue.

I respectfully beg to differ. Yes, I acknowledge that the use of terms like ‘mandatory detention’ may be by and large unavoidable until changes in government policy. But although politicians clearly play an integral part in creating and maintaining biased language around refugee issues, it is by and large journalists who normalise these terms into everyday use, far beyond quoting government policy. Here are just a few extracts from reports over the last 12 months on the asylum seeker issue:

…the 26th vessel intercepted this year, its arrival is part of an upward surge in asylum boats…The constant flow of boats has pushed facilities on Christmas Island to breaking point…Since the surge began the detention centre has been progressively expanded…

‘Moving boat people to mainland Australia is inevitable’
The Australian, 22 March 2010

Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.

Rising tide of boatpeople: another vessel lands as Indonesia says it is powerless to help’
The Australian, 16 April 2009

As revealed by the Herald Sun this morning, several hundred boat people are expected to arrive within days aboard two illegal vessels, triggering a mass transfer of refugees from Christmas Island to Darwin as the detention centre off Western Australia reaches capacity…The likely influx will trigger

The Herald Sun, 16 March 2010

…the people smugglers will continue to flourish and the boat peoplewill continue to jump the immigration queues…the flood will not stop … For each illegal asylum seeker we accept, each one of those poor blighters slips back another place in the queue.

‘Real Victims Sink in the Boat People debacle’
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2009

So again, I ask, who will step up and create a responsible, and at the very least neutral and legally accurate, language around the asylum seeker issue if journalists refuse, or are unwilling, to dispense with the use these antagonistic ‘hot’ terms in relation to refugees and asylum seekers and their plight? How much longer do we have to open our newspapers to read that ‘An illegal vessel overflowing with boat people was intercepted as it headed for mainland Australia, continuing the upward surge in illegal arrivals’?

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

More by Maxine Beneba Clarke ›

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  1. I agree with your criticism towards the language used in news publications, but I wouldn’t go attacking the journalists themselves. Editors have free reign to change around the words used in articles, and they’re the ones that report to the owners of the publication. In other words, they’re the ones that are likely being forced to use the set language, rather than what the journalist probably originally wrote. I’m going to say with a fair bit of confidence that it’s the editors who are the one promoting this use of language, not the journalists themselves. Journalists have to abide by specific style books, of which are provided to them by their publication. So if the publication says “boat people” instead of what a person would normally say, “asylum seekers,” then they have to go with what their told or their asses get canned. You have good points, but you’re pointing the finger a little too low on the ladder.

  2. As if it was just a case of paraphrasing politicians. Journos lurve a good fear story. Fear sells newspapers and gives them an excuse to avoid doing research.

    Worth noting that at least one of those examples of paranoid rhetoric you give there, though, is probably a result of leftist activism: ie ‘recognition that mandatory detention centres are actually jails’. That was one of the left arguments at the time – and it wasn’t just an example of the left being principled and honest, and ‘speaking truth to power’, since detention centres had been around under the previous Labor Government as well, and had not been the results of protests – certainly not to any significant extent.

  3. This language is used to create fear and propaganda – and fear sells. I don’t think mainstream journalism will change because they thrive on fear, but I guess it’s up to the little guys to start using the correct language and hopefully, start a trend.

  4. Tim – Good point regarding the detention centres. But in my opinion they are still, in fact, jails, whether under or created by, a labour/liberal/any other government.

    Jared – Yes, editors surely play some part, particularly in the case of headlines. Maybe I’m naive but I still can’t see bust editors word-searching every article to replace ‘asylum seeker’ with ‘boat people’ though.

    It was notable last night that some of the commenting audience members also used the term ‘boat people’ (and not in an ironic way), which I found really disheartening, given the event.

  5. Indeed. If the Left were strong enough, the press would report these landings something like this: ‘a boatload of working people were seized at Christmas island today’.

  6. i agree with you, maxine. i thought that the answer from mungo on the night, while not disingenuous, was inadequate. it is possible to report news events in a responsible way – it won’t ever be “neutral” but it can be non-imflammatory and more committed to being factual.

    i saw malcolm fraser interviewed by margaret simons last night and she blithely adopted the language, including “boat people”, which appalled me and my friends. mind you, she also referred to kevin rudd speaking “chinese” which was possibly as offensive.

    gah. bottom line = journalists, politicians, writers whoever, need to exercise a bit of moral leadership and, dare i say, courage in opposing this insidious change in the lexicon.

  7. Great piece Maxine. Totally agree. Journalists (and editors) need to take responsibility for the words they choose to use. Jared, as a freelance editor who works with various organisations’ sytle guides (although not for newspapers) I must say I find it highly unlikely that a style guide would specify using the term ‘boat people’. This terminology is so commonplace now that I suspect there is little thought given to what words to use – it’s just automatic.

  8. I just caught this post, rather late. Thanks for it Maxine. I immediately thought of Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (I think) where he writes of journalists bolting phrases together like Meccano. What’s bolted together of course is virulent prejudice and a political ignorance which is hard to penetrate, and any possibility of understanding what has taken place when, for example, asylum seekers are boarded by the military is completely averted. Being a spin-meister for a political party in Australia, must be an easy job. The media so very compliant and already speak in the blank-faced language of the press release. All one would have to do is hand over the copy and see it reprinted.

    1. My guess is Orwell wouldn’t have used the ‘Meccano’ metaphor, but I know what you’re driving at!

      I’d actually prefer much more overt bias in the newspapers instead of what we’ve got: politicians faking bipartisanship, newspapers/media faking nonpartisanship. I prefer obviously partisan journals with strongly expressed opinions, even if I disagree with them. Gives me something to argue with.

      1. yes, I couldn’t agree more Tim. Bring on the partisan.
        I had the essay wrong (It was actually ‘The Prevention of Literature’), but it looks like Meccano is older than we think: “Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set.”
        But while I was fruitlessly going through ‘Politics and the EL” looking for the Meccano phrase, I did find the following:
        “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder— one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.”
        Howard or Rudd. Take your pick.

  9. Hi Maxine,

    You might be interested to know that there has been at least a couple of scientific papers that I know of written on the use of water metaphors to describe asylum seeker movements. Paraphrasing, the tendency is to use mass imagery of waves and movements, and give the sense of inevitability. Individuals are given very little play, it’s all about large scale movement.

    Sadly I don’t have any references with me (at work, sigh), but I think if you google around you might find them.

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