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Expert comment: The dangers of language slurs by the media

mobile phone sign Friday 4 November 2016

Dr Salman Al-Azami, Senior Lecturer in English Language, challenges the language used by the media in its recent coverage of drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel.  

The Daily Mail’s campaign on tougher punishment for using mobile phones while driving is commendable, but the way it stereotyped ‘foreign’ truck drivers as the prime perpetrators of this crime in its front page article on 3rd November is very unhelpful in a climate of hate crimes and xenophobia against foreign national in post EU referendum Britain.

There is no doubt that tougher punishments should be imposed on drivers who use mobile phones behind the wheel, and more importantly, the law should be strictly enforced to ensure road safety. Too many people get away with this crime leading to a sharp increase in fatal accidents and deaths.

However, to suggest that only foreign drivers were committing this crime in 90 minutes in a motorway is another example of a very dangerous attitude that the ring wing media have started to promote in recent times. Only a few days ago there was a vicious campaign against the arrival of child refugees from Calais by The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Star questioning the age of these children rather than appreciating that at last Britain has played some role in this humanitarian issue.  

The latest Daily Mail article on foreign drivers’ use of mobile phone once again shows that some sections of the British media tend to be more interested in sensationalising things rather than trying to raise awareness of an important issue. The positioning of sentences provide evidence how figures are manipulated to prove the newspaper’s ideological position, whereas the actual fact may be different. For example, immediately after referring to a Polish driver being caught for this offense, the next sentence of the article says, “More than 200 Britons have been killed in the past ten years by drivers distracted by their phones”. It is interesting that the word ‘Britons’ has been used instead of ‘people’, which may have an indirect suggestion that foreign drivers are killing British people by using mobile phones while driving in the UK. An average reader might get confused with this correlation and may blame the ‘foreigners’ for all these deaths.

Britain is going through a difficult time in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union. People are worried about their jobs, the future of British business, the economy, the NHS etc. There is widespread anger on many issues and an air of fear and uncertainty can be felt in every sector. In this situation what we need from journalists is a sensitive and responsible approach on matter like these. Blaming only foreign drivers for an offense caused by people in all sections of the society shows that these media institutions are not playing a very matured role that can help the nation overcome its current problems. This continuous barrage of criminalisation of the ‘other’ may contribute towards an intolerant society, which is not a society where decent minded people would want to be a part of. It is time that journalists are a bit more careful in carrying out their professional duties.

Dr Salman Al-Azami signed a letter to the Guardian on this issue 

Dr Salman Al-Azami's new book, Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis is available now

Department of English

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