In journalism, language matters

Much of the liberal Western press, consciously or unconsciously, is helping spread the gospel of white supremacy.

[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

“China: Big spender or loan shark?”

That is the title the BBC chose for its correspondent Celia Hatton’s report on a newly released assessment of Chinese lending habits. “China hands out at least twice as much development money as the US and other major powers, new evidence shows, with most of it coming in the form of risky high-interest loans from Chinese state banks,” it goes on to say adding that “critics fear that the high-interest loans funding many Chinese projects are saddling unsuspecting populations in sky-high debt”.

Let us pause there for a minute and think about the terms used to describe the activity. Chinese grants and loans are lumped together as “development money” which is loaned out. Yet helpfully, the BBC tells us that “not too long ago China received foreign aid”. Nowhere in Celia Hatton’s report is Chinese “development money” described as “aid”. What is the difference?

Another BBC report from four years ago may be helpful. In it, Ms Hatton, reporting on the uncovering of “China’s secret aid empire”, writes that Chinese money does not qualify for “the traditional definition of aid that’s agreed upon by all Western industrialised countries” because Western lending “is given with the main goal of developing the economic development and welfare of recipient countries”. Apparently, she says, while a whopping 93 percent of US “financial aid” fits that bill, only a fifth of what China gives does.

It is an astounding claim. If indeed the vast majority of US giving benefitted those receiving it, there should be lots of evidence of it. Yet a 1997 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that foreign aid played, at best, a marginal role in promoting economic development and improving human welfare and could even “hinder development depending on the environment in which that aid is used and the conditions under which it is given”.

In fact, the truth is Western “development aid” is itself very much the equivalent of loansharking. According to a 2005 New York Times report, “between 1970 and 2002 the countries south of the Sahara received a total of $294 billion in loans. In the same period of time they paid back $268 billion, and accumulated, after interest, a mountain of debt amounting to $210 billion”.

My goal here is not simply to demonstrate that Chinese exploitation is little different from that practised by the West. It is rather to show how many times Western media deploys language designed to portray Western society as somehow better, more beneficent, more moral and more responsible than other societies.

A couple of other examples illustrate this. The BBC’s Laura Bicker reports that “analysts” are “worried” about North Korea’s development and testing of hypersonic missiles but not about the US doing the same, despite the latter’s extensive record of attacking and destabilising other nations around the world. BBC anchors are horrified by Kim Jong Un’s ability to build missiles despite economic sanctions, taking it as evidence that the North Korean leader does not care about his starving people.

Yet they have little to say about Joe Biden maintaining and continuing to develop the greatest arsenal in the world despite more than 11 million US children living in households without enough to eat, many Americans lacking adequate healthcare, and US infrastructure crumbling.

Similarly, reports on public officials abusing their positions for personal gain are reported differently if they occur in the West. When a Wall Street Journal investigation finds that “130 federal judges have violated US law and judicial ethics by overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock”, widespread corruption is not the preferred phrase. US Senators who sell their vote to lobbyists are “beholden to donors” and not guilty of succumbing to bribery.

And of course, US elections may be gerrymandered and voters suppressed but they are never rigged or stolen. Any suggestion that the election system may not actually reflect the wishes of voters is immediately conflated with, and dismissed as part of, the “Big Lie” perpetrated by former President Donald Trump, who falsely insists he won the recent presidential elections.

Yet the fact is the election system in the US is systematically and deliberately rigged and who ends up in power is many times not decided by the voters, but by map-makers who work to subvert the vote. That is stealing.

Language matters. Words matter. And they show that it is not just ogres like Trump who spread the gospel of white supremacy. Much of the liberal Western press is deeply invested in the project through its characterisation of news events depending on where in the world they happen and who they happen to. Unconscious or not, it must be called out for what it is.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.