THIS week saw the BBC Director General Tony Hall apologising for the use of the N-word by social affairs correspondent Fiona Lamdin in a news report about the horrific hit-and-run attack in Bristol of a black NHS worker and musician nicknamed K-Dogg. His attackers had allegedly used the word as they drove their car at him. K-Dogg himself and his family asked that the racist language be reported upon. The BBC received nearly 19,000 complaints about the use of the word, a black DJ resigned from his job at the BBC in protest, and once again we were reminded how important our use of language is to combat racism, and how we need to be constantly checking ourselves about the language we use.

Although normally I would be the first to use acronyms like 'N-word’, ‘P-word’ or ‘F-word’ instead of the actual words, whilst writing or speaking, I might have paused for a split second to think about this particular instance had I been one of the senior editorial figures asked for advice on this matter – simply because the family of the victim themselves were apparently keen that the full word was reported on.

But the reality is that no-one – absolutely no-one – in the TV or radio audience needs to hear the full word rolling off the tongue to appreciate its utter offensiveness. It screams of insult and discrimination and degradation. And whilst the victim and his family might have been, unsurprisingly, reacting emotionally in wanting the full impact to be reported upon, it’s the job of editorial advisers to take a more removed, but at the same time, informed view.

When reporting on stories like this it is a difficult balance between contextualising the language and the story, and causing deep distress and upset to some members of the audience. It would have been one of those moments where having an adviser who has lived with the pain and impact of the use of the N-word would have been very helpful.

Words like the F-word or the C-word are offensive to the majority of the audience so there’s no discussion of whether the full words are used during news bulletins, especially before the watershed – they are simply not used.

Racist slurs like the N-word or the P-word are as offensive, I would argue, so similarly there is absolutely no need to hear or see the actual words. In fact, arguably, the N-word is more offensive because it relates to real world experiences that debased and dehumanised black people during the period of trans-Atlantic slavery and beyond. It is why the DJ who quit, DJ Sideman, said in a statement that the action of his employer, “feels like a slap in the face of our community”.

Here was a word that had come to epitomise and encapsulate hundreds of years of oppression and hatred being used on one of the world’s most admired platforms, surely sending out the wrong message on language use. So much work by organisations, media and government has been done since the death of George Floyd to bring a more comprehensive awareness of issues around racism, and one thing has become clear – language matters.

It’s important we don’t become desensitised to the horror of the word and its associations – lynchings, debasement and discrimination. That’s what the N-word represents. The P-word similarly has its routes in 1970s P***-bashing, a more modern but still racist phenomenon which spawned the abusive word of choice of the 1980s and beyond, for anyone with a couple more drops of melanin in their skin. Daubed on walls around British cities, there was never any doubt as to the offensiveness of the words back then.

There is a complication around the use of the N-word, of course, and that is the use of the word by some black people between themselves to mean “friend” which has two implications: Firstly, that many non-black people complain that it’s unfair that black people can use the word and the rest of us can’t. Secondly, by doing so they are arguably making us all a bit blasé about the use of the word. But if language is power then taking control of language and how it is used is very much part of the agenda to redress the imbalance of power of the past and create an equilibrium. The debate about using it as a way of “reclaiming” it continues within the black community, and so it should. For the rest of us it means asking questions, educating ourselves and thinking about the words we might have seen on walls when wondering if a word is offensive or not.

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