A question of language for so-called MPs

In the midst of Britain's political turmoil there was a rare – and surreal – moment of consensus in the House of Commons this week over the BBC's use of the phrase "so-called". 

MPs were discussing a government move to add four more groups to the official list of terrorist organisations: the Global Islamic Media Front, the Turkistan Islamic party, the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah. 

As the discussion got under way on Wednesday, Andy Burnham – a prominent Labour MP and former contender for the party's leadership – rose to complain about the BBC:

"The BBC has taken to using the phrase 'so-called Islamic State'. In my view, that is not helpful. The use of 'so-called' does not undermine 'Islamic' or 'State' and those are the two words that the public hear. It gives undeserved status to the organisation and makes it sound as though it is an authorised branch of Islam. I urge the director-general of the BBC to review that editorial decision and to move, as the government have, to the use of Daesh."

Richard Arless, a Scottish Nationalist, agreed:

"I wish to add the calls from Scottish National party Members to the request made by [Mr Burnham] to the BBC to reconsider the language it uses when dealing with terrorist organisations, and in particular, the kind of legitimacy it gives by using the phrase 'so-called Islamic State', which I consider to be appalling."

John Hayes (Conservative, and the so-called Minister for Security) welcomed their suggestions. The impression created by words the BBC uses "can have devastating effect", he said. "I entirely agree ... and say, on behalf of the Government, that we should indeed send a message to the BBC that calling organisations 'so-called' creates entirely the wrong impression."

Pressing the minister further, Mr Arkless asked if he would write to the BBC about this, so that "we will not just have a talking shop in the House today". The minister replied:

"That alone would not be good enough. I will speak to the BBC and write to it. The matter will also be recorded today in Hansard. The letter will leave my office this afternoon, and I will speak to BBC staff by telephone today."

Apparently thrilled by this result, Mr Burnham posted a couple of tweets about it:

Hopefully, the minister's discussions with the BBC will be made public. It will be interesting to see his explanation of how applying "so-called" to an organisation's name gives it legitimacy when, according to all the dictionaries, it has the opposite effect.