Life & Culture

The sinister labels of lazy journalists


This week, I discovered that Sir Trevor Chinn is Jewish. I'm being facetious, of course. Sir Trevor is a well-known member of the community, an enormously successful businessman and a generous benefactor to a number of important causes. He is often to be found within the pages of this newspaper so his Jewishness is not a surprise.

But in a full-page article in the Evening Standard last Friday - in a profile of his friend Lloyd Dorfman - Sir Trevor's name was used in passing, referred to only as "the Jewish philanthropist Sir Trevor Chinn". Not "successful" philanthropist, or "renowned" or even "generous". But his religion was, for the writer of the piece, the only adjective required.

Having read the article, I used Twitter to get in touch with the journalist, Jim Armitage, who is the newspaper's highly regarded city editor. My message ran thus: "Jim, if someone was a Catholic philanthropist or a Muslim one, would you still use religion to describe them. And, if so, why?"

At first, he didn't have a clue what I was talking about but, prodded further, he replied: "Oh yes, fair point, actually. Don't know why I put that in, think I just lifted it from his biog. Nothing meant by it."

Of course there was nothing meant by it. Nothing ever is.

Just as, a few days earlier, another journalist - this time the Daily Telegraph's associate editor, Christopher Hope - meant nothing by his use of the word "Jewish" to describe the background of an until-now obscure prime ministerial adviser called Daniel Korski.

Korski's enthusiasm got him into trouble last week when he was attacked by newspapers for his "shadowy" pro-EU behaviour. He apparently phoned business leader John Longworth to berate him for a speech calling for Brexit, which, it is alleged, led Longworth to be ousted from his role as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.

Anyway, as the journalist pointed out, 38-year-old Korski's parents are Polish, they came to this country many years after the war, having apparently been "expelled" from their country of birth. Why, I don't know. Hope, however, described them as "Jewish" refugees, for no apparent reason. He didn't respond to my queries as to what was meant by the word's use.

The Financial Times media editor Henry Mance did the same thing a couple of weeks ago in a brilliant interview with Alan Yentob, conducted (you guessed it) at the River Café. He dropped the word Jewish into the text to describe Yentob's parents and then never returned to the subject. Again, I asked him why he used the word as a label. He replied that Yentob had used it himself and that "there was a bit more about Jewish identity that I cut out for space reasons". But he still used the word.

Of course, there was nothing meant by it.

Which seems a rather peculiar piece of reasoning for a journalist, since the very nature of the job is to use words, phrases and observations that add meaning to a person, place or event. If nothing is meant by the use of a word which, we know, many often use in a pejorative sense - though not for a moment do I believe these journalists do - then don't use it.

Needless to say, if Jewishness - in either a cultural or religious sense - had something to do with the above stories, that it usefully expressed a facet of their lives that added to the meaning and sense of the piece, then it should appear.

Last Saturday, for instance, the Daily Telegraph ran a wonderful obituary of the Oscar-winning set designer Sir Ken Adam. The phrase "Jewish-born parents" was essential because it helped the reader understand why he felt so upset that his classic James Bond baddie lair for Dr No ended up as a gas chamber in the finished film. The writer very definitely meant something by making that observation.

I wear my Jewishness very -very - lightly, and perhaps I'm too sensitive. Paranoid is the word I think my wife might use. After all, I'm writing this for a publication that is really only interested in all things pertaining to Judaism. Just as the Catholic Herald and The Voice cater for their readerships' minority interests.

But I don't often read about "Catholic philanthropists" and certainly not Protestant ones. If, say, Idris Elba is talking about his new film - without making any reference whatsoever to his skin colour - does a writer feel compelled to point out, in passing, that his ''black parents are hugely supportive''?

There are only three reasons for journalists to use the word Jewish. By far the most common is that it actually pertains to the subject or themselves as writers. By far the least common - in Britain anyway, especially since 1945 - is if it is used as an insulting trope. The third - and, for me, the most damaging - is simply unthinking laziness.

Some no doubt consider it a shorthand for immigrant, money, success, survival, ambition, culture, community… even difference. And if they do, then of course the word has ''meaning''.

It means "not one of us".

Perhaps, for some, a "Jewish" entrepreneur is different from other kinds of entrepreneurs. A little more ruthless perhaps, more inclined to help out their own. Chinn and Dorfman, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Perhaps having Jewish parents means you're brought up in a different way, a bit of a "shadowy" outsider with an alternative set of rules, prone to aggressive Korski-like outbursts.

I'm reminded of when John Bercow was, somewhat controversially, made Speaker of the House of Commons. His snide asides, turncoat politics, ability to wind people up and lack of stature were all part of the media's character assassinations that followed. As was his Jewishness.

I berated a colleague (this was on a national daily newspaper) for using religion as an adjective to describe Bercow. But it was only when I pointed it out that he realised his crass error. He meant nothing by it too, he just unthinkingly slipped it in, trying to add labels that would exaggerate Bercow's outsider status.

Perhaps I shouldn't make a fuss, as my parents used to implore when I was growing up, insisting I use the ''sticks and stones'' ditty rather than fight back. But my emotional scars are not so raw and do not run so deep. Making a fuss is my form of protection. And if we don't make a fuss, the J-word will continue to be misused by lazy, unthinking journalists who, a little too late in the day, insist that they don't mean anything by it.

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