We may never know what the former Conservative Party chief whip Andrew Mitchell actually screamed at a group of police officers as they stopped him cycling through the Downing Street security gates recently. What’s still exercising the media – long after Mitchell’s resignation- is a particular term he was alleged to have used. Mitchell has always denied the use of the word in question, and a lot of the evidence that has emerged subsequently strongly suggests that the policemen who initially reported the incident weren’t telling the truth. But no matter what we subsequently find out, Andrew Mitchell will forever be known as the man who called the police ‘plebs’.
Clearly, defining ‘offensive language’ is a complicated matter. Mitchell and the police agree that he used four-letter words. But they passed more or less without comment. In this context the use of the ‘p’ word has proved far more toxic than a flurry of ‘f’ words, because it seems to speak volumes about the attitudes and behaviour of the current British governing elite. To many people, the word ‘pleb’ sounded just like something a public school-educated, multi-millionaire former investment banker might come out with as he berated the police.
Compare the comments in the UBS and Barclays emails made globally available because of the LIBOR-rigging scandal. The financial intricacies of the intra-bank borrowing rate are beyond most people, but what they will remember are bankers calling one another ‘big boy’ and promising to dole out bottles of Bollinger. Those words stick because they fit with pre-existing negative stereotypes.
Whether we’re writing or speaking, whatever the context, whatever the pressure, and however urgent the deadline, we all need to be acutely aware of the language we use. The whole ‘plebgate’ saga began when someone used inflammatory language. As the truth slowly emerges, we should discover whether the word ‘pleb’ was used carelessly and thoughtlessly (Andrew Mitchell responding in a moment of anger and revealing his prejudices) or carefully and thoughtfully (members of the Met choosing exactly the right word with which to smear a senior Tory politician). Either way, it will stick in the public memory!