Last week, British newspaper “The Sunday Times” published a front-page cover story to commemorate the late Prince Philip. Unfortunately, one sentence from the chief foreign correspondent covering the story has since distracted public attention from mourning for Prince Philip and towards racism against Asians.

Christina Lamb wrote, in the third paragraph of the cover story on Prince Philip, that “Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history – an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.” 

“Slitty eyes” was in reference to an incident in 1986 in which Prince Philip made the controversial comment to a British student studying in China saying, “If you stay here much longer, you’ll go home with slitty eyes.” (MyLondon).

It also comes at an unfortunate time in the sense that it seems to directly contradict certain aspects of the recent report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (the Report), which significantly downplayed the impact of institutional racism in the UK. If there is any sign that institutional racism still exists, it is Christina Lamb’s authorship of the article, Emma Tucker (the editor)’s approval of the article and other employees of the Sunday Times that have tried to downplay the racist remark.

In this post, I wanted to express some of my concerns and questions, in an attempt to seek more accountability from the news industry in the future.

Executive summary of my questions:

  • Is Christina Lamb’s news story, along with Stephen Bleach’s response to a complaint and Emma Tucker’s statement, a sign that institutional, structural and systemic racism still exist in British society?
  • Who’s this “we” that secretly enjoyed the “gaffes”?
  • Is secret enjoyment of these “gaffes” not approval of these “gaffes” on some level? For Christina Lamb to bring this secret enjoyment to the surface, does that not become an open approval? 
  • The Sunday Times expressed that they didn’t want to suggest approval for that “particular remark”, are they implying that they may approve of Prince Philip’s other racially and socio-economically questionable “gaffes”? 
  • Is there an element of victim blaming in the Sunday Times’ responses?
  • Is there an element of performative anti-discrimination displayed by the Sunday Times and, specifically, Christina Lamb?

Breaking down language used in Christina Lamb’s original news article

Prince Philip’s initial comment aside, who’s this “we” that Christina Lamb referenced that secretly enjoyed these “gaffes”? It can’t be the entire UK or any country within the UK because one assumes that most, if not all, of the 393,141 people of Chinese ethnicity living in the UK (as at 2011) did not enjoy that particular comment made by Prince Philip. 

The “gaffes” that Christina Lamb mentioned also include other incidents, for example:

  • In 2003, when Prince Philip said to the President of Nigeria, who was in national dress: “You look like you’re ready for bed!” (MyLondon); and
  • When Prince Philip once asked a Romford schoolboy if he could write – despite the fact that he’d written a letter to the Queen and successfully invited her to visit the East London town (MyLondon).

One assumes the royal “we” (no puns intended) also do not include people of other ethnic minority or socio-economic backgrounds that may have found Prince Philip’s other “gaffes” offensive.  

So who’s this “we” that Christina Lamb is referring to? The 100% of racists (white or otherwise) that the Sunday Times deem to be their target audience? Is that how the Sunday Times want to market themselves?

Breaking down language used in Stephen Bleach’s response to a complaint

When people complained to the Sunday Times, one of the responses received was from Stephen Bleach, the Letters Editor.

Stephen Bleach wrote: “Thanks for getting in touch. The intention here was to reflect the affection in which Prince Philip was held by so many, despite his imperfections; it was absolutely not intended to suggest approval for that particular remark, and we very much regret that some readers have taken it as doing so. The phrase was removed from our digital edition but regrettably it was too late to remove it from the print edition.

I have made the senior editors aware of your comments. Their decisions are informed by the feedback we receive, so we’re grateful to you for raising this and will take your point on board when preparing future editions.”

Let’s have a look at the language used here, shall we? Or, rather, the lack thereof. Specifically, the lack of an apology. 

Stephen Bleach speaks of intention. The intention of whether something is offensive can be measured in the meaning of the language itself or the context in which it is used. 

Turning to the juxtaposition and the use of language itself first. If this suggested target group of “we” secretly enjoyed the supposed “gaffes”, is that not expressing approval on a ‘guilty pleasure’ level? Now that Christina Lamb has brought this secret enjoyment to the surface to be openly acknowledged, doesn’t that now become an open approval? And giving the Sunday Times the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t want to suggest approval for that “particular remark”, are they implying that they may approve of Prince Philip’s other “gaffes”, such as the ones said to the Nigerian president or the Romford schoolboy? 

Contextualism, on the other hand, is often used by those seeking to defend themselves, claiming they thought it was ‘funny’ or that they ‘didn’t mean it that way’. Stephen Bleach tried to appeal to this view when he claimed that the intention was to reflect the affection for Prince Philip and not the approval of that “particular remark”. He abdicates responsibility further by claiming it is some of the readers who had misunderstood this context, for which he “regrets”. Is there a subtle shift of blame onto the readers who have felt offended by Christina Lamb’s word choices? 

If a large number of people have felt that what Christina Lamb wrote is offensive (currently at over 60,000 on a relevant change.org petition), we cannot continue to whitewash (no puns intended) an unpleasant display of racism. 

If we really did not intend to condone or make light of his remarks, stopping at “offending people with gaffes” would honestly have been fine.

Breaking down language used in Emma Tucker’s statement

The editor, Emma Tucker, appealed to “personalism” within the contextualist ideology when she said that “Christina Lamb has spent her whole career reporting on discrimination and injustices against people in every part of the world and never intended to make light of his remark in any way.” (the Guardian). 

Personalism is the idea that beliefs, intentions, and qualities of a speaker are central to what gives words their meaning. According to Emma Tucker, Christina Lamb’s past reporting on discrimination and injustice against people seems to mean that she can’t possibly have meant what she decided to write. If that’s the case, there might be a bigger problem. 

How did someone who spent much of her career exposing discrimination and injustice end up writing something so controversial, if not distasteful? After all, she did deliberately choose to comment on Prince Philip’s “gaffes”, specifically identifying the incident regarding “slitty eyes”, and revealing that she and other people have secretly “rather enjoyed them”. How did she not recognise that the sentence she had drafted could be offensive? How could she report on discrimination and, at the same time, secretly find discrimination enjoyable? 

Is this performative allyship or is there a larger force at play here? Namely, institutional, structural and systemic racism (according to the definitions given in the Report) that’s distorting her judgment. 

If certain of our journalists and news editors, whose job is to use words to tell stories, cannot tell when certain words placed in a certain way can cause offense, is that good enough a reason to lose faith in those journalists and editors? 

Is that good enough a reason to believe that institutional, structural and systemic racism is still so ingrained in our society that even some of our journalists and editors cannot recognise, until pointed out to them, that the phrases they have chosen can be offensive? 

Is that good enough a reason to believe that more education is needed to eradicate such racism?

I should think so. 

As a society, I hope we can all recognise and have the courage to point it out when something is discriminatory (whether verbal or non-verbal, directly or indirectly). Only by speaking up can we slowly break the vicious cycle of institutional, structural and systemic racism that very much still exist in our modern society.

Finally, my thoughts are with the Queen and her family for their recent loss. Prince Philip, may he rest in peace.

Note:

∆ For the avoidance of doubt, “our” here is from a British national making a reference to people or situations in Great Britain.

Whilst you’re here, if you are a British national or British resident, please consider signing the petition calling for the UK government to fund additional support for victims of COVID-19 racism and anti-racism programmes.