Looking for scare quotes

A comment or attempted explanation on BBC jokes got my curiosity awake.

This still seems to need spelling out for some. In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam. Gibbons was convicted of this crime. Should it be a crime? No. Given that it is a crime, was Gibbons guilty? Again, no: she didn’t insult Islam. Nevertheless, she was convicted of insulting Islam. In saying so I quote no-one, but simply state a fact. Tim Evans was wrongly convicted of murder, not “murder”.

Which is to say that the BBC wasn’t doing anything risible or marked or noteworthy by reporting that

Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, had spent eight days in custody for insulting Islam before eventually being pardoned by President Omar al-Bashir.

The claim seems to be that news organizations don’t use scare quotes on crimes if they are in fact crimes in the state that is in question. ‘In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam’ so it is not normal practice to put scare quotes on ‘insult Islam’ with reference to Sudan. I thought about that, and it seemed to me that it wasn’t true; so I did a little looking and found something. Then I wished I hadn’t wasted any time looking, because I remembered Turkey’s Article 301 which outlaws ‘insulting Turkishness’ – I know the BBC uses scare quotes on that ‘crime,’ I knew that even before looking it up. ‘Insulting Turkishness’ is decidedly a real crime in Turkey: prosecutions for it are not rare, and the existence of the crime has been a major stumbling block for Turkey’s membership of the EU.

So – behold the Beeb putting scare quotes on a crime even though it is a crime to insult Turkishness in Turkey.

Turkey’s most internationally-acclaimed novelist will go on trial here charged with “insulting Turkishness”.

The fact that Article 301 exists does not prevent the BBC from putting scare quotes on the crime that Article 301 forbids. Therefore there is nothing automatically or necessarily or ethically or journalistically preventing the BBC from putting the same scare quotes on ‘insulting Islam’ when reporting on Gillian Gibbons. It chose not to; I chose to point that out; I fail to see that there’s anything obviously unreasonable about that. Why would it not be of interest to notice what an influential news medium chooses to hold at arm’s length and what it doesn’t? Why would it not be of interest to notice the ways the BBC frames various issues? It’s supposed to be a good thing to be media literate, isn’t it? Isn’t noticing things like subtle cues and unobtrusively coded language and careful wording part of the whole project of figuring out how media outlets shape the way we think?

Sure it is. It could still be the case that I did a crap job of it, of course, but I don’t think the ‘In Sudan it is a crime to insult Islam’ argument shows that.

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