When I was a young and reckless foreign correspondent I had a sweary encounter with a prime minister which could have gone horribly wrong. It taught me to take care with language.
The Caribbean island of Grenada had just been taken over by communist rebels in a Cuban-backed military coup. My foreign editor ordered me to get to nearby Barbados and charter a light aircraft to cover the evacuation of 200 British holidaymakers.
It turned into a trying day. As the rebels had closed Grenada’s airspace only an equally reckless ex-Vietnam fighter pilot would take me. We nearly crashed on landing.
Revolutionary guards arrested me and bundled me into a car which was stopped at roadblocks every few miles so the teenagers manning them could hold homemade shotguns to my head. My discomfort seemed to amuse them.
At capital St George’s my only forms of ID, a passport and press card, were confiscated and I was held at gunpoint for hours.
The rebel guarding me accidentally fired his rifle and the bullet hit the ground missing my left little toe by an inch. That’s when I lost it and let rip with a string of expletives demanding to see someone in authority in this… and yes, I used these words… “mickey mouse government.”
A bearded bloke in jeans appeared and produced my ID from his back pocket. “About f** time,” I shouted. “And who the f*** are you?”
Fortunately, he was grinning broadly as he held out his hand. “You wanted to see someone in authority,” he said. “Will I do? I’m the prime minister.” Well, you could have knocked me down with a Kalashnikov.
I got on famously with PM Maurice Bishop, a former London lawyer, after that, and was genuinely saddened when a firing squad executed him in the 1983 counter-coup four years later. But I’d been such an idiot.
Bishop’s trigger-happy People’s Revolutionary Army had only been in charge five minutes before an angry white man from the island’s colonial past was effing and blinding at it. I stood to lose more than a toe.
Words are important. It’s not just sticks and stones which break bones but language, too. Imagine if I’d bawled out Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. I cringe when I recall how stupid my younger self was.
But at least I didn’t accuse Bishop of wanting to keep child abusers out of jail as Keir Starmer did to Rishi Sunak. This is not so much the politics of the gutter as of a guttersnipe. And the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition should be above that.
Does anyone seriously believe that the PM, the father of two young girls, really wants to spare paedophiles prison? Labour may be cock-a-hoop the post has had 21 million views, but that’s because of the controversy not the message.
Boris Johnson is a master of words but he can be cavalier with them. Like accusing Sir Keir as DPP of not prosecuting Jimmy Saville when the decision had nothing to do with him. Or comparing veiled women to letter-boxes.
Suella Braverman also needs to watch her mouth. It was branding grooming gangs as “almost all British-Pakistani” which persuaded Labour to play dirty. The Home Secretary ignored the white men and a woman convicted in 2010 of abusing 30 children in the Camborne area of Cornwall. And a 2020 Home Office report which found “that group-based child sexual exploitation offenders are most commonly white.”
She talks of an invasion of illegal migrants. Invasion is a word more usually associated with war, and cross-Channel migrants are not illegal unless they stay after asylum applications are rejected.
The wrong words in the wrong place can stoke up hatred, and that is why they are dangerous.
Whether swearing at a Caribbean PM surrounded by gunmen, or racially demonising communities, careless talk really can cost lives.