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It’s time journalists learned the difference between England and the UK

UK Map

It’s time journalists learned the difference between England and the UK

Yesterday, I saw an article that reminded me of a common misunderstanding displayed even by trained writers and journalists – we don’t understand the country we live in. Misuse of the terms ‘England’, ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ is causing misinformation to thrive, and statistics to be either manipulated or just plain wrong.

The piece in question was by Metro, and was titled ‘From today every UK adult is automatically an organ donor’. It’s an interesting piece about how we now have an opt-out system for organ donation, meaning people no longer need to sign up and are presumed to consent to their organs being reused unless they indicate otherwise. There’s a good human interest aspect as well, in terms of the families whose campaigns prompted this change in law.

Right at the end of the piece, however, I read:

“A similar law was introduced in Wales in 2015, while Scotland is due to have such a measure in place by autumn 2020. Northern Ireland continues to have an opt-in system.”

Hang on, I thought every UK adult was now automatically a donor? It turns out Wales has been doing this for five years already, but Scotland is not planning to do it until later this year and Northern Ireland has no plans to at all. It’s only England that had a change of law yesterday.

What we have here is a misleading, inaccurate headline. I took some screenshots in case they get on to their mistake and change it.

Image 1 Image 2

This isn’t just me being pedantic. Several studies have shown that many, if not most, people don’t read a story beyond the headline, and plenty will like, share and comment on articles without reading them. A Scotsman or Northern Irishman might see that Metro headline pop up on Facebook or Twitter and think “ah right, I was going to sign up as an organ donor, but I won’t bother if that’s the case.” That decision, based on erroneous reporting, could literally be the difference between life and death.

That’s an example of a reporter just getting their facts wrong, but other times, reporters use the UK’s unusual make-up of four main land masses to drive home an agenda, or reinforce people’s existing hopes or fears. Going back to 2011 now, The Telegraph reported on a study by Migration Watch citing that England was the sixth most crowded major country in the world. This study was widely shared on social media and forums, often misreported by sharers as ‘Britain’.

This sort of national confusion causes people to get inaccurate ideas in their head and spread toxic nonsense as if it were true. In February, an audience member on BBC’s Question Time began a fierce anti-immigration rant by stressing that “68 million people now live in England”. Not true – that’s the population of the UK, not England. It’s funny how some of the most raging patriots don’t seem to understand the make-up of their own country!

England is not a UN nation, it’s part of the United Kingdom. To compare England with nations like Bangladesh, South Korea and Lebanon is fairly pointless, because they are countries in their own right. There is more or less complete freedom of movement between England, Wales and Scotland – something that can hardly be said about South and North Korea, or Lebanon and Israel.

Whether it’s the national media or business blogging, it’s vital to remember that titles should be factual and what’s written in the piece should deliver on them. If people feel misled or patronised, they will simply stop reading.

John Murray

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