Not wanting and wanting not

by Jamie Johnston

How the English language is making it difficult for politicians to comment on the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning (Wednesday 2 September 2009) the Foreign Secretary David Miliband was asked repeatedly whether the Libyan government had been told, and whether it had been true, that he and Gordon Brown "did not want [Abdelbaset Ali al-]Megrahi to die in jail" ([1]). He seemed to have inordinate trouble answering. No surprise, you may think, in a politician making a meal out of an apparently simple question. But in this case I want to suggest that the question is not so simple as it seems, for reasons that are principally not political but linguistic.

First, some background for those who haven't followed this news story. In 1988 a passenger plane travelling from London to New York exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland. In 1999 the Libyan government allowed Mr Megrahi to be extradited to the Netherlands, where he was tried and convicted the following year by a special court administering Scottish criminal law; he was sentenced to life in prison and moved to Scotland to serve the sentence. On 20 August this year Megrahi, now terminally ill with prostate cancer and likely to live only a few more months, was released by the devolved Scottish government on compassionate grounds and returned to Libya. This decision had been anticipated for several days in advance and had drawn protests from many relatives of the victims ([2]) and from the US government; the British government at Westminster refused to comment. Megrahi arrived in Libya to something resembling a hero's welcome, much to the chagrin of anyone in Europe and North America who was paying attention, and pressure grew on the British government to say whether it supported the release. This pressure increased as there emerged allegations that Megrahi's release had previously been on the table in negotiations between the UK and Libya over, among other things, oil supply, raising suspicions in some quarters that the British government had put pressure on the Scottish government to release him; meanwhile the British government, aware that public opinion largely condemned the release, tried hard to give the impression that it disapproved of the Scottish decision by condemning the Libyan reaction and refusing to endorse the release. Yesterday, however, the Scottish government released documents that included a report by a Libyan diplomat who claimed to have been told on an earlier occasion by a foreign office minister, Bill Rammell, that "neither the prime minister not the foreign secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of the Scottish ministers"; Mr Rammell more or less confirmed the report, saying, "I was responding to a specific concern that the Libyans put to me that they didn't wish Al Megrahi to die in prison. In response to that in a conversation with my counterpart, I made clear that we were not actively seeking his death in prison but we emphatically, and this is what I said to him at the time, we emphatically would not intervene and it was a matter for Scottish ministers."

So what did Mr Miliband say on the radio this morning? At first he repeated the established line: the Libyans were told that "we weren't actively seeking his death in jail", and that was the truth. After it was put to him again that Bill Rammell had told the Libyans that "neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary wanted al-Megrahi to die in a Scottish prison", Mr Miliband said, "To be absolutely precise, he was asked whether or not the prime minister and foreign secretary wanted him to die in a Scottish prison and he answered no, we didn't want him to die in a Scottish prison." ([3]) When asked whether Mr Rammell had been correct in saying that, he said, "We did notwant him to die in prison, no, we weren't seeking his death in prison". At this the interviewer crowed, "At last, we have that admission that you didn't want him to die in prison" and later repeated, "You have now expressed the view that the British government did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison", but on neither occasion did Mr Miliband reply with a simple affirmative; and when, later, the interviewer insisted that he had just admitted that the British government had had a view about Megrahi's release even though it "had said that it didn't have a view", Mr Miliband avoided accepting that suggestion. Why? What's going on here?

Mr Miliband was, I suggest, in a linguistic trap. The English sentence "I do not want X to happen" can mean either "I have a positive desire that X not happen" or merely "I have no positive desire that X happen". The former necessarily implies "I have a corresponding aversion to the possibility of X happening"; the latter does not necessarily exclude such an aversion but more naturally implies "I am neutral about the possibility of X happening". And, crucially, these two meanings are equally natural and legitimate interpretations of the bald statement "I do not want X to occur", absent any external indication supporting one over the other.

In this particular case, there is clearly a massive difference. One sounds rather like "The British government positively wants Megrahi to be free. We pity him and perhaps even harbour suspicions that he is innocent. We do not care about the emotional trauma of the victims' families, but we are very keen to stay on the good side of our principal ally in the Arab world, notwithstanding that Colonel Gaddafi is a ruthless despot, and we would very much like some cheap oil please". The other is nothing more pernicious than "The British government has no preference about the issue. Of course we are humane and civilized people who take no pleasure in the thought of a man dying a painful death far from his home and family, but we carefully observe constitutional propriety by expressing no firm view about what is properly a matter for the Scottish government". When journalists read (and it is significant that they read it, not heard it) the papers released by the Scottish government reporting Bill Rammell as saying that "neither the prime minister not the foreign secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison", they almost universally interpreted it as the former: they do not want Mr Megrahi to die in prison, i.e. they want him not to die in prison. This, of course, is what the British government wants to deny; but how, without engaging in the sort of linguistic analysis I've just done, was the Foreign Secretary to deny that he wanted Megrahi not to die in prison when he was obliged to admit that he did not want Megrahi to die in prison?

He made a reasonably good attempt. First he tried the formula "we weren't actively seeking his death in jail", but this didn't wash, and rightly so, because it doesn't in fact amount to a denial of either interpretation: one can positively desire something without actively seeking it. Then, rejecting the suggestion that Mr Rammell had said "neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary wanted al-Megrahi to die in a Scottish prison", he rephrased that statement as a question and an answer: "[Did] the prime minister and foreign secretary [want] him to die in a Scottish prison?" "No." This is better, because when someone asks, "Do you want X to die?" the natural interpretation of the question is, "Do you positively desire X's death?", and therefore to answer "no" is to say, "I have no positive desire for X's death" without necessarily saying, "I positively want X to live". Moreover, he added important emphasis: "[Did] the prime minister and foreign secretary [want] him to die in a Scottish prison?" "No, we didn't want him to die in prison." The stress on "want" would have made clear to most listeners, in a neutral context, that he meant "we had no positive desire that he die in prison, but that isn't to say we particularly wanted him to be released either". But the interviewer, intent on his purpose, ignored these signals and redistributed the emphasis: "You have now expressed the view that the British government did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison" - which is, of course, exactly what Mr Miliband had been trying not to say.

The interview has a circular aspect. If you begin, as did the foreign secretary, from the premise that the British government had no say in whether Mr Megrahi died in prison or not, then it is perfectly conceivable that the question "Do you want him to die in prison?" should elicit a response "No we don't want him to die in prison" without that response carrying any necessary implication of wanting him to be freed. If, however, you imagine a scenario in which the British government has the power to decide whether to release Megrahi or not, the question "Do you want him to die in prison?" becomes one to which the answer "No" means that he will surely be released. If I say, "Would you like to give me an ice-cream?", your answer "Yes" or "No" has very different implications depending on whether you are at that precise moment holding an ice-cream in your hands.

It's interesting to note how David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, dealt with the issue when he was interviewed later on the same programme ([4]). He said that it wasn't sensible for Mr Rammell to say what he said to the Libyans, and restated his well-known position that Mr Megrahi should not have been released: no surprise. But then the interviewer asked whether, if he had been meeting the Libyans on behalf of the British government and he had been asked the same question that Mr Rammell was, he would have said, "We want him to die in jail". Mr Cameron gave an irrelevant non-answer. The interviewer tried again: "If you were prime minister... you would authorize a foreign office minister to go to Libya and in answer to that question to say, 'Yes, we want him to die in jail'?" Another non-answer. "So he should have said, in your view, that they wanted Megrahi to die in jail? Is that your position?" Semi-answer: "I thought any release on compassionate grounds was wrong." "You would have authorized a minister to say, 'Yes, we do want him to die in jail'?" "We want him to serve his sentence." In fact Mr Cameron was more reluctant to say "I wanted him to die in jail" than Mr Miliband was to say "I did not want him to die in jail". Yet there's no linguistic ambiguity with the former as there is with the latter: if you want someone to die in jail, then you want him to die in jail. It can't mean that maybe you just don't mind whether he dies in jail or not: you have a positive desire that he die in jail. But Mr Cameron's problem is that he, like Mr Miliband, is a humane and civilized person who flinches at the idea of cold-bloodedly wishing a miserable and lonely death on another human being. If he had been in that meeting with the Libyan diplomat, and if he had there been asked "Do you want Megrahi to die in jail?", and if he had not then had the presence of mind in that private meeting (as he had when giving a prepared interview on Radio 4 that he knows is being listened to and scrutinized) to dodge the question, you can be pretty sure he would have said "No". Because for a humane and civilized person with no personal involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, the only possible answer is "No, I do not want him to die in jail." But that answer is not "No, I want him to be freed and to go home to Libya and be greeted with celebrations that insult the memory of the people he was convicted of killing"; it's simply "No, I have no desire for him to die in jail or anywhere else".

No, David Cameron doesn't want Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to die in a Scottish prison. Bill Remmell doesn't want him to die in a Scottish prison. David Miliband doesn't want him to die in a Scottish prison. Gordon Brown doesn't want him to die in a Scottish prison. Nobody, except some of the relatives of the victims of Lockerbie, whose vengeful feelings one can readily understand and forgive, wants him to die in a Scottish prison. But nor can anybody say so, because the English language, as it appears on the printed page without the marking of emphasis, makes "I do not want him to die in a Scottish prison" indistinguishable from "I want him not to die in a Scottish prison", and a combination of public opinion and a scandal-hungry press make that a statement that no politician can risk even appearing to utter.


[1] · All quotations are from the broadcast itself or from elsewhere on the BBC website.

[2] · It should be noted that other relatives supported the decision, citing a body of evidence that has accumulated since Megrahi's conviction that casts doubt on his guilt.

[3] · Underlining added by me to indicate, accurately in my view, the emphasis of the speakers. The audio clip of the interview can be heard, until it's taken down, on the BBC website.

[4] · Clip available, as long as it's up, on the BBC website.
Themes: Topical

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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 17:45 on 2009-09-03
So Jamie, have you stopped beating your wife?
Claire E Fitzgerald at 18:46 on 2009-09-03
This is really interesting. I've been intrigued by the linguistics of this case too, particularly in the sense in which it relates to the use of political euphemism and the language of human rights.

Do you think it's rellevant that the statement "Mr X died in jail" would have a very different meaning to a Libyan audience than a British one?

(I'm not saying for a moment that British people don't "die in jail" in the Libyan sense, especially if they're young black men; but when they do, we at least have inquests and candlelit vigils and angry letters to the press, all claiming that this is a perversion of British justice, which of course it is.) As I read your article, it all comes down to a question of whether our or not government's representative said that it wanted someone in its custody to die. Making a statement one way or the other would be a purely rhetorical act; it's technically possible that in our system the Scottish First Minister, the Home Secretary - even the entire nation as represented by the Queen in Parliament - actively did want Mereghi to die, but couldn't legally do anything about it. Not so in Libya, where a statement by a government representative is more than enough to condemn a prisoner to death.
Shim at 08:31 on 2009-09-04
Yes, this is the kind of thing that infuriates me about the media and makes me faintly sorry for politicians. It also bolsters any case for stricter controls on the media.
Jamie Johnston at 16:32 on 2009-09-04
@ Shimmin -

Indeed, although I wouldn't want to seem too down on journalists as against politicians. On the whole they both connive in, and are victims of, a culture of reporting political news that puts accuracy and context further down the list of priorities than they ought to be. A politician comes into an interview expecting the journalist to use the interview as an opportunity to trick her into saying something she shouldn't, and so she ignores the questions and simply recites statements she's prepared earlier. A journalist comes into an interview expecting the politician to use the interview as an opportunity to recite statements she's prepared earlier, so he ignores what she wants to say and tries to trick her into departing from her script. I find it hard to say who's behaving better. Then we compare a media culture like that of France, which allows interviewees to speak uninterrupted for minutes on end but does expect them to actually answer the question at some point, and we find the suspicion that French politicians get away with a lot more than British ones.

I find myself wishing for a media equivalent of the scene I see often in court, where the barristers for prosecution and defence have a two-minute conversation before the hearing begins and agree that points W and X are not actually in dispute and point Y is irrelevant, so the only point they need to argue in front of the judge is Z. But they have the security of knowing that they alone decide what happens in that hearing and how points W, X, Y, and Z get dealt with in front of a qualified and experienced judge who trusts them to make those decisions professionally and ethically. Our journalist, by contrast, is competing with umpteen other journalists wanting to sell their own versions of the same story to a largely uninformed and distrustful public, and our politician is competing with umpteen other politicians wanting to get that largely uninformed and distrustful public to vote for their own policies on the same issue.

That said, some reporting is just plain sloppy and wrong. I happened to be in court for this preliminary hearing, and thus I happen to know that that seven-sentence report contains five statements that are simply untrue. [Sigh.]
Jamie Johnston at 16:43 on 2009-09-04
@ Claire -

That's a very good point. Especially since I imagine a large portion of the Libyan population thinks Megrahi is completely innocent, and not without some evidence to justify that belief: if they, living in a country in which innocent people are often convicted, have some reason for thinking that the UK has convicted this innocent man, that's all the more reason why they, living in a country in which convicts are often killed in custody, might fear that the UK would kill this man in custody.

In fact, looking at it from the Libyan side, I strongly suspect that the whole "die in jail" discussion in the British media is completely missing the point of the question to which Bill Rammell gave that much-scrutinized reply. Rammell was having that conversation before the idea of compassionate release had really arisen: what both the British government and the Libyan government had in mind at that stage was the possibility of including Megrahi in the established prisoner-transfer scheme, which would have meant that he would not be released but would merely be sent to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya rather than in Scotland. In that context, I think it's pretty clear that what the Libyan diplomat was asking was not "Do you want him to die in a Scottish prison [or not]?" but "do you want him to die in a Scottish prison [rather than a Libyan one]?"
Jamie Johnston at 16:45 on 2009-09-04
@ Dan -

I'm glad you asked me that, because it gives me an opportunity to make platitudinous remarks about how unacceptable wife-beating is, to say very firmly that we have all fallen short of the standards people have a right to expect, and to call for an independent public inquiry into the whole question of wives and beatings.
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