When David Cameron stood at the Commons despatch box yesterday and dismissed those camped in Calais as a "bunch of migrants", debate over the rhetoric used to discuss people seeking sanctuary in Britain reached a peak.
Commentators - and indeed most of the public - are divided on whether Cameron's choice of words deliberately belittled the plight of migrants, which include hundreds of asylum seekers, or were simply a statement of fact.
'Refugee Action', a charity that supports those fleeing political persecution to Britain, said it was "disappointed" at the language employed, claiming the phrase lumped genuine refugees together with those simply migrating out of choice.
"Many in Calais are refugees. And all of them are human beings," the organisation wrote on Twitter.
— Refugee Action (@RefugeeAction) January 27, 2016ADVERTISEMENT
It was a sentiment echoed by parliamentarians, including MPs Ronnie Cowan and Diane Abbott, and Scottish Government minister for Europe Humza Yousaf.
David Cameron during PMQs refers to refugees in Calais fleeing war torn countries as "a bunch of migrants" . Completely out of touch.— Ronnie Cowan MP (@ronniecowan) January 27, 2016
Did PM really just refer to refugees as "a bunch of migrants"? How low can this PM go? Inflammatory language won't help anyone #PMQs— Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf) January 27, 2016
Many took issue with the comment seemingly devaluing the experiences of many who have travelled to Calais; some have lost whole families travelling by sea to Europe on ramshackle or overcrowded people-smuggling boats.
Owen Jones was among the crowd of people who thought the "bunch" remark did not do justice to the "misery few of us will ever suffer".
I went to Calais. I found misery few of us will ever suffer. Cameron calls them a "bunch of migrants". A disgrace. https://t.co/M25i4PKs4q— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) January 27, 2016
Other commentators disparaged the quip as having come just minutes after Cameron paid tribute to Jews across the world, marking Holocaust Memorial Day.
Bizarre that the same PM speaks in hushed tones of of Holocaust Memorial Day then 15 mins later dismisses 'a bunch of migrants'.— Miranda Green (@greenmiranda) January 27, 2016
"A bunch of migrants". His comment on the Holocaust are just lip-service to decency. You judge a man by how he talks about his own times.— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) January 27, 2016
Can think of better days to employ the phrase 'bunch of migrants' than #HolocaustMemorialDay.— James O'Brien (@mrjamesob) January 27, 2016
While BuzzFeed's Tom Chivers explained it was not the word but the sentiment and context surrounding it that enflamed people's tempers so greatly.
"Can we all agree that it's not the word "bunch" itself that makes Cameron's phrase unpleasant?" he wrote. "It's the whole sentence, and its context."
Can we all agree that it's not the word "bunch" itself that makes Cameron's phrase unpleasant? It's the whole sentence, and its context.— Tom Chivers (@TomChivers) January 27, 2016
Several prominent figures, Labour's Chuka Umunna among them, pointed out they thought the language was "unbecoming" of a prime minister.
The PM refers to "a bunch of migrants" in Calais at the Dispatch box just now. Inflammatory and unbecoming of his office. Shameful #PMQs— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) January 27, 2016
Cameron's "bunch of migrants" attack on desperate people in Calais is unworthy of a Prime Minister. Gutter politics #pmqs— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) January 27, 2016
But a hefty number of people took contention with any suggestion Cameron's comment was inflammatory or disparaging.
Julia Hartley-Brewer said she was "intrigued" why the term 'bunch' had been interpreted as a bad phrase.
I'm intrigued why "a bunch of migrants" is such a bad phrase. Don't we refer to "a bunch of" people all the time without it being an insult?— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) January 27, 2016
She proceeded to highlight several instances where the word had been used without causing a stir, including by Guardian columnist Jones, once the pair engaged in a heated exchange of messages.
@OwenJones84 "a bunch of people coming to dinner" or "a bunch of kids" or "a bunch of meat-eaters" (that last from Labour MP Kerry McCarthy)— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) January 27, 2016
@OwenJones84 I can't find a single dictionary definition of "bunch" which implies any negativity. Genuinely, I can't.— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) January 27, 2016
Others voiced their support, saying they saw no problem with Cameron's language.
I genuinely don't understand the problem with the phrase "bunch of migrants".— George (@George_ivil) January 27, 2016
I've just read the outrage over Cameron saying that Corbyn "met with a bunch of migrants". Where's the outrage? What if he said "group"?— Rincks (@RickHincks) January 28, 2016
One view that garnered significant support was that people seemed more offended by a phrase uttered in Prime Minister's Question than the "mass molesting" of women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.
(Police confirmed the perpetrators of sex attacks in Germany were "almost exclusively" of a migrant background, mainly North African and Arab.)
Regressive leftists are more offended about Cameron saying #BunchOfMigrants than they were about migrants mass molesting women in Cologne.— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) January 27, 2016
Katie Hopkins was also one of those to defend the Prime Minister, congratulating him for employing the phrase but agreeing it was "dismissive".
There was division, too, over whether Cameron had meant to speak as he had done.
The Huffington Post UK's executive editor for politics, Paul Waugh, claimed the line had been deliberately deployed and scripted in advance by the PMQs prep team.
The most notable thing was Cameron "bunch of migrants" line was not a slip of the tongue. It was a deliberate, scripted line— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) January 27, 2016
Those who agreed were left torn, though, over whether it had been engineered to ease pressure on the government over condemnation of its 'sweetheart deal' with Google to backpay 10 years of tax.
The technique of diverting attention away from one issue by presenting another is affectionately referred to as the "dead cat".
Suspect Cameron MAY apologise for 'bunch of migrants' comments. But with Google still prominent, could be 'dead cat on table' strategy— Ross McCafferty (@RossMcCaff) January 27, 2016
I'm not convinced the "bunch of migrants" was a dead cat strategy. I don't think Cameron gives a stuff how we react to it.— Conor Pope (@Conorpope) January 28, 2016
But Anna Soubry, the government's small business minister, played down any claims Cameron had rehearsed the line, saying she didn't believe them to be true.
"I would be amazed if that was a scripted line," she told BBC Radio 4's 'The World At One'.
"I don’t believe that for one moment. If anyone says that they are being silly."
Jeremy Corbyn, who was sparring with Cameron in the Commons when "bunch of migrants" was first uttered, has written to his opposite number saying the comment "demeans people’s suffering and demeans the office of Prime Minister".
Corbyn writes to Cameron: "I found it shameful that you referred to the people in those camps as 'a bunch of migrants'".— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) January 27, 2016
Leaving one journalist to ponder:
Corbyn has written to Cameron blasting his "bunch of migrants" comment. If only he'd had an opportunity to confront the PM in person.— Jamie Ross (@JamieRoss7) January 27, 2016
But regardless of whether Cameron's outburst on Wednesday was pre-mediated, numerous people have noticed a theme emerging in his language when it comes to describing migrants.
They took issue with the word "bunch" being used several months after the PM branded those trying to enter the UK a "swarm".
First "a swarm", next "a bunch of migrants". The language David Cameron uses to describe refugees is routinely dehumanising.— Elena Cresci (@elenacresci) January 27, 2016
Cameron - first the "swarm" comment about the Calais Jungle and now the "bunch of migrants" language today. DC has a problem with this.— alex thomson (@alextomo) January 27, 2016