I nearly choked on my cornflakes this morning while listening to the 7am news on BBC radio. During an item about the delayed start of the proposed ‘peace talks’ in Islamabad, the newsreader started a sentence with this phrase:
“A spokesperson for the Taliban said …”
Excuse me? A spokesperson? For the Taliban? We’re unclear about the gender of someone speaking on behalf of the Taliban?
Here are some phrases you could hear any day on the news, none of which would cause undue alarm: “A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth said …” or “A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said …” or perhaps “A spokesperson for Channel Four said …”
Not one of those phrases is in any way jarring, because each of those organisations might well have a 'spokesperson' who isn’t a man.
Perhaps someone on the BBC news team doesn’t know what the Taliban is, what it has done, what it stands for and what it would like to achieve. That would be pretty poor form for anyone working in news and current affairs; such poor form, in fact, that you’d have to imagine that anyone displaying such ignorance would be out of a job in no time at all.
You might think that I'm being a tad uncharitable by speculating that sheer ignorance might be responsible for the use of that phrase “A spokesperson for the Taliban".
That may be the case. But other, less charitable interpretations are available.