Australian Border Force, we need to talk. Not about your desire to check all of our papers, or your cowardice in the face of an inquiring media, or even about keeping desperate people in inhumane conditions indefinitely.

What’s got our goat today is that you have no idea how to use the word “allegedly”. In a very touchy press release yesterday, Immigration secretary Mike Pezzullo said:

“Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong — and yet they continue to be made in some quarters.”

Then everyone on social media lost their minds, rightly pointing out that saying the indifference to detention is similar to that “allegedly experienced” in Nazi Germany is to say that Border Force doubts that there was public indifference to the Holocaust. “Alleged” means “said without proof”, and putting it before “experienced” is to cast doubt on whether that was in fact the experience in Nazi Germany. But Border Force then issued another very touchy release, saying its use of the word “allegedly” had been wilfully misconstrued:

“Any insinuation the Department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless.

This has been wilfully taken out of context and reflects deliberate attempts to distort this opinion editorial to create controversy.”

The AP Style Manual makes the important point that it is not a journalist’s job to allege — allegations should have a source, e.g. “A crime police allege took place last night”. Using the word with no source makes it sound like you, Border Force, are dubious of the claimed experience in 1940s Germany. Not a good look.

We’ll leave you with final words of wisdom from beloved former Fairfax training editor Colin McKinnon: “Don’t sprinkle the word ‘allegedly’ around like holy water. It won’t save you.”

Peter Fray

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