Extremist rallies, far-right organised groups and racist dog-whistling have been regular features of the news over summer (and, well, for more than a year). But what looks like a clear-cut case of racism to some is often described in the news with vague terms: “protests”, “activists” or “extremist”.

And when a person is called racist, it’s often strongly refuted. Late last year, Sky News presenter Rowan Dean threatened legal action against anyone who suggested on social media he was racist, among other descriptors, after his co-host Ross Cameron was sacked for racist comments about Asian people.

And after Indigenous academic Marcia Langton made comments on the ABC’s Q&A in 2014 that commentator Andrew Bolt said implied he was racist, the program’s host Tony Jones and Langton herself apologised to Bolt — a man who has previously been found by a court to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act.

Minter Ellison senior associate Sam White, whose firm advises media outlets, including Crikey, on defamation and other legal matters, said that a reason journalists might avoid labelling someone “racist” is to avoid defamation action. “It’s clearly defamatory to call someone a racist,” he said. “And one of the first things that we look at when advising clients on defamation is, ‘can we prove this is true?’, and when you start getting into semi-abstract terms or terms open to interpretation, whether or not it is true becomes a bit blurred.”

White said that in order to prove someone was a racist in court, that person would need to have admitted, perhaps in the witness box, to holding racist beliefs. “It’s going to be difficult, if not extremely risky, to hang your hat on someone having a certain belief,” he said. “So if you use less forward language when talking about someone, you can rely on saying you never called that person a racist, and didn’t intend to call him a racist.”

And, he said, media outlets are less likely to take that risk in a time where defamation payouts and claims have skyrocketed. “There’s no doubt that the proliferation of defamation actions in Australia in recent times has had and continues to have a chilling effect on free speech in this country,” White said. “That’s, in a way, demonstrated by what appears to be media organisations’ unwillingness in certain circumstances to engage in a frank way on matters of public importance.”

Why do people get offended if you call them ‘racist’?

Monash University linguist Dr Howie Manns said that taboo words evolved over time, and were driven by socio-cultural changes. In the past, words associated with religion, and then words related to bodily parts and functions were considered most offensive. Now, words associated with people are touchiest.

“Taboos and taboo language evolve in societies, and in contemporary English-speaking societies, words associated with people happen to be the taboo of the early 21st century,” he said.

Another issue at play, Manns said, is that words “invoke narratives”, so while someone’s actions and words might fit a description of “racist”, the people involved sometimes don’t think it describes them.

“I think some people in these movements are avoiding these labels for obvious social reasons (for example, you can’t really be a racist and have a job in a mainstream organisation), but I think that some people in these movements generally don’t think that they are ‘Nazis’,” he said. “Ultimately, the narrative they’re creating for themselves is immediate and local, and unrelated to the deeper history of ‘Nazi’, so they perhaps might not see an issue with drawing on some of the linguistic or bodily iconography associated with it.”

Manns said that while the media might avoid calling people racist for defamation reasons, politicians tended to use slippery and more distant words like “racial” as a dog-whistling tactic. 

“The word ‘racial’ has largely dropped out of use, but in the last few decades was a more neutral way of describing relationships,” he said. “When Scott Morrison used it [regarding the St Kilda protests], it was either a mistake on his part in the use of the term or it’s a bit of a dog-whistling exercise. The truth is in the intent and only the user or the user’s handlers know that.”

Dog-whistling on law and order matters is not new, Manns says, and politicians did it to avoid alienating fringe voters. “The words we choose impact the way people understand our debates … The slipperiness of language among political types is nothing new but it seems to be a little slipperier and this is an interesting age in that way. Words in this battle for the truth seem to be getting a little slippery.”