The problem of ambiguity



On The Guardian homepage this morning (28th June 2019), there’s a headline claiming that ‘Britain’s disappeared’. The feature is illustrated by a mass of shadowy refugees, cloaked in darkness, queuing and moving towards the reader. So far, so Farage. Remember when the newt-faced fascist stood in front of this ‘BREAKING POINT’ poster?  Yeah. The less said about that, the better.The Guardian’s illustration, by the talented Jeffrey Thompson, clearly references the image from Farage’s billboard, which can be considered deliberately ironic when you finally unpick the accompanying headline.It's not clear, you see.  The job of a sub-editor involves creating appropriate headlines for stories, and it’s a certainly fine art. However, they don’t always get it right. The lexical ambiguity of this headline when paired with a deliberately subversive picture provides the impression that the newspaper is taking an anti-migrant stance. So, what’s going on? 

‘Britain’s disappeared’

Screenshot 2019-06-28 at 09.05.59

Screenshot 2019-06-28 at 09.05.59

As a standalone phrase, the reader parses this as a sentence in the most obvious way. Our brains process language using the principle of Occam's razor (taking the simplest solution), so most people would read these words as ‘Britain has disappeared’. The implication, with the aid of the illustration, is that refugees are eroding Britain as we know it’.  It turns out, to my relief, that the Guardian subs actually intend their headline to mean ‘the disappeared people of Britain’. Whether this is a deliberate ambiguity to cause a double take, I don’t know, but in conjunction with an equally ambiguous illustration, it seems a bit heavy handed. The first impression it creates is of a negative position on immigration, and there’s enough of that rhetoric plastered everywhere without their extra contribution. The majority of readers will likely scroll past without reading in full, so the first impression remains the lasting impression: another passive little memo about the danger of taking in refugees.Here are some clearer headlines they could have used:

Our disappeared

Our missing hundreds

Britain’s failure to care

Where have they gone?

No refuge

 What do you think? How did you interpret the headline on first reading?

Becky KleanthousFreelancewriter and copywriter