We are British: Banal Nationalism in UK News

We live in an era of nation-states. We may not know other people from our nation, but we feel that we belong to the same group. How could this happen? Drawing from Billig’s banal nationalism theory (1995), this paper will explore how news outlets construct the sense of belonging as a nation. Taking the ITV Evening News bulletin, a UK commercial, on 7 November 2021 as the object of analysis, this essay argues that the ITV used banal nationalism to remind the British audience that they belong to the UK. This article will start by explaining the banal nationalism theory. It then explores some parts of the ITV Evening News and discusses how they create the imagined community.

Billig started his theory from a question, “why do ‘we’, in established, democratic nations, not forget ‘our’ national identity? (Billig, 1995, p. 2)”. He argued that ‘we’ are regularly reminded that ‘we’ live in nations (Billig, 1995, p. 2). The process of embedding the sense of nationalism is called banal nationalism. This process is often overlooked because it reminds ‘us’ of our nations through daily language that we take for granted (Billig, 1995). Who reproduced banal nationalism? Billig first explored how the nation-state established the grounding for political discourse. Consequently, politicians always try to represent the nation by speaking for them and speaking to the people. In this process of representation, political discourse will usually evoke national identity. Nonetheless, political discourse is not enough to maintain national identity. Billig mentioned that it is unlikely that banal nationalism relies upon politicians when many people are skeptical about them. Thus, Billig demonstrated that mass media are influential actors by bringing flags to every home (Billig, 1995, p. 2). In doing so, the newspapers utilise deixis language. The use of deictic words means an agreement of context between the speaker and the audience. There are some forms of deictic words, which are personal pronouns (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’), an indication of time and place (‘here’, ‘now’), demonstrative (‘this’, ‘those’) (Fowler, 1991, cited in Dekavalla, 2010, p. 640). Billig (1995, p.11) also mentioned how a definite article like ‘the’ could be a powerful deixis. These words are straightforward and are used widely in our daily lives; thus, banal nationalism is often unnoticed.

Based on the banal nationalism theory, this paper will examine ITV Evening News on 7 November 2021. In the beginning, the news presented a short introduction of some news. The first news is regarding Travis Scott’s concert tragedy. It is plausible that Travis Scott’s news became the first to be presented because it has gone viral these days. In addition, ITV stated that the event was taking place in Texas, thus telling the audience that the event was outside the UK. Second, Labour branded the Prime Minister ‘corrupt’ over the sleaze row to protect a senior Tory (ITV Evening News, 2021). ITV used the term Labour and the Prime Minister. Of course, there are many Labour parties and prime ministers globally, but ITV did not give any additional information. In this case, the definite article accomplishes the deixis, assuming that the news presenter and the audience have a shared understanding of ‘particular’ Labour and prime minister. Third, fresh calls for more people to get their COVID booster jab to avoid a crisis over Christmas (ITV Evening News, 2021). This statement only mentioned ‘more people’, which means that the call is addressed for ‘British people’ only, considering that ITV is transmitted in the UK. Fourth, West Ham put three past Liverpool (ITV Evening News, 2021). Even though the sports news was not about the UK versus the ‘other’, the display of sports news in the introduction confirms Billig’s (1995) points regarding the importance of sports news. Last, three out of four news in the introduction is national news, flagging nationhood by implying that national news is more important than international news.

Throughout the 15 minutes news broadcast, ITV used a large number of deictic words. For example, during Boris Johnson’s news, there are definite articles such as The Government, The Conservatives, The House of Commons, and Downing Street. The latter, which is the house of ‘the’ Prime Minister, has a precise meaning that could only be familiar to people in the place of utterance. Furthermore, in the news regarding COP 26, an international event, ITV placed a British point of view by only citing the prime minister’s speech. Boris Johnson said ‘officials and negotiators should ‘pull together and drive for the line’ and ‘countries have got to be ready to make bold compromises and ambitious commitments’ (ITV Evening News, 2021). It paints Britain’s active role and position in COP 26, flagging the nation to the British audiences concerning the other nations. Moreover, in the news that calls for more people to get a COVID booster jab, the presenter started with, “Christmas is coming, and with it the worry. Will we be able to celebrate as normal?” (ITV Evening News, 2021). This sentence used ‘we’, addressing the British people. Thus, it evokes a feeling that celebrating Christmas is part of ‘our’ identity as British. In addition, a ‘normal’ Christmas celebration also reminds the British of their pre-Covid Christmas tradition. Last, in the news about attempted assassination against the Iraqi prime minister, ITV again drew the line that the event occurred outside the UK. They mentioned that “Troops have been deployed onto the streets of the Iraqi capital Baghdad’ (ITV Evening News, 2021). Additionally, it never said ‘the Prime Minister’. Instead, they used ‘Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’, ‘Al-Kadhimi’, and ‘Iraqi president’. By doing so, ITV gave a context to the audience that it is the ‘other’ prime minister.

In conclusion, the sense of belonging as a nation is constructed through our daily language; thus, we are often unaware of it. As noted by Billig (1995), media plays a crucial role in flagging nationhood, especially using deictic words. This paper finds that ITV Evening News used many kinds of deictic words that remind their audience, British people, of their country. In addition, ITV Evening News also referred to specific things that only British people could relate to it.

Bibliography

Billig, M. (1995) ‘Flagging the homeland daily’ in Billig, M. (ed.) Banal nationalism. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 2–18.

Dekavella, M. (2010) ‘Tax, war and waiting lists: The construction of national identity in newspaper coverage of general elections after devolution’, Discourse & Society, 21 (6), p. 640. doi: 10.1177/0957926510381222.

ITV Evening News (2001) ITV, 7 November, 18:30.

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Sayyid AM

Sayyid AM

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International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada