The Unspoken ‘Wog’ Slur, by Gavin Lewis

In 2005 rioting and racial attacks broke out in Cronulla, a beachside suburb of Sydney. Many of the assailants had daubed banners and even their bodies with the sentiment ‘wogs out’.1 The targets of their attacks were Lebanese Australians. The absurdity of this abuse was that ‘wog’ is an abbreviation of ‘golliwog’, an infantilised representation of Black African diasporic identity in doll form. Despite the seemingly ethnic-specific nature of this abusive caricature, the interchangeable ubiquity of the ‘wog’ slur has been Britain’s gift to its empire. Historically, it was targeted at the African diaspora, including Caribbeans. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) uses it to refer to Arab Middle Easterners in, for example, the infamous ‘You filthy little wog’ scene.2 As Spike Milligan’s comedy oeuvre demonstrated, it was commonly applied to the inhabitants of the Asian subcontinent and the British Far East.3 It was even applied to Mediterraneans like the Maltese and Cypriots.4

The 2005 Cronulla riots.
A golliwog doll.
‘You filthy little wog!’ – scene from Lawrence of Arabia.

The British at times deemed it necessary to exterminate Indigenous populations.5 Supporting this process, a eugenics-based language of sub-humanity was applied to victims. Ideologically, a presumed English/Western European ‘normality’ was juxtaposed against a monolithic view of an amorphous inferior racial otherness. Given the supposed unknowability attributed to such ethnic otherness, imperialist ideology often leads to conspiracy theories about other groups—a form of racism brought back to Western societies. Even the Cronulla violence was oriented around a ‘Lebos plan to take our beach’ narrative. Both Western-superiority and ethnic-conspiracy tropes have justified the politics of imperial domination. 

With this racist template in mind we might recall the recent history of British/Western imperialism, its media representation and its narratives of justification.

On 11 September 2001 prominent US sites were attacked by fifteen Saudi Arabians, two people from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. The ideology of the attackers and their supporters was Saudi Arabian Sunni Wahhabism. Most of the attackers were Saudis and there are unresolved allegations that the financing of the operation also came out of that country. A plausible reaction would have been a criminal investigation into Saudi links, and the arrest of those who had aided and abetted these actions. What we got instead in Britain, led by Tony Blair, was a universal Islamic-conspiracy theory, which Blair repeatedly marketed under the labels ‘radical Islam’ or ‘militant Islam’—a culture supposedly crossing global Sunni, Shia and Alawite Ahmadiyya demographics—homogenising peoples separated by Arabic, Pashto, Urdu and many other languages.6 However, by riding public anger, Blair and those he was supporting were able to provoke a desire for global collective punishment in support of a new era of Western imperialism. Since that time secular, largely Shia Iraq has been conquered, letting actual revengeful fundamentalist jihadist groups into the country, and beyond.

In the years following the conquest, Iraq became the second-largest source of global oil supply7 and supplanted Nigeria8 as the fifth-biggest source of crude oil processed in US refineries, a story largely suppressed in the British media.9 The oil-rich Iranian Shia theocratic regime has also repeatedly been subjected to military threats, usually accompanied by a military build-up in its neighbour, strategically positioned Afghanistan. The United States has put its armed forces into secular, largely Shia-dominated but mixed-ethnic Syria, while funding in that country the Islamic fundamentalist groups it claims to despise. And there has also been the conquest and infrastructural destruction of largely Berber-dominated Libya. Most of these countries are not only oil rich but were Russia aligned, due to proximity to that country’s southern border.

Ironically, the one country left out of this brutality has been US ally and source of the 9/11 bombers Sunni Wahhabist–dominated Saudi Arabia. In fact the Saudis have even been given an ideological free pass for a brutal proxy military campaign in Yemen.

Where have the media been?

At the forefront of the British media pushing an ideology of what David Harvey calls New Imperialism is the BBC’s global News channel. If victims of the British Empire were largely unimportant due to their less-than-human status, similarly BBC News 24 has been happy to follow the United States in not referring to civilian deaths caused by Western forces. In the years following 9/11 there was little or no mention of the studies establishing that over a million people died in Iraq alone.10

Bizarrely, given Britain’s history, even the term ‘imperialism’ is largely absent from BBC News’ vocabulary. In the summer of 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May admitted on behalf of the British government that torture had occurred under the Blair regime and publicly apologised and compensated victims—Fatima Boudchar had actually been pregnant when she was kidnapped along with her husband for rendition to then-aligned Libya.11 May’s admission was quickly followed by two reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament naming numerous cases where British security personnel had been present during torture. It was demanded that a further, fuller investigation take place.12

However, not only did BBC News play down these admissions but within weeks it hosted—in an act of ‘balance’?—former Labour minister Margaret Hodge alleging that the present (anti-war) Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was an anti-Semite because of his position on settler-colonial Israel.13 This was followed by a similar appearance by her colleague Frank Field.14 What is significant is that by long-established convention these former ministers shared cabinet responsibility15 for this torture and yet they were not subjected to any BBC questioning that referenced the phenomenon, let alone any commentary critical of it. In the autumn immediately following, Blair appeared on the BBC’s flagship news-interview vehicle, The Andrew Marr Show. Here Blair was given a platform as, apparently, respected elder statesman to talk about Brexit and Britain’s future, without any reference to his responsibility for mass civilian deaths of people of colour, and accompanying human rights offences. Blair has consistently been offered the same BBC News soft public-relations appearance opportunities—even after the release of the Chilcot report (on the circumstances leading to Britain’s entry into the Iraq war)—by the corporation’s then chief political editor and now news presenter Nick Robinson.16 It hardly needs to be pointed out that if—instead of being responsible for Iraqi dead—Blair had played a part in the killing of a million white Israeli settlers in the former Palestine, spoon-feeding him soft public-relations opportunities would not have been tolerated. 

Not only have victims of the New Imperialism been subjected to racist double standards on the comparative value of human life and absented from coverage but also these double standards have extended to who is doing the killing. As part of the new ‘nation building’ variant of the traditional Western ‘civilising the savage’ narrative, the BBC led Western outrage after the Taliban shot young Malala Yousafzai. By contrast, the BBC didn’t allow any prominent coverage of the many Afghan protests about the repeated killing of local children by the occupying Western military coalition. These protests eventually reached such a pitch that after a 2011 incident in which nine children were bombed and killed even Western satrap President Karzai was forced to publicly embarrass General Petraeus, stating ‘On behalf of the people of Afghanistan I want you to stop the killings of civilians’ and saying that the subsequent apology was ‘not enough’.17 When Yousafzai was rewarded with a Nobel Prize and a day of celebration the BBC also excluded a public-relations response from Adnan Rasheed, apparently representing the Taliban, who rhetorically asked Yousafzai in shaky translated English:

…if you were shot but [by] Americans in a drone attack, would world have ever heard updates on your medical status? Would you be called ‘daughter of the nation’? Would the media make a fuss about you? Would General Kiyani have come to visit you and would the world media be constantly reporting on you?… Would a Malala day be announced?… More than 300 innocent women and children have been killed in drones attacks but who cares… [exact numbers unverified].18

Whatever you think of the Taliban it says something about the brutal lived reality in Afghanistan and Pakistan that this message was expected to resonate in the region. In a similar hypocrisy, it is largely considered taboo in the British media to imply a direct link between the astonishing rate of birth defects among the Iraqi population and Western use of depleted-uranium ammunition in the Iraq conquest. The numerous child victims of Western violence in Iraq, such as twelve-year-old Ali Abbass—who lost his arms and most of his extended family to Western bombing—are typically treated as individual tragedies rather than systemic manifestations of oppression or criminality.19 Certainly the question ‘who is the guilty party?’ is never asked. For example, and in stark contradiction to Vietnam War–era reportage standards, after the reprisal killing of soldier Lee Rigby, which once again perpetrators cited as a revenge response to the killing of civilians in Muslim homelands, no British media coverage explored the causalities he or his regiment—the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—generated during their deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These power politics based in Black lives don’t matter’–type racial hierarchies—establishing whose lives count and whose don’t—structure media coverage of other events as well. For example, the BBC led much of the corporate media in splashing a story about pro-Israel protests taking place outside Labour headquarters on 4 September 2018. Independent sources and stock-photo-library material available for media access indicate that only ten pro-Israel protesters were present.20 By contrast, the presence of hundreds of protesters at a posthumous vigil for Black youth Mark Duggan, killed by police, was buried in BBC online reports and never equivalently highlighted or headlined in BBC News 24 coverage.21 Similarly, after the death of another Black youth, Rashan Charles, at the hands of police, hundreds protested and rioted in Hackney, only to have their actions buried: there was no BBC News coverage, with the incident again ghettoised on the BBC website.22

Pro-Israel protesters in London, 4 September 2018.

When in 2017 Paris was shaken by demonstrations and riots protesting that a Muslim man had been anally raped by a policeman using a baton, it took BBC 24 ten days to acknowledge the riots, even then refusing to report the specifics of the ‘penetration’ allegation. Instead, on its website, it offered the single sentence, ‘Violence has broken out at a protest in Paris in support of a young black man who was allegedly assaulted by police’.23 Similarly, since autumn 2016 BBC News reports—unlike their infrequent face-to-face current-affairs interviews—have stopped referring to Black Lives Matter as a movement; instead, when visual material dictates, they suggest that protesters are simply carrying Black Lives Matter placards. Ironically, the BBC, like much of the UK corporate media, blames rising racism on Brexit.

By throwing its weight behind the New Imperialism the BBC has also had to reboot and re-inscribe Britain’s own history of foreign conquest. The recent BBC Four television series British Empire: Heroes and Villains is a case in point. As if criticising empire were somehow questionable, the series was described thus in the corporation’s Radio Times magazine: ‘Less than 100 years ago, the British ruled a quarter of the planet, and people were proud to call themselves imperialists. But now, to many, that seems like a badge of shame’.24 The program’s format consists of revisiting past coverage of Empire with the help of talking heads, largely right-wing MPs who cite part-time interests as ‘historians’. Non-establishment, non-media-bubble data and also British and foreign historians critical of Empire are not consulted. Absented are histories of colonial holocausts in India, such as are described in Amaresh Misra’s War of Civilisations: India AD 1857 (2007) and Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (2016). The latter cites ‘35 million’ deaths as attributable to the Raj. The extent of British torture in Kenya, cited by Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag (2005), is also absent. And the influence of eugenics is treated as marginal. All of this fits into a broader BBC editorial strategy where occasional individual aberrant or compartmentalised historical racisms are strategically conceded—mostly on its arts channel—while systemic oppression goes unacknowledged.25

No doubt the popular myth of BBC impartiality does not sit well with imperialist ideology. We should note, however, that in 2014 former BBC World Service director Peter Horrocks publicly demanded more funds for the BBC to fight a ‘global “information war” with the Kremlin’, seeing it as ‘like military spending’.26 Introducing the BBC’s Future of News report, James Harding similarly referred to the need to ‘grow’ the BBC as a tool of Britain’s ‘soft power’.27 Following the report, BBC Director-General Tony Hall made much the same argument for BBC territorial interventions in Russian and North Korean culture.28 Editorially the BBC has now moved so far to the Right that its attitude towards the sanctity of national sovereignty is extreme even by the standards of Margaret Thatcher, who berated Ronald Reagan for the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.29 Indicative of how far the neoliberal media have degenerated, in December 2018 global BBC News 24 presenters complained that Donald Trump had ‘without consent or consultation’ ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria—despite the fact they’d never had UN or local governmental permission to be there in the first place.

In the postwar era, Western decolonisation was the norm. Popular culture included the anti-war lyrics of John Lennon and the Star Trek sci-fi imaginings of a universe where a Prime Directive prohibited interference in the natural evolution of other cultures. We now have white Western cultural elites claiming the right to violently determine what governments people of colour should be permitted to have. Promoters of this agenda like Andrew Marr, Robinson, the BBC editorial team and even Blair are not so careless as to admit to a ‘wog lives don’t count’ ideology. But their structural sensibilities are housed in implicit racist binaries. ‘Enlightened’ liberal self-satisfaction and performative middle-class mannerisms may well be more dangerous to people of colour than the views of petit-fascists like former English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson or British National Party leader Nick Griffin. We can’t discount the possibility that those sensibilities could result in more deaths and torture in the future and, worryingly, even an ideological successor to Blair.


1 <>

2 See <>

There is also a rhyming sequence to this where the character of Lawrence in native Arab attire ironically states to members of a British officers mess, ‘We’ve taken Aqaba… The wogs have. We have’.

3 Reviewing some of Milligan’s work, BFI Screen Online noted, ‘It is the casual abandon with which words like ‘wog’, ‘coon’ and ‘Paki’ are endlessly repeated by the characters that is most worrying’: <>. A retrospective in the Scotsman noted: ‘It was hard to say whether the use of the word “wogs” was mischievous, malevolent or the product of a colonial upbringing’:


4 For example, the British government has just paid £1 million in compensation to Cypriots claiming historical torture and rape under British Empire rule. Indicative of both the second-class status of Mediterraneans and the BBC propaganda agenda, this potentially leading news item was buried on the BBC website:


5 Mike Davis cites ‘colonial genocide’ in his book Late Victorian Holocausts (2000). Cited later in this article are Amaresh Misra’s War of Civilisations: India AD 1857 (2007) and Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (2016). Historian Mark Curtis has argued that since the Second World War Britain has been responsible for 10 million deaths and that his position on this has seen him excluded from BBC current-affairs coverage. Here he is interviewed on Russia’s RT channel:


6 The most glaring example of this ethnic conspiracy theory was the inference that Shia Iranians could be in league with Saudi Arabian Sunni Wahhabists, despite the fact that the countries and their cultures are separated by sectarian and territorial rivalries.

7 <>, accessed 1 November 2016.

8 <>, accessed 1 November 2016.

9 This level of exploitation of Iraqi oil would obviously be hard to reconcile with the fact that, long after the war, the country still has large areas without regular electricity and running water. See

<>; <>

10 By comparison, two million dead are reported in The Nation <>; Reuters has covered in detail the Opinion Research Business (ORB) study:; see revised ORB study at <>

11 <>

12 <>

13 <>

14 <>

15 Collective cabinet responsibility is a longstanding convention in the British parliamentary system and even has its own Wikipedia page. It also features in those countries whose parliamentary system is based on the British model, for example Australia, Canada. In essence it means that all cabinet members are responsible for all the successful policies of government and all of its reprehensible practices, too. Cabinet members usually resign if they disagree or depart from any part of the collective program. <>

16 < &>

17 <>

18 <>; <>

19 ‘“There are hundreds of children suffering like him, and we are getting more every day”, said Moufak Gabriel, the hospital director.’ <>

20 <>; see also an independent source, <>, and BBC coverage <>

21 <>

22 <>; <>

23 <>

24 <–s3-e4-british-empire-heroes-and-villains—a-timewatch-guide/>

25 The homepage summary for the BBC’s show British Empire: Heroes and Villains reveals how this agenda is carefully managed: ‘David Olusoga examines not whether the British Empire was a force for good or ill but rather how it has been portrayed on British television over the last 70 years’. <>

26 Guardian, 21 December 2014: <BBC World Service Fears Losing Information War as Russia Today Ramps Up Pressure>

27 BBC Media Center, 28 January 2015: <Speech by James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, to Launch Future of News Report>

28 Guardian, 4 September 2015: <BBC Plans TV and Radio Services for Russia and North Korea>

29 Thatcher was reputedly angered or embarrassed by the US invasion of Grenada: <>; <>

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.

More articles by Gavin Lewis

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