Swiss B&B refuses to let a gay couple stay

March 22, 2010, 2 Comments

What a difference a verb makes! There was a story on BBC Online yesterday about a gay couple who had booked a room at the Swiss B&B in Cookham, Berks, only to be turned away because the Christian owner said it was against her beliefs to have two men in one bed in her house. This is how the BBC reported it:

A gay couple were turned away from a Berkshire guest house by the owner who said it was “against her convictions” for two men to share a bed.

Simple enough. But reading the online papers today, you could easily think that there is some doubt about what happened in deepest, darkest Berkshire. And all because a different verb changes the emphasis away from fact. Much of the press uses the Press Association‘s phrasing: ‘A gay couple have claimed they were turned away from a bed & breakfast because the owner said it was “against her convictions” to allow them to share a bed.’ For more examples, see Channel 4 NewsThe Scotsman and the Daily Mirror.

It’s much the same, but in the present tense, at the Daily Mail: ‘A gay couple claim they were turned away from a bed and breakfast because the owner said it was ‘against her convictions’ for them to share a bed.’ The Sun uses the same line, but under the headline “Gay pair ‘banned’ from stay at B&B”.

Only the Guardian Online matches the BBC by using a definite verb, and giving the real story: A gay couple were turned away from a bed and breakfast by its Christian owner who claimed it was against her convictions for two men to share a bed.

Strangely enough, all the reports then go on to make it clear that there is no doubt Mrs Wilkinson, the B&B’s owner, turned the men away because they are gay, which incidentally is against the law in Britain.

My dictionary defines ‘claim’ as to allege or assert, which to my mind makes it seem as if the men were making it up. It brings doubt into the reader’s mind as to what actually happened, casting the two victims as the bad guys; a case of their word against hers. There’s nothing more damning than using the word claim – she claimed she was attacked, he claimed he was innocent. Why use it in this case? Maybe because the men are gay and so therefore more likely to feel persecuted?

The B&B in question, where apparently ‘a warm and friendly welcome await all guests’ (they might want to change that wording), is run by a Swiss-English family, hence the name The Swiss B&B. So it won’t be long before the Swiss press pick up on the story. Will their reporting of the incident be any fairer? I hope so. After all Switzerland was the first country in the world where gay civil partnerships were legalised as the result of a popular vote in a referendum, not through parliament.

As for the Cookham village website forum, this story is a much discussed topic, along with why is the Marsh Meadow so scruffy at the moment. Thankfully most of the good denizens of Cookham seem to disagree with the B&B’s decision. I wouldn’t like to be Mrs Wilkinson when she pops into the village shop this morning – she certainly has put the ‘berk’ into Berkshire.

PS You may have noticed that my headline implies that it’s a B&B in Switzerland that is being bigoted. Technically the headline is correct, as it is The Swiss B&B, though you don’t realise it’s in England until later. Given that the press can’t even get a verb right, why should I bother with details like geographical accuracy in headlines?

2 Comments on "Swiss B&B refuses to let a gay couple stay"

  1. swisswatching Monday March 22nd, 2010 at 11:33 AM · Reply

    In all the fuss about the men being gay and ‘claiming’ to have been spurned by bigots, it’s easy to over look a simple point of grammar: does ‘a couple’ take a singular or plural verb?
    Most reports give it a plural (‘a gay couple have claimed’) but the Telegraph goes for claim in the singular (‘a gay couple has claimed’). The Economist Style Guide says “in general, treat both a pair and a couple as plural.” So plural it is (or are).
    Personally I don’t mind – I’d accept both singular or plural if all the papers would stop using the verb claim.

  2. Paul Janes Saturday May 19th, 2012 at 09:23 PM · Reply

    I agree completely with what you say Diccon. “Claim” always has negative connotations associated with it, like in rape where they do not believe the witness. Either they should verify what happened and print the story without the use of the word claim or they should decide they are not sure enough whether it happened to print it and omit the story. I can only guess it is some lame attempt to avoid the risk of being sued and that they use it often in their stories without thinking.

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