BBC’s rigidity over ‘the T word’ is damaging its reputation
There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate over the BBC’s failure to call Hamas terrorists. But there appears to be more flexibility in the BBC’s impartiality rules than is being exercised.
When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When their activities, however unspeakable, are reported on the BBC.
Then, as we have been able to observe in Israel, those responsible become “attackers” or “gunmen” when they are not, as if by magic, turned into mere “militants.”
A quick unscientific study suggests that in current British broadcasting by far the most popular description for those who have gunned down hundreds of young people at a music festival, shot ordinary families in their bedrooms and even cut the throats of babies, is militants.
Naturally, such apparently arcane matters as terminology have led to an explosion of headlines condemning the BBC for being soft on Hamas.
“The King Calls Them Terrorists, Why Can’t The BBC” spluttered the Daily Mail, while The Sun enthusiastically reported Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declaring that “this was not a time for equivocation.”
Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath attacked “the BBC’s moral void” and asked whether they would have called Nazi death squads “ fighters.”
Defence secretary Grant Shapps entered the quagmire by asserting on the Today programme that the BBC and other broadcasters should “follow the law” and describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
It is important that the right words are chosen
Shapps then dug a very deep hole for himself by arguing that the BBC was not particularly interested in the Hamas terrorists.
Tell that to the BBC journalists who have been risking their lives to cover the story in full, not least their reporters in Gaza itself.
In another round of the row, no less than six former Culture Secretaries have written to BBC director-general Tim Davie asking him to reassess the Corporation’s approach because the use of imprecise words such as “militants” and “fighters” served to conflate terrorists with the Palestinian people.
Yet with so many people dying, and the world teetering on the brink of a wider Middle East conflagration, is it not self-indulgent for the media to involve itself in semantic arguments over whether someone should be called a terrorist or not?
Well no, actually. It is important that words have meaning and that the right words are chosen — and in the case of broadcasters, against a background of adhering to well-tested principles of impartiality.
There is nothing new about political rows over choice of words in violent times.
The late Lady Thatcher was incandescent with rage during the Falklands War when the BBC referred to “the British troops” rather than “our troops” and an edition of Panorama gave a platform to war critics in Westminster.
In the current row it is time to turn down the volume and accept that there are perfectly decent and experienced people, and valid arguments, on both sides.
This is best exemplified by the thoughts of two distinguished television journalists John Simpson, World Affairs editor of BBC News and Jon Sopel, former BBC US editor expressed via Twitter.
Cloaking evils in euphemism
Simpson wrote that British politicians knew perfectly well why the BBC avoided words such as terrorist.
“Calling someone a terrorist means you are taking sides and ceasing to treat the situation with due impartiality. The BBC’s job is to place the facts before its audience and let them decide what they think, honestly and without ranting,” Simpson argued.
British politicians know perfectly well why the BBC avoids the word ‘terrorist’, and over the years plenty of them have privately agreed with it. Calling someone a terrorist means you’re taking sides and ceasing to treat the situation with due impartiality. The BBC’s job is to…
— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) October 10, 2023
Sopel begged to differ. He wrote that if events in Israel didn’t “describe an act of pure terror by terrorists what does?”
Sopel said he believed that the BBC guidelines he had followed for years were no longer fit for purpose and “sadly have the effect of sanitising.”
Dear friends and former colleagues @BBCNews,
If this doesn’t describe an act of pure terror by terrorists what does? The guidelines that I followed for years are no longer fit for purpose, and sadly have the effect of sanitising https://t.co/QS4WWWOQO0
— Jon Sopel (@jonsopel) October 10, 2023
There is another perfectly reasonable strand to this disagreement — and one that has come from distinguished lawyers such as the Lords Grabiner, Pannick, Polak and Wolfson.
They have written to Ofcom chairman Lord Grade, arguing that the BBC’s position on Hamas and terrorism was illogical.
The letter, highlighted in a Times leader headlined “The T Word,” emphasised that Hamas was a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act in the UK.
By refusing to acknowledge this fact and instead using “watered down” terms as a substitute for terrorism, the BBC was being the opposite of impartial.
The BBC, and the other broadcasters which take a similar approach, such as Sky and ITV, were in effect cloaking the evils committed by Hamas in euphemism.
The Times noted that the Israeli-Palestine conflict divided opinion like no other and covering both sides while maintaining objectivity was not easy.
“But a desire for neutrality is no excuse for imprecision. Terrorism is terrorism,” The Times concluded.
More flexibility allowed than is being exercised
On balance Jon Sopel is right or very nearly right, although it may be it is the rigid interpretation of the BBC guidelines, rather than the guidelines themselves, which may be at fault.
They state that “due impartiality… does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as… the rule of law.”
There would appear to be more flexibility in such rules than BBC journalists are currently exercising, or are being allowed to exercise.
In the most dreadful of all ways, terrorists define themselves by their actions, and it is difficult to see in any logical world how people who deliberately set out on the mass murder of civilians, whatever the cause, are anything else but terrorists.
Deborah Turness, chief executive of BBC News and Current Affairs is obviously a greater fan of the views of Simpson than of Sopel. She has told staff “it is not for us to declare any group as terrorists, it is for us to report when others do.”
Unfortunately into that void falls the vapid cop-out word “militant,” as if those involved were following an honoured profession.
Davie and Grade should now get together to a have another look at this issue to see whether the current balance is right in a world where terror attacks seem to be on the rise.
Politicians and the right-wing press will always jump up and down attacking the BBC at every opportunity.
It would be much more damaging for the BBC if it were to get increasingly out of touch with viewers and licence payers who think describing mass murders as militants merely adds insult to injury.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.