Monday 26 January 2015

Loaded words

So, Tarik Kafala, the head of BBC Arabic, believes the word "terrorist" is too "loaded" a word to use about the terrorists who carried out the recent terrorist atrocities in Paris. 

We try to avoid describing anyone as a terrorist or an act as being terrorist. What we try to do is to say that ‘two men killed 12 people in an attack on the office of a satirical magazine’. That’s enough, we know what that means and what it is.
Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.
We avoid the word terrorists. It’s a terrorist attack, anti-terrorist police are deployed on the streets of Paris. Clearly all the officials and commentators are using the word so obviously we broadcast that.
As the Independent notes, however, Mr Kafala is only following the BBC's own editorial guidelines there.  
Unfortunately, there is no agreed or universal consensus on what constitutes a terrorist, or a terrorist attack. Dictionaries may offer definitions but the United Nations has again just failed to reach agreement. The obvious reason is that terrorism is regarded through a political prism.
We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly.  Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements.  We try to avoid the use of the term "terrorist" without attribution.  When we do use the term we should strive to do so with consistency in the stories we report across all our services and in a way that does not undermine our reputation for objectivity and accuracy.
The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened.  We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as "bomber", "attacker", "gunman", "kidnapper", "insurgent", and "militant".  We should not adopt other people's language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.
Of course, most people will think that all of this is a load of old nonsense. We have a widely-shared rule-of-thumb definition of what a "terrorist" is - "a non-state actor who uses murderous violence to achieve political ends" - and trying to hide behind alleged confusion at the UN is silly.

Yes, the UN (and others) may disagree about who should be called a terrorist in certain circumstances, but it's really not very difficult to agree that some people unquestionably do meet the common definition of the term - people like the men who did what they did in Paris. Deliberately avoiding calling them "terrorists" seems like absurd hand-wringing.

This is where we get into the familiar debate about where BBC 'impartiality' should begin and end again. Should the BBC's commitment to 'impartiality' be to an 'absolute' idea of 'impartiality'? Or should it only be impartial towards everyone who isn't an enemy of democracy? Should there never be any "value-laden" language from the BBC? Should no one be subject to adverse value judgements and "loaded" terminology from the BBC?

Mr Kafala doesn't think that the killers of Paris should be subject to "loaded", "value-laden" terminology, but plenty of  BBC staff seem be get away with using all manner of other "loaded, value-laded" terms. You'll doubtless be able to think of plenty of examples, but I'll just mention one - the growing use of the deeply loaded term "Islamophobic", which many BBC reporters are now using without inverted commas. When will that term be 'advised against' by the BBC editorial guidelines? 

At the risk of sounding like the BBC's new favourite, the Pub Landlord, a little bit of common sense is needed at the BBC. They are looking completely out-of-touch, ridiculous and ethically dubious over this. They need to think how bad this looks to people beyond BBC Arabic, especially to BBC licence fee payers.

1 comment:

  1. Quite simply, he is implying that labeling something an act of 'terrorism' makes a value judgment on the motivations behind the act. In other words, he knows that most of his audience supports the motivations behind Islamic terrorism, and doesn't want to anger them by using a word with negative connotations.

    As we know from debates years ago with "John Reith" and Nick Reynolds (and maybe David Gregory-Kumar), this has been part of the BBC's unspoken editorial policy for years, and every once in a while it seems they have to have this internal kabuki dance again. It's pathetic.


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