Thursday 2 July 2015

"...and that would not preserve the BBC's impartiality"

Some newspaper headlines aren't being entirely fair to the BBC in implying that Tony Hall said the corporation must be "fair" with Islamic State -

I can't see the word "fair" or "unfair" anywhere in Lord Hall's reply to Conservative MP Rehman Chishti - and yet the words "fair" and "unfair" are the very ones which are doing the rounds and causing the BBC some problems (see, for example, the comments threads below the Times and Telegraph articles). [I know. Your heart must be bleeding for them too].

What the BBC Director-General actually wrote is that the word Da'esh is "a pejorative name" coined by Islamic State's enemies ["including Assad supporters and other opponents in Syria"] and that if the BBC were to start using this term it "may give the impression of support for those who coined it and that would not preserve the BBC's impartiality". 

In other words, Tony Hall doesn't want the BBC to be seen as supporting "Assad supporters and other [IS] opponents in Syria" by using their "pejorative name" for Islamic State.

That is not quite the same as saying that the BBC wants to be "fair" to IS, is it?

That said, adopting Lord Hall's own logic, doesn't using the name IS calls itself, i.e. "Islamic State", also risk giving "the impression of support for those who coined it" and fail to "preserve the BBC's impartiality" too?

Has he thought his position through? (Or am I missing something?)

So you may read for yourselves what Lord Hall wrote:
Thank you for the letter from you and your colleagues, advocating the use of the term Da'esh. 
As you know, there is no agreed description of the group which calls itself in Arabic, "al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham". Translation into English of the full name can be difficult because of different interpretations of the meaning of al-Sham. Hence ISIS, or ISIL, which the US government and the UK government prefer. Both these acronyms in English contain references to Islamic State, i.e. "Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham" (or "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria") or "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant". 
There is no tradition as I understand it, of acronyms in Arabic and the word Da'esh is not an acronym of "al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham" but is instead a pejorative name coined in Arabic by its enemies, including Assad supporters and other opponents in Syria. Unfortunately this term may give the impression of support for those who coined it and that would not preserve the BBC's impartiality. 
The BBC takes a common sense view when deciding how to describe organisations; we take our cue from an organisation's description of itself. As we seek descriptions which are comprehensible to our viewers, listeners and online users which lend themselves to use in headlines in news bulletins and online. For these reasons the BBC has used Islamic State as the name in English of the organisation known as "al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham" in Arabic. And we have, typically, shortened this to IS. However, we have recognised that used on its own the name Islamic State could suggest that such a state exists and such an interpretation is potentially misleading. So, we have caveated the name "Islamic State" with word which qualify it, e.g. "so called Islamic State", "the Islamic State group", "the Islamic State organisation", "Islamic State extremists", "Islamic State fighters", etc. I doubt given the context we provide in our reporting, that anyone listening could be in any doubt what kind of organisation Islamic State is.  
The Prime Minister made clear yesterday that he had no quarrel with the use of the term "so-called Islamic State" but that he objected to the use of Islamic State unqualified. So does the BBC. I hope you, and he, will be reassured that we will redouble our efforts to ensure that when we use the term Islamic State we will caveat it with qualifiers, typically the "Islamic State group", to distinguish it from an actual, recognised state. We will also continue to use other qualifiers when appropriate, e.g. extremists, militants, fighters, etc. To avoid overuse we will also usually revert to IS after one mention of the Islamic State group. 
I hope this helps address your concerns.
Here's a potential solution to the BBC's problem. 

Maybe, to truly "preserve the BBC's impartiality" the BBC should take a leaf out of its own coverage of the 'spare room subsidy'/'bedroom tax' (or, going back in time, the 'community charge'/'poll tax'), and start regularly using formulations such as "Islamic State, also called Daesh", or "the self-styled Islamic State, also known as Daesh". That way every bunch of murderous thugs and fanatics in the Syrian conflict would be treated to full-blown BBC impartiality and Lord Hall could rest easy in his bed. 

After all, we wouldn't want the BBC to be "unfair" to Assad supporters and IS's Islamist rivals, would we? (Would we even be able to sleep at night?)


  1. I don't trust Chishti.

    For one thing: why is a British MP someone so closely involved in Pakistani politics?:

    For another, I remember when he was on Sky Press Preview with another Muslim commentator and both both laughed dismissively at the first reports coming in of a restored Caliphate being established in the area - as though such an event was inconceivable. Why would you trust someone who (a) didn't see IS coming and (b) wants to deny the reality of what they represent?

    It seems to me perfectly reasonable to refer to "the Islamic State" just as it was perfectly reasonable to refer to the USSR in the past even though many socialists in this country would abhor the idea that the USSR had anything to do with socialism.

    I have never heard of IS do anything that can't be justified by reference to Sharia law. It is quintessentially Islamic. It's application of Islamic law is in fact not so different from Saudi or Iranian practice but it is far more open about it.

    A lengthy discourse (helpful if you can be bothered) on "Daesh" here:

  2. Well said, Craig. The hypocrisy of the BBC on when and which special terms to use or avoid has reached legendary status. I remain convinced that there has been collusion between top BBC brass and David Cameron's office on this issue. Is there a way to do an FOIA request to find out something?

  3. Hall: "There is no tradition as I understand it, of acronyms in Arabic"

    So what? Call them ISIS or ISIL and see how many complaints you get from Arabs..

    I take this opportunity, Lord Hall, to complain about the BBC calling Hellas 'Greece' and Suomi 'Finland'.


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