Sunday 7 February 2016

The BBC's Style Guide

Talking about the BBC Style Guide...

(and does it having anything to say about people constantly beginning posts with the phrase 'Talking about...'?) 

If you read Breitbart London you'll know that the BBC's Style Guide isn't free from controversy itself. 

For starters, on the subject of Islam, it declares: "Our style for the founder of the faith is the Prophet Muhammad (at second reference, Muhammad or the Prophet)".

There isn't a section on Christianity, however, or any BBC 'style' concerning how to describe Our Lord Jesus Christ - though there is a bit saying "Do not use 'Christian name' when you mean 'first name'.

The other example Breitbart finds is the bit on abortion:

This strikes me as clear-cut bias, reflecting the BBC's innate social liberalism. It favours one side by adopting that side's definition of its own beliefs ("pro-choice") whilst disfavouring the other side by rejecting that side's definition of its own beliefs ("pro-life"). One side gets what it wants, the other doesn't. How is that not bias?

The rest of the Style Guide is pretty uncontroversial - and interesting, eg:
The Colosseum is in Rome. The theatres in London, Oldham and elsewhere are the Coliseum.
is a word liable to create misunderstanding. Strictly, it means ‘to destroy one-tenth of something’ - but it’s commonly used to mean ‘destroy a large part of’. Best avoided.
Hunting with dogs
And not ‘hunting with hounds’.
Lake District
The only lake in the Lake District with ‘Lake’ in its title is Bassenthwaite Lake. ‘Mere’, as in Windermere, means ‘lake’ - so strictly speaking, it is superfluous to write ‘Lake Windermere’. However, Windermere is also the name of a town so, for clarity’s sake, include the label to avoid confusion - and omit it only if there is no scope for ambiguity (eg: Hoteliers in the Lake District have renewed their complaints about speedboats on Windermere).
In a mixed workforce, it’s more accurate to use staffed, staffing, staffing level etc. By the same token, avoid ‘man in the street’.   
Nasrallah, Sheikh Hassan
(leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah). Sheikh Nasrallah on second reference.
is typical management jargon - best avoided. Try continuing or developing or in progress, as appropriate. 
rack and ruin
is our favoured spelling, rather than ‘wrack and ruin’. Similarly, we prefer nerve-racking.
Islamic religious law - capital ‘S’ no ‘h’ at the end. (‘Sharia law’ is tautologous).
Do not use, except in a direct quote. Substitute as appropriate expected, imminent, forthcoming, next etc.
Of course, this is also plenty of 'style' advice for one word in particular - and it's probably the most consistently controversial term when it comes to the BBC:
The word ‘terrorist’ is not banned, but its use 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. 
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. It is also very important that we strive for consistency across the international and UK facing sites. If a BBC World story uses very measured language but a UK version does not, a user will rightly question the different approaches. 
The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorist’ may be used in a non-specific context, or in direct quotes - but it is not for us to label a particular group or specific act as terrorist. 
Beware of paraphrasing and selective quotation, eg: “The Israeli prime minister said that while ‘terrorist’ attacks continued he would not back down.” Putting the single word ‘terrorist’ in quotes may give the impression that the BBC is sceptical about the prime minister’s assessment of the nature of the attacks. 
Domestically, we tread a similar line on Northern Ireland. The IRA is so well known, worldwide, that a label is not necessary. Groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA can often be best labelled as dissident. A second reference to organisations such as the UFF and UVF could be along the lines of: The loyalist paramilitary organisation warned...


  1. I completely agree with you about the abortion point - I think both 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' are fine, as widely used and understood terms. (In practice I think most people are somewhere in the middle.)

    I think the Sharia guideline could be contested. I think some use 'sharia' to mean something much broader - a Muslim might be unwilling to denounce 'sharia' while being secular.

  2. Sharia Law may well be a tautology, but it is a necessary tautology. It explains quite succinctly that Islam is not just another religious faith, that is practiced unobtrusively in private, but a complete system of law. Is the BBC being merely pedantic?

    1. But it's wrong to say it is "religous" law - that implies as most people would understand it in this country that it relates solely to religious obligations e.g. modesty, diet and so on. But it actaully sets out how the whole of society (non Muslim as well as Muslim) is to be governed. It would be better in my view to refer to "the Sharia legal system" which implies (correctly) it is competing with all other systems of law including human rights and international law.

  3. We've often claimed that the BBC uses the language of advocates on favored issues, and here is indisputable proof. Good find. Agenda? What agenda?

  4. Other entries you missed:

    BALANCED - This should only be used cynically when fending off justified complaints about BBC bias. The claim is always that balance has been achieved if not within a particular programme then over time (be careful not to define the time period).

    CONTROVERSIAL - This should only be used to describe people and things the BBC doesn't like e.g. Donald Trump, abortion laws, and free speech advocacy. If something or someone the BBC likes is actually controversial, you should use an alternative word such as "radical", "progressive", "inspirational", "groundbreaking", "new" or "passionate". Another approach is to just make it sound as though what is being proposed or spoken about is perfectly normal and reasonable, by avoiding colourful adjectives.

  5. But, overall, they 'get it about right'. Apparently. It's in their DNA. Apparently.


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