Sunday, December 23, 2007

BBC does not use the word 'terrorist'

The BBC as a matter of policy does not use the word terrorist. They choose words very carefully. Day before yesterday, there was a bomb attack on a mosque in Pakistan in which more than 50 people died. In their TV news bulletins, BBC did not use the word terrorist. More than that, they had a sentence: "... search is on for the organisers of the attack."
  • Read Telegraph story on bomb attack here
  • Read BBC online report on the bomb attack here

This is not a new policy. It looks like the decision was taken in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London Underground and bus bombings. While the first reports on the BBC website referred to "terrorists" later they changed it to "bombers". BBC's explanation was: they do not want to use words that "carry emotional or value judgements".

  • Read Telegraph report of July 12, 2005, on this here
  • Read the Criticisms and the BBC's explanation on July 13, 2005 here
  • Read the BBC's editorial guidelines on "Use of language when reporting terrorism" here
  • Read the BBC's editorial guidelines in full on war, terror and emergencies here
It's not surprising that BBC has gone for this, since it has a worldwide audience. What is okay for one is not for the other. One man's freedom fighter is the other man's terrorist. The bigger the audience, tougher it's to satisfy all, and more are the probabilities of inviting criticism. In India, some of the big newspapers and TV channels which have high readership and credibility have to tread such cautious paths to ensure they don't rub anyone on the wrong side.

Objectivity and impartiality are difficult to achieve, if not altogether impossible. And efforts to achieve that only robs the reportage of life. Use of seemingly neutral expressions runs the risk of making the report insipid. If one follows BBC news reports, it'll be clear that they use lot of hard facts and try to balance views with counterviews as far as possible, probably to make the news reports more authoritative and impartial. The challenging tightrope walk is probably the price BBC has to pay for the acclaimed global audience.

I watched all the three programmes telecast yesterday by the BBC to commemorate 75 years of the BBC World Service Radio. They highlighted the difficulties experienced by reporters in covering conflict, where truth isn't in black and white but in different shades of grey.

The episode I liked was the one on West Asia, probably because it's one of my favourite subjects. The region is described as a crucible of violent ideologies and it's also one of the most difficult areas to report from. The reporters are clearly told not use the word terrorist, and to be objective and neutral. The programmes showed the efforts the BBC takes to ensure they have accurate information in their quest to get to the truth.

Reporting from West Asia can be tricky -- no one would know that better than BBC's Barbra Plett. In the programme "From Our Own Correspondent" broadcast on BBC4 on October 30, 2004, Plett said, "..... when the helicopter carrying the frail old man (Yasser Arafat) rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning...." That got her into real trouble. BBC is more often criticised for its anti-Israel stand than the other way round, and there was a barrage of complaints over the use of the word "cry".

The BBC governors upheld part of a complaint against Plett. Her comments "breached the requirements of due impartiality", they ruled. From Our Own Correspondent is a programme which, unlike a routine news report, allows the listeners to get the correspondents' personal experience of the news event. It's difficult to be impartial and objective while being personal. It's tough reporting under such circumstances.
  • Read Telegraph news item on the controversy here
  • Read the BBC transcript of Barbara Plett's report here
  • Read BBC report on their governors upholding part of the complaint here.
Barbara Plett now reports for the BBC from Pakistan, and is one of my favourite reporters. She has a very unique way of signing off.... "Barbara Plett... BBC, Islamabad". You need to listen to her!


  1. The age old adage in journalism is that journalist should report a story and not become a story himself/herself. That was Ms Plett's problem while reporting from Isreal. BBC in its external and internal wings is very conscious of its role, that of objective reporting, and this has been called into question during Iraq war and of course London bombing, in the aftermath of which there was a palpable anti-muslim sentiment running through the country as a whole. The word ‘terrorism’ then seemed to loom large on the BBC horizon threatening its objectivity.

    Traditionally, BBC called the ‘Auntie’ has been anti-establishment, left-leaning, in the view of people like me. However the BBC strives to be objective in my opinion as a citizen and tax payer in Britain who pays a levy to keep it that way, shades of left-wing bias creeps in the reports from time to time. In the case of Plett and others this some time meant supporting to Palestine cause in a milder sense. Hence the blast from the right-leaning newspaper like Daily Telegraph.

    I lived in the USA during the Watergate era. It was the written media ( news papers like Washington Post and several other local newspapers) which was highly critical of Nixon’s part in the saga. The CBS (NBC with John Chancellor too) with the great Walter Cronkite anchoring the evening news used to be less critical of Nixon’s machinations and generally towed the establishment line. Compared to that the BBC has been extremely critical of the Labour government, and particularly Blair’s support to Iraq and paid a very heavy price for this. The BBC World service and its national counterpart by their charters uphold objectivity and independence, but are subjected to the tax payer’s contribution which is set by the government. Despite this, on the whole, I found that it is the most objective news media that I know, and hence my continued payments to BBC.

    I was not happy with Ms Plett’s indiscretion nor I am happy about some BBC reports coming from Israel. Highly intelligent reporters like Jeremy Bowen at times fall in to the trap of supporting the ‘underdog’ although his sympathy is understandable when a child gets killed in an Israeli air raid following a suicide bomber’s foray into an Israel shopping district. To me a terrorist should be called as such whether it was Mandela or Arafat. Much can be achieved by forsaking terrorism as the Northern Ireland situation now demonstrates.

  2. Guru, good to see a very comprehensive comment on the issue. I too have felt the seemingly pro-Left angle. Especially with regard to war in Iraq, BBC had a pronouced anti-US slant.

    The best part about the BBC is it has, quite reasonably, been able to adapt to today's multimedia scenario without having to substantially alter its core philososphy.

    Incidentally, today I saw a Hard Talk episode with Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter who was in captivity for more than 3 months. I don't know if you managed to watch it...

  3. There is no overtly anti-American stance by the BBC. But America particularly under Bush Jr presidency has not endeared to any country. On the one hand you see the NewYorks' Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and on the other hand you see the 'patriot act' in operation which can take away liberty literally from any one residing in that country ( similar monitoring was carried out in Nixon's watergate time and most of us were worried speaking out anything which can be construed as politics. Mrs Gandhi like her father and more like VKK Menon antagonised American policy makers and particularly Nixon and Kissinger then and Indians living there including me were strangely quiet!).
    The mistakes by the FBI and the CIA and their inability to monitor those Arabs who were training to be pilots coupled with the freedom with which one could walk through airports without handbags being checked until early 1990s(My American friends who were visiting London those days used to laugh at the security checks in the airport) all were factors in 9/11 incidence.
    Also, the American establishment never learnt any lesson from the Vietnam war. With history being their weakest subject,they did not once think about the consequences of removing Saddam who no doubt was evil and plunging the country into a war. Like Vietnam ,they had no 'exit strategy' for Iraq. Those in power there including Ms Rice should have learnt from Yugoslavia after Tito who held the country together, and the need to exercise caution. Bush Jr is fighting his father's war who mysteriously withdrew the troops out after kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. The BBC is exceptionally good in analysing events and presenting them, and mostly because of Iraq now, their analysis is invariably about the war, which sounds like anti-American. Afterall, Britain is the staunchest ally of America during and since WWII, key member of NATO, shares intelligence with them and there are half-a million Americans live Britain. Blair simply followed the custom of strong friendship and committed this country into war in Iraq.

    Living in London, and not an avid fan of TV ( I am not a typical Indian in that sense), I usually listen to Radio. I have friends and ex-students in the BBC establishments and hence my knowledge about the organisation. With all its faults, it is still the best organisation that projects objectivity, provides education and intelligent entertainment.

  4. Very comprehensive writeup. In my view, a Journalist should stick to reporting of news and let others give the views. Even if they don't have any dubious motives, they are bound to get stuck between different kinds of people and with the kind of diversity India has, it is bound to be worse for Indian Journalists.
    Thanks for your compliments but lately, I have begun to perceive blogging as a mutual admiration society and that is why I have cooled off a bit. In case you are interested, maximum no of my articles got publiahsed this year and are there on my other blog-

  5. the article is very insightful. i congratulate you on such indepth knowledge about BBC. recently there was a discussion on the Editors' blog of BBC on the usage of the term "child porno". they now want to change the usage of that term to "child sexual abuse" that orients the audience towards the negative repercussions of the act than the other term.

  6. as a wise bihari once said - emosnal naheen honeka