hostis humani generis

I noted the introduction of the new BBC editorial guidelines previously.. Now, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on London, one guideline in particular has caused controversy. The Guardian Newsblog noted some of the issues raised about the BBC re-editing reports, while Harry’s Place had an excellent piece on the accusations of bias. In yesterday’s Observer, Nick Cohen argues persuasively, also referencing Norman Geras on the topic, that the BBC guidelines will result in “castrated language which has been emptied of precise meaning.”

The BBC guideline on Terror in full –

We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word “terrorist” itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them.

We should not adopt other people’s language as our own. It is also usually inappropriate to use words like “liberate”, “court martial” or “execute” in the absence of a clear judicial process. 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”. 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.

The head of BBC Television News, Roger Mosey, writing in the Guardian last week, defended the corporation against the accusations, and on the use of the word terrorist wrote this –

Then there has been a controversy about our use of language – particularly the question of whether the BBC banned the word “terrorist”. There is no ban. It’s true the word is contentious in some contexts on our international services, hence the recommendation that it be employed with care. But we have used and will continue to use the words terror, terrorism and terrorist – as we did in all our flagship bulletins from Thursday.

Except that the guidelines state – “We should try to avoid the term, without attribution.”.. i.e. they will use it.. if they can quote someone else saying it.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Those that attacked London last week were ‘bombers’. Even if it can be argued that they should be called ‘terrorists’ as well, it doesn’t mean that the term ‘bombers’ is wrong. It’s not as if they BBC are calling them ‘freedom fighters’.

    The words they have used are correct.

  • peteb


    Nick Cohen addresses that particular point in his article.

  • Kevin

    Oliver Kamn puts to us another side to the argument here:

  • Kevin

    That’s “Kamm” – apologies.

    And for you – HERE – again, my apologies.

  • peteb


    Thanks for that link. I had read it previously but didn’t have it to hand.

    From Oliver Kamm’s article –

    “The problem is that the BBC is oblivious of the first requirement that journalists, subject to partial information and subjective assumptions as they are, nonetheless describe the world as it is. The BBC’s priority, by contrast, is to try to avoid disturbing the sensibilities of its viewers and listeners.”


    “That is the point: the BBC is guilty of bad journalism that betrays the corporation’s purpose of advancing public understanding.”

    I tend to agree.

    Although I’m not sure that’s another side of the argument.. it’s more in agreement with what has already been linked.

  • George

    Slightly off topic but I think there is a correlation. There was a very interesting discussion on RTE’s Sunday show on July 10 with Robert Fisk, Robert Fox and Jason Burke.

    Apparently, the BBC now gets interns to call up the political analysts they are interviewing to answer the questions before they go on air as a vetting procedure to ensure views contrary to the BBC’s editorial line don’t get aired.

    I know some may think this is in order with Fisk but the Observer’s Chief Reporter Burke, the leading British authority on Al-Qaeda and former BBC man Fox have also experienced the same vetting procedure.

    Apparently, simply asking the question why these attacks are taking place is enough to be struck off the BBC interview list for good.

  • Kevin

    Well, I think others are claiming it’s BBC bias, he objects to that.

    He claims instead that the BBC’s priority is “to try to avoid disturbing the sensibilities of its viewers and listeners. The most reliable way to accomplish that end is to introduce language that so far from eschewing ‘value judgements’ merely fails to discriminate among them.”

    I suppose it’s a neutrality, rather than a bias. But then again, I’m sure someone could counter that with reference to the Beeb’s coverage of the Israel/Palestine situation.

  • peteb


    Others may claim that it’s BBC bias.. but both Harry’s Place and Nick Cohen argue, and I agree with them, that bias is not the problem.

  • Jimmy_Sands

    Comment is free, facts are sacred. I think the guidelines are eminently sensible. I can assure you that if you are ever exposed to US networks for any length of time, you will learn to appreciate Auntie.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Thanks peteb, There were so many links I didn’t bother reading the articles – I probably should have. I’ve now read Cohen’s article and I’m not impressed. It just degenerated into an argument about the war in Iraq, which isn’t really relevant. If you strip out his own bias and assumptions about various issues, you see that he still hasn’t made an argument in favour of the word “terrorist” being used more often by the BBC based purely on his own judgement on who’s a terrorist and who’s a freedom-fighter.

    He said:

    ‘Bomber’, ‘attacker’ and ‘gunman’ allow no distinction between fighters who assault military targets and fighters who assault civilian targets

    The BBC should simply report “Bombers attack London Underground”. That will specify the sort of target. Problem solved.

    Nick Cohen again:

    The statement that: ‘Insurgents killed 24 children in Baghdad yesterday’ is entirely different from the statement that: ‘Al-Qaeda and the Baathists killed 24 children in Baghdad yesterday.’ The latter at least allows those members of the audience who want ‘to make their own assessment about who is doing what to whom’ to find out what al-Qaeda and the Baath party believe in and whether decent people should be on the side of the victims or the perpetrators.

    For one thing, there’s a hell of a lot of argument over whether al-Qaeda exists any more as anything other than an ideology. There are loads of assumptions in that statement. If the BBC can be 100% certain of the perpetrators then they will surely name them.

  • Kevin

    It just degenerated into an argument about the war in Iraq, which isn’t really relevant.

    Haha, I thought the same thing reading it yesterday. It’s odd, as Cohen is usually on top form.

  • peteb

    There were so many links I didn’t bother reading the articles – I probably should have.

    Yes, you probably should.

    To take up one of your points –

    “The BBC should simply report “Bombers attack London Underground”. That will specify the sort of target. Problem solved.”

    Not quite. The guidelines state that – “We [the BBC] should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator..”

    And that is the point Nick Cohen was making.