BBC’s world without terror

The term “terrorist” is perceived by the BBC to be too loaded; Its reporters resort to more neutral terms, even when the brutality involved in the violent crime against innocent civilians is obscene.

By RAPHAEL COHEN-ALMAGOR
December 17, 2014 22:24
3 minute read.
Naftali Bennett

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett interviews with the BBC‏.. (photo credit: screenshot)

 
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December 15, 2014. 10:00 pm. BBC2 Newsnight. The presenter in London calls his colleague in Sydney to describe the event in Lindt Café, downtown Sydney. The BBC reporter opens by saying that “a gentleman” entered the café and took some hostages. Later he referred to “the gentleman” as “a gunman.” This was no mistake. This is BBC policy. If you only listen to the BBC, you might think that we are living in a world that is free from terrorism. This is because the word “terrorism” is hardly ever used by the BBC, as part of the BBC’s aspiration to broadcast in a neutral fashion.

The term “terrorist” is perceived by the BBC to be too loaded. Thus its reporters resort to more neutral terms, even when the brutality involved in the violent crime against innocent civilians is obscene. BBC News seeks to act in the public interest and to resist pressure from political parties, lobby groups or commercial interests. However, these laudable aspirations lead to sweeping moral neutrality, and to inability to denounce terrorism even when facing the most hideous acts.

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The BBC directors seem to believe that it is impossible to define terrorism and that therefore terrorism does not exist. They do not wish to alienate any segment of their viewers by characterizing certain events as “terrorist.” Instead of adhering to one principled definition of terrorism and then employing it across the board, the BBC prefers to sit on the fence, so as to say that it is impossible to differentiate between terrorists and “freedom fighters,” that one person’s terrorist might be another’s “freedom fighter.” The BBC employs no moral judgment, thus paying homage to moral relativism.

Most if not all definitions of terrorism speak of threat or employment of indiscriminate violence for political, religious or ideological purposes by individuals or groups who are willing to justify all means to achieve their goals. One who conducts such act of terror is a terrorist, exactly as one who rapes is a rapist. Several arguments may be advanced against moral neutrality when covering explicit immoral conduct such as terrorism. The first is the argument from democracy, which holds that reporters are also citizens that live within the democratic realm and owe democracy their allegiance. Free speech and free journalism exist because democracy makes them possible. They flourish in a liberal environment and they would become extinct in a coerced, anti-democratic society. Hence, reporters are obliged to sustain the environment that enables their liberties. Many do uphold and promote the basic values of democracy: not to harm others, and to respect others.

The second argument is the argument from paternalism: It is wrong to assume that all people are able to differentiate between good and evil, and that all beings are rational. The media need to be responsible to those who are not fully rational, who are not able to discern between values and mischief. Here I refer first and foremost to children and young people. Violence and black-and-white slogans work better on youth than on mature people. The media should be aware of this and avoid conferring on terrorism any form of legitimacy.

The third argument is from social responsibility, and has to do more with the shape and character of society that we wish to have. The BBC Charter speaks of sustaining citizenship and civil society. Accordingly, BBC reporters do not need to feel obliged to be neutral as between justice and injustice, between compassion and cruelty. Being a constitutional creation of Parliament, the BBC should not be impartial toward crude violence against innocent civilians.

The fourth and last argument is from jurisprudence and law. Terrorism is obviously illegal. It is detrimental to society for psychological and social reasons. It subverts and repudiates the rule of law. The media do not have to be objective toward phenomena that clearly contradict their basic values.

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BBC News aspires to be the world’s most trusted news organization: accurate, impartial and independent. The BBC aims to be truthful and fair. Doesn’t the BBC realize it is utterly unprofessional, and ethically problematic not to call a spade a spade? Its present policy is not accurate, truthful or fair. It confers legitimacy on heinous acts.

It is about time for the BBC to reconsider its “world without terrorism” policy. Unfortunately, terrorism does exist. We are reminded of its brutal manifestations time and again. The BBC should acknowledge this and not play into the hands of terrorism.

The author has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford and is a writer on Israel and the Middle East.

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