The BBC’s guidance on “Language when Reporting Terrorism” states: [emphasis added]
“Our policy is about achieving consistency and accuracy in our journalism. We recognise the existence and the reality of terrorism – at this point in the twenty first century we could hardly do otherwise. Moreover, we don’t change the word “terrorist” when quoting other people, but we try to avoid the word ourselves; not because we are morally neutral towards terrorism, nor because we have any sympathy for the perpetrators of the inhuman atrocities which all too often we have to report, but because terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones.
We also need to ensure that when we report acts of terror, we do so consistently in the stories we report across our services. We have learnt from the experience of covering such events in Northern Ireland as much as in Israel, Spain, Russia, Southern Africa or the many other places where violence divides communities, and where we seek to be seen as objective by all sides, that labels applied to groups can sometimes hinder rather than help.”
“The value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words “terrorist” or “terrorist group” can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality. [….]
We also need to ask ourselves whether by using “terrorist” we are taking a political position, or certainly one that may be seen as such.”
However, as has frequently been noted on these pages the BBC’s reporting on terrorism is in fact anything but consistent and the corporation’s reporting on the wave of terror attacks which took place in three countries on June 26th provided another example of that phenomenon.
When two terrorists armed with a gun, knives and axes walked into a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014 and slaughtered early morning worshippers, the BBC did not categorise that incident as a terror attack.
“One outstanding – although predictable – feature of the BBC’s coverage is that despite the fact that the core story was about a terror attack perpetrated on the congregation of a synagogue, in all of the above reports the word terror and its derivatives were never used directly by the BBC. References to terrorism came only in the form of quotes from Israeli officials (placed in inverted commas by the BBC), from Israeli interviewees or from the US Secretary of State in the filmed report of his statement to the press.”
When at least one terrorist armed with a rifle walked onto a beach in Tunisia in June 2015 and gunned down equally unsuspecting tourists, the language used by the BBC in some of its coverage was very clear.
Coverage of the other attacks which took place on the same day in France and Kuwait also employed the word terror.
One can only imagine what the public and parliamentary reaction would have been if – as it did following the January terror attacks in Paris – the BBC had promoted the view that the word terrorist was too “loaded” for use in coverage of the murder of British holiday makers in Tunisia.
But the fact that in this case appropriate use of the word terror was seen in some of the BBC’s coverage of these attacks only serves to further highlight the inconsistency of its practice and the absence of universality in its professed avoidance of making “value judgements”.