When did the BBC begin avoiding the use of the word terror in Israel reporting?

BBC Watch is often asked in what year did the BBC’s policy of avoiding the use of the word terrorism when reporting on Palestinian attacks against Israelis begin.

While we do not have a definitive answer to that question, some examples from the BBC’s archived reports indicate that the language used by the corporation when reporting Palestinian terrorism has long displayed the very “value judgements” it claims to avoid.

A BBC report from September 6th 1970 relates to the Dawson’s Field hijackings by the PFLP. Titled “Hundreds held in series of hijacks“, the report opens: [all emphasis added]

“Four New York-bound airliners have been hijacked over western Europe in an unprecedented operation carried out by a militant Palestinian group.

Three of the planes taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have been flown to two different locations in the Middle East.”

Later on readers find the following:

“The PFLP have demanded the release of three Arab dissidents held in a Swiss jail in return for the 382 passengers they are holding hostage.”

Those so-called “dissidents” were in fact terrorists “serving 12 year sentences in Switzerland for attacking an Israeli airliner in Zurich in 1969”.

Later on in that article, the word “dissident” is also used to describe Leila Khaled.

“On the El Al flight a passenger pinned down an Arab female armed with a grenade who was attempting to get onto the flight deck.

Her fellow hijacker – a male armed with a hand gun – was tackled by a steward.

Several shots were fired, killing the male Arab militant and seriously wounding the crew member, but the pilot was able to make an emergency landing at Heathrow.

The captured female dissident was arrested by armed detectives at the airport and taken to a police station in west London.”

A BBC report dating from September 6th 1972 – “Olympic hostages killed in gun battle” – repeatedly describes the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics terror attack as “guerillas” despite the fact that their victims were civilians.

“All nine of the Israeli athletes kidnapped on Tuesday from the Olympic Village in Munich have been killed in a gun battle at a nearby airport.

A policeman also died in the shooting at the Furstenfeldbruck military airbase, along with four of the guerrillas from the Palestinian group Black September.

Witnesses at the airport said the shooting began when police snipers opened fire on the militants. […]

The guerrillas had previously threatened to kill all the hostages if 200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel were not released. […]

The West German government had offered to pay any price for the release of the athletes, but was told by the guerrillas’ chief he cared for “neither money nor lives”.”

A report from September 19th 1972 – “Parcel bomb attack on Israeli embassy” – states:

“Palestinian extremist group Black September is thought to have posted the letters. Some were also sent to the Israeli embassy in Paris, sparking a worldwide security alert.”

A report on the Ma’alot massacre dated May 15th 1974  – “Teenagers die in Israeli school attack” – describes convicted terrorists, including Lod airport massacre perpetrator Kozo Okamoto, as follows:

“The Israeli government talked to the hostage-takers, via a loudhailer, and had agreed to release 26 political prisoners held in Israel.”

None of the above articles – or others dating from the 1970s – uses the words terror, terrorists or terrorism. An exception to that rule is found in an article titled “Gunmen kill 16 at two European airports” from December 27th 1985.

“At least 16 people have been killed and more than 100 injured during simultaneous twin terrorist attacks at Rome and Vienna airports.

Gunmen opened fire on passengers queuing to check-in luggage at departure desks for Israel’s national airline, El Al. […]

It comes amid reports airport authorities received warnings Arab militant groups were planning a pre-Christmas terrorist campaign at terminals across the world.”

However, as we see, the BBC’s failure to use accurate language to describe Palestinian terrorism and its perpetrators has been in evidence for nearly half a century. Is it therefore any wonder that so many contemporary British politicians who grew up watching and listening to the BBC so often get the Arab-Israeli conflict wrong?

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Radio 4 gives insight into BBC avoidance of the use of the term ‘terror’ in Israel

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BBC finds a ‘working definition’ for terrorism in Europe

A new BBC ‘explanation’ for its double standards on terror

BBC WS Newshour erases perpetrators from item about hijacking

The March 29th evening edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ included an item concerning the same day’s hijacking of an EgyptAir plane. Following a report on the incident, the item turned to a more general topic, introduced by presenter James Coomarasamy (from 34:50 here) as follows:Hijacking item on Newshour

“Well let’s hear now from someone who knows a thing or two about hijacking; he’s 85 year-old Uri Bar Lev. He’s a retired Israeli pilot and back in 1970 when he was flying an El Al plane from Amsterdam to New York he became the first and possibly the only pilot to foil a hijacking in mid-air.”

The ensuing conversation with Uri Bar Lev was also promoted separately on social media but remarkably, one rather relevant piece of information was omitted from the entire item.

At no point were listeners informed that the plane piloted by Bar Lev was the target of an attempted hijacking by the Palestinian terrorist organisation the PFLP. Especially when one considers that over the past two and a half years the BBC has produced at least three items of content concerning that story and has repeatedly portrayed one of the hijackers on Bar Lev’s flight – Leila Khaled – as an ‘icon’, that is quite an omission.

BBC papers over UN HRC connection of Swiss PLO deal broker

On January 22nd the BBC News website published an article titled “Switzerland ‘made secret deal with PLO’ after bomb attacks” in which Imogen Foulkes gave a reasonable account of the story and its significance.PLO Swiss deal written

“Controversy is growing in Switzerland over an alleged secret deal, made almost 50 years ago, between the Swiss government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The agreement, detailed in a new book, was apparently designed to prevent terrorist attacks on Swiss territory.

In return, Switzerland would offer diplomatic support to the PLO. […]

Almost half a century later, with many countries experiencing terror attacks, it seems outrageous to some Swiss that their own government might have done deals with groups classed as terrorists.

What is more, the relatives of those who died in the bombing of the Swissair flight may be justified in feeling angry that no one has ever been brought to justice, especially as Swiss investigators had identified a Jordanian national as the mastermind behind the attack.”

Foulkes mentioned in her article that the Swiss foreign minister at the time used “a member of the Swiss parliament as an intermediary” in his dealings with the PLO, but did not go into further detail. However, in the January 22nd edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’, presenter Owen Bennett Jones conducted an interview (from 37:40 here) with that “member of the Swiss parliament”.

OBJ: “And the information has been revealed in a new book by a journalist who wrote that part of the deal-making was organized by a very well-known and long-standing Swiss member of parliament who has also been a UN rapporteur for a bit as well – Jean Ziegler from Geneva – and his wife apparently had contacts in the PLO and they were able to tell the Swiss foreign minister who was who within the organization. Well I spoke to Jean Ziegler earlier: what was his role in this deal?”

Listeners would have noticed that throughout the item both Bennett Jones and Ziegler used the euphemism “Palestinian militants” to describe terrorists who attacked, blew up and hijacked airliners. With no challenge from the BBC presenter, Ziegler also described the PLO as a “Palestinian resistance organization” and misled listeners by describing that organization as having been “just founded” at the time (1970) when in fact the PLO was established in May 1964 – long before there was any ‘occupation’ to ‘resist’.

Ziegler noted that part of the deal was “to open official diplomatic office of the PLO in Geneva at the United Nations; European headquarters of the United Nations.”

Notably though, Owen Bennett Jones made no attempt to inform listeners of the contemporary significance of this story.

Jean Ziegler was indeed “a UN rapporteur for a bit”: he spent a highly controversial term as the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food between 2000 and 2008. Ziegler also co-founded – and received – the infamous (and now defunct) ‘Muammar Al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights’.

But – as shown on the UN HRC commissioner’s website – Ziegler’s UN career is not a thing of the past. He currently functions as a member of the UN Human Rights Council’s advisory committee (despite opposition to his appointment from the Swiss parliament and the US Ambassador to the UN) and – ironically – in that capacity even co-authored a report on ‘Human rights and issues related to terrorist hostage-taking’.

Considering that regularly the BBC uncritically quotes and promotes statements and content produced by the UN HRC as though they were written in stone, it would have been particularly helpful to BBC audiences to have the dots joined between this past story of a man with sufficient contacts inside a notorious terrorist organization to be able to help broker a self-preserving capitulation to its agenda – including the opening of the door to the UN – and the current advisor to that body’s highly politicised and controversial Human Rights Council. 

BBC R4 programme on terror and the media rebrands PFLP terrorists

On December 22nd BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme called “Terror and the Oxygen of Publicity” made by the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera. The broadcast is available here and individual clips from the programme have also been put online here.Gordon Corera prog

According to the programme’s synopsis, it “examines the jihadists’ social media strategy, the attempts to combat it, and how media organisations tread the fine line of giving publicity to terrorists and reporting the news”. Near the beginning of the broadcast Corera states that his aim is “to ask what the media and government can and should do”.

There is much of interest in Corera’s programme but one topic he does not address is that of the media’s use of language when reporting on terrorism. As BBC Watch readers are doubtless aware, that subject is a particularly pertinent one in relation to the corporation itself as it regularly employs double standards regarding the use of the word terrorism and by doing so communicates to its audiences which political violence it regards as terror and which – due to its own political motivations – it does not. Ironically, listeners heard a small example of that phenomenon early on in this programme.

Corera’s introduction to the topic of what he describes as the “relationship between terror and modern media” comes through the example of the Dawson’s Field hijackings in 1970 which he describes thus:

“A Palestinian group called the PFLP had simultaneously hijacked a number of passenger planes and then flown them to a landing strip in the middle of the Jordanian desert known as Dawson’s Field.”

He later states:

“The PFLP’s spectacular act was intended to capture the world’s attention. They wanted the release of political prisoners held by Israel in return for the hostages…” [emphasis added]

By describing members of an internationally designated Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization as ‘political prisoners’ Corera of course promotes a stance which speaks volumes about his own approach to the subject of PFLP terrorism. But as well as the obvious impartiality issue raised by the use of that phrase, Corera also fails on accuracy.

The Dawson’s Field hijackers did indeed demand the release of prisoners held in Israel, but – as shown in US State Department cables from the time – the PFLP’s primary demand was for the release of prisoners held in three other countries.

“The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has issued a  72-hour ultimatum to the Swiss Government to release three Palestinian Commandos currently serving 12 year sentences in Switzerland for attacking an Israeli airliner in Zurich in 1969.”

Those prisoners were not incarcerated for ‘political’ reasons but due to their having launched a terror attack.

“On February 18, 1969 El Al flight 432, on its way from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv via Zurich, was due to take off at Zurich International Airport. While slowly advancing toward the take-off starting point, the plane was attacked by four terrorists, who opened automatic fire and hurled demolition charges at the aircraft.”

A later US State Department cable states:

“According to news reports, the PFLP has made three demands for release of the aircraft and passengers:  1) release and return to Amman of three PFLP commandos imprisoned in Switzerland; 2) return to Amman of the commando killed in the abortive El Al hijacking and release of his female accomplice; and 3) release of three fedayeen being held in West Germany. A fourth demand, relayed by the PFLP office in Beirut, calls for the release of all fedayeen held in Israel.”

That “female accomplice” was terrorist Leila Khaled who, together with Patrick Argüello, tried to hijack an El Al plane as part of the Dawson’s Field operation. The three terrorists imprisoned in West Germany had carried out an attack on a bus carrying El Al passengers at Munich airport on February 10th 1970, killing one person and wounding 11 others.

The provision of the “oxygen of publicity” for terrorists by the mainstream media and on social media is certainly an interesting topic for discussion. No less crucial to that debate, however, is the issue of how the mainstream media picks and chooses its terrorists and the way in which journalists’ own political opinions affect their portrayal of terrorism to the wider world – as seen in this example unintentionally provided by Gordon Corera.

At the beginning of the programme Corera informs listeners that:

“Here in the newsroom some of the toughest decisions relate to how we cover the subject of terrorism – even the use of the ‘T-word’ itself.”

Having set out to ask “what the media […] can and should do”, it is clear that a topic awaits for a sequel to Corera’s programme.

Related Articles:

Debate widens on BBC avoidance of the word terrorist

Mapping the BBC’s inconsistent use of the word ‘terror’

Where can terrorism be named as such by the BBC?

BBC R4 gives a platform to terrorist Leila Khaled