The BBC, the MPs and the semantics of ISIS terrorism

Those without access to the Times may have missed the gem published on July 2nd under the headline “BBC: we must be fair with Islamic State“.Tony Hall

“The head of the BBC has refused demands from 120 MPs to drop the term Islamic State on the ground that its coverage of the terrorist group must be impartial.

Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the director- general, warned that an alternative name for the militants was “pejorative” and said that the broadcaster needed to “preserve the BBC’s impartiality”.

The background to the story is frankly no less bizarre:

“MPs want the corporation to drop the label Islamic State to deprive the extremists of associations with Islam or statehood.

Rehman Chishti, the Tory MP who has led calls for a change of name, said last night that the BBC’s response in a letter to him was “unacceptable” and criticised its “excuse” for rejecting the term Daesh, an Arabic acronym seen by Isis as derogatory. […]

Mr Chishti said that many Muslims would be offended by the BBC’s use of the word “Islamic” in the name of a group responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent civilians and the beheading of western hostages.”

One imagines that many Muslims would actually be more offended by ISIS’ hijacking of the term ‘Islamic’ to excuse its violent atrocities than by BBC terminology but apparently a letter from British MPs to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not yet in the post.

The article goes on:

“In a letter to the MP, seen by The Times, Lord Hall said that the word Daesh risked giving the “impression of support” for the group’s opponents and “would not preserve the BBC’s impartiality”. Daesh was pejorative and the BBC would not be using it in its output, he added. Instead, he pledged to “redouble our efforts” to use caveats such as the “Islamic State group”. […]

In his response to Mr Chishti, Lord Hall said that the BBC would use terms such as “the Islamic State group” to “distinguish it from an actual, recognised state”. He added: “We will also continue to use other qualifiers when appropriate, eg extremists, militants, fighters etc. To avoid overuse we will also usually revert to IS after one mention of the Islamic State group.”

The director-general erroneously claimed that the term Daesh was not an Arabic acronym, before correctly adding that it was “a pejorative name coined in Arabic by its enemies, including Assad supporters and other opponents in Syria”.”

Readers are told that:

“According to the Arabic translator Alice Guthrie, Isis dislikes the fact that Daesh sounds similar to the word “daes”, meaning someone who crushes or tramples things underfoot.”

Alice Guthrie has written a much more comprehensive explanation of the term Daesh:

“So what does Daesh really mean? Well, D.A.E.SH is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym formed of the same words that make up I.S.I.S in English: ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, or ‘لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام’ (‘al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam’). That’s the full name chosen by the organisation, and – when used in full – it’s definitely how they want to be referred to. In Arabic, just like in English, that phrase consists of six words, four of which make it into the acronym (‘in’ and ‘and’ are omitted) : ‘دولة dowla’ (state) + ‘إسلامية islaamiyya’ (Islamic) + ‘عراق i’raaq’ (Iraq) + ‘شام  shaam’. That last word, ‘shaam’, is variously used in Arabic to denote Damascus (in Syrian dialect) ‘Greater Syria’ / the Levant, or Syria – hence the US-preferred acronym ISIL, with the L standing for Levant.” 

Quite how British MPs arrived at the conclusion that the use of an acronym which includes the Arabic word ‘islaamiyya’ is less offensive than the employment of the English word ‘Islamic’ is – to this writer at least – a mystery.

Equally unclear is why the use of the word Islamic in the term ‘Islamic State’ is allegedly controversial and offensive but its use in the titles of other terrorist organisations such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Ḥarakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah (more often known by the acronym Hamas) has apparently escaped the notice of British MPs.

Of course the BBC’s self-imposed need to “be impartial” about a vicious terrorist organization speaks volumes in itself – as does its stubborn employment of euphemisms such as “extremists, militants, fighters” in place of the word which most accurately and clearly describes an organization engaged in terrorizing the populations of large parts of the Middle East and beyond. Frankly though, it would have been unrealistic to expect any different a response from an organization which finds the use of the word terror too “loaded”.  

 

Gloves are off in the BBC’s battle for the licence fee

Change and reform at the BBC has been the theme of quite a few recent media reports – including some coming from the BBC itself.

Although it has yet to be approved by the BBC Trust, a proposal has been put forward to close down BBC Three television in the autumn of 2015 and to move its content online.  The future of BBC Four is apparently also up for discussion. 

“BBC Four could be the next television channel to be scrapped, after the corporation confirmed that BBC Three was to become available on the internet only.

Danny Cohen, the director of television, said that he was unable to guarantee the future of BBC Four, the highbrow art and culture channel, as the organisation sought cut costs.

He warned that if the next license fee settlement was not sufficiently generous, the channel could be next in the firing line. He was speaking after the BBC unveiled plans for the youth channel, BBC Three, to be moved online, to save £50 million a year.

Asked on Richard Bacon’s 5Live radio show if he could guarantee the future of BBC Four, Mr Cohen, a former controller of BBC Three, said: “The honest answer to that is ‘No, we can’t say for certain what will happen to BBC Four in the future’.”

He added: “For BBC4, that means if future funding for the BBC comes under more threat then the likelihood is we would have to take more services along the same route.” “

As The Telegraph points out:

“The comments will be seen in the context of the charter renewal and license negotiations with ministers, due to be completed by the end of 2016.

They serve as a warning to the government and other opinion formers that another settlement considered harsh by the BBC will put other services at risk, including BBC Four – a favourite of the political and chattering classes.”

Concurrently, some MPs are proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee whilst the BBC’s director general recently promoted the idea of extending it to cover BBC iPlayer.

“Hall used a speech at the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday to mount a robust defence of the BBC and the licence fee, saying it was “one of the finest broadcasting organisations in the world” and “great value for money” reaching 96% of the population ever [sic] week.

Far from the licence fee being abolished, as some critics have argued, Hall said it should be extended to take account of the different ways in which people consume TV and radio in the digital age, on their computer, iPad or smartphone.”

Seeing as the licence fee is currently obligatory payment for anyone watching television in the UK even if they do not actually view BBC-produced content, Tony Hall’s comments obviously raise the interesting question of whether the same principle would, under his proposal, be applied to owners of computers, tablets or smartphones regardless of whether they in fact access BBC iPlayer or not. 

In its own report on Tony Hall’s proposal to extend the licence fee to BBC iPlayer, the BBC devoted considerable column space to the amplification of a recent report produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

“Speaking at the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday, however, Lord Hall said the “flexible” nature of the licence fee allowed it to adapt over the years to encompass changing patterns of viewers’ behaviour.

His comments come amid renewed calls for the licence fee to be shared with other broadcasters and for it to be cut in response to the BBC’s alleged mismanagement of its financial affairs.

They also coincided with the publication of a new study that claims cutting the BBC licence fee will limit consumer choice and value for money.

The report suggests the BBC would be “reduced to a minor sideshow” if so-called “salami-slicing” continues.

Without BBC television, it claims, most viewers would “have a greatly reduced choice of programmes they wanted to watch”.

The report, by Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, is entitled What If There Were No BBC Television?: The Net Impact on UK Viewers.

Its authors, the academics Patrick Barwise and Robert G Picard, say that without BBC TV there would be less revenue in the TV industry and as much as 25% less investment in content.

The latter, they write, would be “a severe blow to British production companies” of the kind that generate “first-run UK content”.

The report assumes that commercial broadcasters would increase their investment in content if they were no longer “crowded out” by the BBC.

Despite this, it insists there will be less overall investment – and that most UK households would “suffer detriment”.

It says they would either be “paying slightly more for slightly less choice” than they currently do with the licence fee, or “paying slightly less for much less choice”.

“The onus should now be on those arguing for a smaller BBC to provide some kind of evidence and argument about why they believe it would lead to a better outcome for the UK public,” the report continues.”

However, this BBC article neglected to inform readers that the organisation which produced the seemingly objective, academic report on “the net impact” of potential changes to the BBC – the Oxford University-based ‘Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’ – was, according to its 2012/13 report (see page 51), a recipient of funding  from the BBC College of Journalism, BBC Global News, BBC Media Action and the BBC Trust and that its advisory board (which, inter alia, gives “advice and guidance on general research directions”) is chaired by Chris Patten, who is also of course the Chancellor of Oxford University and chairman of the BBC Trust.

Clearly the gloves are off in the BBC’s battle to keep – and even extend – the licence fee, but it will be interesting to see whether the funds provided by BBC licence fee payers will also be used to enable them to read, watch or hear alternative views on the subject and how the BBC will handle the rather glaring conflict of interests when it comes to reporting the debate surrounding its own funding. 

New BBC DG coy on subject of licence fee

The latest Director General of the BBC, Lord Tony Hall, began his new position this week with an e-mail to BBC staff and an interview on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme. 

Tony Hall interview Today programme

During the interview – which is well worth a listen in full – Hall claimed that public trust in the BBC is rising and that he intends to respond “to things I hear from both outsiders and also insiders”. The delightfully feisty programme host John Humphrys raised the subject of the licence fee, but Hall declined to give a straight answer to the question “does the BBC need more money?”. 

On that issue, The Commentator recently published a very interesting article by the initiator of a petition calling for a referendum on the licence fee.

“The Licence Fee was established at a time when there was no alternative to State-funded radio or television, but has now created a dumb, yet enormously fat and happy playground bully that pervades, influences and commands almost every aspect of the British way of life.

In an age of media “a la carte”, the BBC insists on dictating the menu, as well as fixing the price. The politicians won’t take the lead in muzzling this beast: the Tories had their opportunity but are running scared; Labour and the Lib Dems sycophantically suck-up to get their free shot of publicity (Vince Cable is almost a saint). Even UKIP is strangely silent on this issue.

So it is up to us, the great British public, to do something about it.”

If Mr Hall is genuinely interested in listening to his funding public, the proposal raised by this petition presents an innovative and inclusive way in which to do so.