Ministers, from the Prime Minister down, demand that the BBC call Hamas for what they are: terrorists. The BBC refuse – and yet its current terminology, “fighters” conveys a perverse and surreal sense of nobility to the most barbaric acts of terrorism imaginable. Even “militants” doesn’t do justice to the depravity of Hamas.
Still, the BBC seeks to hold the line on how it defines due impartiality in this new and perilous phase of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
No-one could seriously argue that BBC correspondents have not laid bare before the world the pitiless terrifying barbarity of Hamas as they set about door-to-door murdering and mutilating defenceless Jews. This was the Holocaust revisited. Most of the BBC’s reporting has been exemplary.
But then the Corporation clears its throat. Labelling what Hamas did as terrorism “means you’re taking sides and ceasing to treat the situation with due impartiality” says John Simpson, the BBC’s venerable World Affairs Editor. “The BBC’s job is to place the facts before its audience and let them decide what they think, honestly and without ranting.” Ranting, he says, “is not what we do.”
Simpson’s reference to “Ranting” is unhelpful. It rather patronises the understandable frustration of Jews desperate for the world to see Hamas for what it manifestly is – a terrorist organisation.
Calling Hamas terrorists also qualifies as “placing the facts before (the BBC’s) audience”. There cannot be the remotest doubt that Hamas intended to provoke both terror amongst Jews and a merciless backlash from Israel. They seek to trigger a war so intense, as William Hague has put it, that “spreads, igniting an explosion of violence in the West Bank and bringing in Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north, with Israel fighting on multiple fronts.”
Israel is responding as Hamas had hoped. Its 24-hour deadline for 1.1 million Palestinians to leave their homes to spare them the IDF’s imminent ground offensive on northern Gaza is clearly impossible to meet. With supplies of food, water, electricity and oil completely cut off, the coming days in Gaza will indeed be a living hell.
The BBC say that avoiding labelling Hamas as terrorists has been its approach “for decades and is in line with that of other broadcasters.” This weekend Deborah Turness, Chief Executive of BBC News, reminded staff it was “not for us to declare any group as terrorists” but only to attribute the term “when others do.” She also emphasised that it was not the BBC’s “job or role” to describe as terrorists “one side in a long running conflict…and it never has been.”
Yet these strict guidelines, reinforced for the Israel-Palestine conflict, have not always been applied to other conflicts and events. Reviewing the BBC’s online coverage of terrorist incidents around the world since 9/11 reveals frequent use of “terror” or “terrorist” as words of choice by the BBC, as opposed to attributing them to others using them.
Examples: 9/11, New York (2001): “al-Qaeda terrorists …..the deadliest terror attacks on US soil…..the al-Qaeda terror group….” 7/7, London (2005): “…it was the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil…” Charlie Hebdo, Paris (Jan 2015): “Three days of terror….” Bataclan, Paris (Nov 2015) “…… France’s worst ever night of terrorism.. .”; Manchester Arena bombing (2017): “…Manchester terrorist attack…..”; IRAN-IS attack (2017): “… the most serious terrorist violence in Tehran since the turbulent early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution”; Boko Haram, Africa (2019): “A decade of terror explained… “; Afghanistan (2023): “ Can the Taliban tackle Afghanistan’s terror problem….” And so on.
By contrast, none of the 130 odd BBC Online reports since Saturday’s Hamas attack include “terror” or “terrorist” as the BBC’s choice of words. These words appear only in attribution to others, strictly in accordance with BBC guidelines.
It is for the BBC to explain this inconsistency, but I think I know the answer. It is not about an inherent editorial bias against Israel, as ministers and others perhaps suspect. Rather, it is because no other conflict provokes such intense passions on both sides that a particular apprehensiveness has crept into the editorial mindset of the BBC. Sky, by contrast, has referred to “Hamas terrorists”, as has ITV in both broadcasts and online.
This mindset may also explain why the FA and Premier League have just declined to illuminate Wembley Stadium with the colours of the Israeli flag, whereas in 2015 Wembley marked their respects with the French tricolour in the aftermath of 130 slaughtered by ISIS in 2015. More than ten times as many Israelis and others (including 17 British citizens) were shot, knifed, burned, mutilated or kidnapped by Hamas last weekend.
Presumably neither the FA nor the Premier League want to have to deal with the inevitable backlash – verbal and quite possibly violent — from the many thousands of Palestinian supporters in the UK.
Cities all over the world, including Britain, have witnessed pro-Palestinian demonstrators, all of them convinced of their anti-racist rectitude, positively rejoicing at Hamas’s murderous assault in pursuit of what they call Palestinian “human rights”.
How should we see these protestors other than as supporters of terrorism?
Four eminent Jewish barristers have also accused the BBC of “taking sides” with Hamas by not calling them terrorists because under UK law, Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation. Again, there is logic to the argument: the BBC should just report the facts, established by statute. By deliberately choosing to describe Hamas in more sympathetic terms, the Corporation is failing in its duty to be impartial.
The BBC might argue that these lawyers have made their point for them: the BBC is a global operation and millions of listeners, in the UK and around the world, don’t agree with the “facts” as the British Government (or Parliament) sees them. In this digital age, it is no longer possible to assume an easy split between calling Hamas “terrorists” at home whilst referring to them as “fighters” for, say, the BBC Arabic service. The BBC says the word “terrorist” can be “a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”. So, its management reasons, better to try to inform the whole of the BBC’s global audience of the facts of an atrocity so that they continue to tune into the BBC, than to lose a sizeable chunk of the audience.
In which case, not just Hamas, but all other terrorist perpetrators should be exempt from being referred to as “terrorists” — including, rather remarkably, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. At least then the BBC would be able to claim consistency across the entire terrorist spectrum with a credible defence against the charge, implicit in the intervention by ministers, that the Corporation’s coverage of the conflict is not duly impartial.
Alternatively, align the reporting of Hamas with how the BBC has reported other terrorist organisations and events. Consistency matters. As it stands, the BBC’s defence of due impartiality in this instance is sufficiently flawed as to be unconvincing.
John Ware is a freelance broadcaster and writer. He was a reporter for BBC Panorama for 26 years.
A Message from TheArticle
We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout these hard economic times. So please, make a donation.