Language wars flare up at the BBC and elsewhere over Israel-Gaza

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Theoretically, all of us in publishing — whether reporters, editors, managers, or for that matter people in the advertising or production arms of publishers — understand the importance of words and the dangers of using the wrong ones in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The BBC just walked into a storm over its long-standing advice, an explicit guide in fact, that reporters in the field, online, or in news bulletins should not use the word “terrorist” to describe those who commit acts of terror or extreme violence aimed at terrorising a population.

John Simpson, probably the BBC’s most experienced and certainly one of the bravest foreign correspondents, waded in online to defend the BBC against attacks from British Conservative politicians (including the Foreign and Defence Secretaries) about its reluctance to allow its staff — in their own voice as it were — to brand the Hamas gunmen who committed atrocities against civilians in Israel as “terrorists.” He encountered a wave of hostility and vitriol as well as some support, including from me, so I have now received some of the same stuff.

Simpson took to X, formerly Twitter, to defend BBC style rules on “terrorist.”


BBC correspondent John Simpson explains the media company's policy of not labeling groups "terrorists."
BBC correspondent John Simpson explains the media company's policy of not labeling groups "terrorists."

“Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It's simply not the BBC's job to tell people who to support and who to condemn  who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” Simpson wrote in an article on BBC online

The Newsroom Initiative is looking at the whole area of codes, style guides, playbooks, and checklists that the publishing industry uses or perhaps doesn’t use enough to guide its work — especially in areas like dangerous reporting but also in diversity. Such codes, when public, can also be an aid to lofty journalistic organisations being more transparent to readers. 

My initial focus was going to be on codes or guides or playbooks to drive adherence to goals or to improve workflow or deliver on business objectives. All of those matter, and we will deal with them comprehensively. If you have some you can share with me, please do. But the row over “terrorist” highlights the business and reputational risks of words and how we use them.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation walked into a similar controversy when a senior editor reminded staff it was policy there too not to use the word “terrorist” among other guidance related to the Israel-Gaza conflict, including describing the end of occupation in 2005.

Hamas is proscribed by the Canadian and UK governments as a “terrorist” organisation. Other countries, notably Norway where the Oslo peace process was gestated, do not.

The question of “terrorist” and other sometimes arcane but hot-button words is not limited to public broadcasters. Major international news agencies have long had the same explicit policy or just adopted it by osmosis. The Associated Press shifted ground on the word when many Americans couldn’t grasp the nuance after the 9/11 attacks. The AP also issued a comprehensive style note specifically on 9/11 and its remembrances.

In its report on the BBC controversy, The Times in London noted that many organisations it included, along with Sky News and others, also refrained from their own reporters using the word “terrorist” to label those who might have committed acts of terror. 

Again, to the outsider it can seem arcane but it matters when trying to avoid volatile or dangerous judgments. It also matters when news organisations have international reach and have reporters assigned to or living in the locations where alleged “terrorists” are based. It also goes to the heart of the necessary discussions about origins of conflict and asymmetric war.

The BBCs director of editorial policy and standards, David Jordan, told Radio 4’s The Media Show the rule in “terrorist” had been in place for many years and was intended to avoid a perception of bias, though that is what Jewish groups now accused the BBC of.

"Its about making sure that all audiences trust the information that were giving them, that they don’t think the BBC is coming at this from one side of the conflict as opposed to the other, and that we steer a course though this in very difficult circumstances in which our journalism can continue to be factual, accurate, impartial and truthful,” the BBC quoted Jordan as saying.

When I was at Reuters for many years, especially when sending people into difficult situations, the use of the word “terrorist” was very much against style and practice for the same reasons the BBC has given and that many others adhere to. You can talk about the tactics of terror, an incident as terrorism but stop short, other than when quoting others, of “terrorist.”

My old Reuters Handbook for Journalists is clear or at least practical: “On this highly emotive issue, the media are always open to challenge. Do you call a gunman a terrorist or a freedom fighter?” In advice that might well have been superceded in a sense by the scale of terrorism seen since it was published in 1992, the guide suggests avoiding the word terrorist while referring to terrorism but only labelling a given person a terrorist in a quote.

That explicit rule is no longer referenced in the Reuters Standards & Values statement online.

I asked a Reuters spokesman if that advice still pertained (especially since I have this week seen many excellent Reuters reports which appear to steer judiciously away from the word “terrorist” while leaving no doubt as to how heinous the crimes committed in Israel were).

“Reuters’ guidance to its journalists is to ‘report the subjects of news stories objectively, describing their actions, identity and background.’ Reuters aims for a dispassionate use of language and avoids labels in favour of specificity consistent with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles, so that individuals, organisations, and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts,” a spokesman told INMA, adding: “Reuters has more than 2,500 journalists around the world, many covering war and insurrection on either or both sides of disputes. The 172-year history of our news organisation and its reputation as a provider of unbiased and reliable news services has proven the value of our policies.”

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About Peter Bale

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