Contributors’ Special

Mighty though the Media Lens team is – what with its three part-time, unpaid staff! – there is only so much we can do. We are therefore truly delighted when readers and subscribers support our efforts by writing to journalists and editors, and by sending us their analysis, letters and replies. We are particularly keen to receive letters that maintain a polite tone – it is not at all our intention to insult, rile or attack journalists.

Some of the contributions we’ve received have been so excellent that we feel compelled to temporarily shelve our own paltry efforts to make space for them. Below, please find the first (of many, we hope) Media Lens Media Alert – Contributors’ Special.

In a recent Guardian article, Rod Liddle, editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, wrote: “The general level of intelligence is way higher in news than that demanded of it.” Read it and weep, Mr. Liddle…

The Editors – Media Lens

From: Oliver Tickell, 5.12.01

Dear BBC,

I am getting really fed up with all this talk of Israel “striking Palestinian targets”. The very word “targets” legitimises the actions of the Israeli military. After all, what are “targets” there for other than to be hit?

These “targets” as we know from past experience are schools, police stations, hospitals, people’s homes, political party offices and random civilians who get in the way. They are no more legitimate than the targets chosen by the Real IRA on the British mainland.

Does the BBC refer to the Real IRA striking “British targets”? Does it speak of Palestinian suicide bombers as hitting “Israeli targets”?

What is increasingly clear is that terrorism in Israel/Palestine is a distinctly two-sided affair. On the one side, we have desperate Palestinian men who are prepared to commit suicide as they bomb Israeli buses and pizza parlours with their distinctly low-tech weaponry. Terrorism? Certainly.

On the other side, we have one of the world’s most powerful military forces, equipped with the world’s most advanced and deadly machines of death, supported by the world’s most ruthless and effective security organisation, and backed to the hilt by the United States no matter how outrageously criminal its actions. This formidable military and political force is being used to murder children, assassinate political leaders, ravage orchards and farmland, demolish homes and destroy the little that remains of Palestine’s already shattered infrastructure.

Let us add that the state of Israel, to which I am referring, is in possession of large swathes of Palestinian territory in clear violation of multiple UN resolutions. That homes for Israelis continue to be built on these illegally occupied terrritories. That the Israeli Government until recently (yes, when he was assassinated) included a man who described Palestinans as “lice” who should be expelled and “go to Mecca” (comparable in a British context to a position way to the right of even the despicable National Front).

That it is led by a man the BBC itself has held responsible for war crimes involving the murders of hundreds of civilian refugees in the Lebanon. That in the current phase of conflict 200 Israelis have been killed compared to 800 Palestinians. And that, as revealed on the BBC’s Newsnight (well done, Paxman), that Israeli snipers deliberately shoot to kill children engaging in demonstrations as shown by the statistical bias of bullet wounds to head and chest.

Is Israel committing terrorism? Yes, on a truly grand scale! Both “sides” are using the tactic of terrorism, but in this conflict Palestine is David and Israel Goliath. Please, BBC, give us the even-handed and objective coverage of this conflict to which we are entitled!

Oliver Tickell

Answer from Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman received, 5.12.01

“Thanks for this. It’s a good point about ‘targets.’ I’ll do my best… JP

From Matt Ward, 4.12.01

Daily Telegraph, Op Ed piece “Arafat’s deadly blunder”, Tuesday December 4th.

“The bombings were a clear signal to Washington that its mediation was not welcome and that the only way of dealing with Israel was to drive it into the sea.”

This ignores the fact that the weekend’s suicide attacks were very likely conducted in response to the assassination of a leading figure in Hamas last week, and the ongoing sense of injustice that Israel is allowed to continue occupying Palestinian land, despite UN resolutions calling on them to withdraw. Compare and contrast the treatment of Iraq after invading Kuwait. There’s more:

“But calling for peace talks in the present circumstances is cant. Eventual reconciliation between the two sides is, of course, desirable. It will not be achieved, however, by equating Palestinian terrorist attacks with Israeli countermeasures, as Peter Hain, a junior Foreign Office minister, did in October, nor by seeking to lessen Mr. Arafat’s responsibility for violence, as Ben Bradshaw, his colleague, did over the weekend.”

Note the use of the terms “Palestinian terrorist attacks” and “Israeli countermeasures”, which clearly portrays Israel as the victim, despite the above-mentioned assassination, which was clearly highly provocative to say the least. Strangely, the article puts the blame squarely on Arafat’s shoulders, despite the admission that he is in a no-win situation, and has very little room to manoeuvre:

“In November, when he arrested an Islamic Jihad commander in Jenin, more than 2,500 Palestinians rioted. It is that confrontation magnified that he faces in any serious attempt to crush the extremists.”


Matt Ward

From: Eddie D’Sa, 9.10.01

To: BBC Ceefax
Subject: When is the term ‘mob’ used?

Dear Editor (Ceefax),

In today’s Ceefax (page 101), there is one item about a “mob at US embassy (in Indonesia)”.

The choice of word ‘mob’ suggests you disapprove of their stand against an ally and therefore depict them as an unthinking mass. This can influence your viewers unfairly.

Why not use the neutral word ‘protestors’?

Would you say: “British mob gathers at Zimbabwe embassy”? I doubt it.

Please resist using terms that reflect the BBC’s particular political affiliations and loyalties.

I’d welcome your comments.


From: Iain Rodger Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2001 1:31 PM Subject: RE: When is the term ‘mob’ used?

Thank you for your e-mail. I do not agree that the use of “mob” to describe a group of violent protesters suggests that the BBC disapproves of their stand. A mob typically is a disorderly crowd but, in fact, it is not necessarily unruly and might just as well be autograph hunters surrounding David Beckham as the sinister gathering you suggest. However, I can confirm that it is our policy to use neutral language, in line with the BBC’s deserved reputation for neutrality, and I would accept it was possible that some people might assume from the headline that the protests had been more violent than they were. For that reason we have changed it.

Thank you again for contacting us – we do value the contributions of our readers. I must emphasise, however, that no “political affiliations and loyalties” are reflected in BBC news.


Iain Rodger
Deputy Editor, Ceefax

From: Eddie D’Sa, 7.10.01

To: NewsOnline
Subject: What’s a terrorist to the BBC?

Dear BBC,

The word ‘terrorist’ has been overworked but curiously no clear definition is provided. What’s the position of the BBC?

According to NBC News executive Bill Wheatley, the label applies to “A group of people commandeered airliners and used them as guided missiles against thousands of people.”

Wall Street Journal tells its staff that the word terrorist “should be used carefully, and specifically, to describe those people and nongovernmental organizations that plan and execute acts of violence against civilian or noncombatant targets.”

Note that this definition rules out ‘state terrorism’ which countries like the US have indulged in for years.

In sharp contrast, Reuters has been fairer:

“As part of a policy to avoid the use of emotive words,” the global news service says, “we do not use terms like ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ unless they are in a direct quote or are otherwise attributable to a third party. We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts.”

Unless we ignore “state terrorism”, the restricted use of the term by U.S. media makes no sense. US backed interventions have killed millions of civilians throughout the world. During the 1980s, news accounts would have routinely referred to the Nicaraguan contra guerrillas — in addition to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments — as U.S.-backed “terrorists.” Today, for instance, such a standard would require the term ‘terrorism’ to apply to Israeli assaults with bullets and missiles that take the lives of Palestinian children and other civilians.

Evenhanded use of the “terrorist” label would mean affixing it directly on the U.S. government. During the past decade, from Iraq to Sudan to Yugoslavia, the Pentagon’s missiles have destroyed the lives of civilians just as innocent as those who perished on Sept. 11. Since then, by continuing to impose sanctions on Iraq, the U.S. government has killed hundreds of thousands more children.

The US & UK have been bombing Iraq for years – without UN sanction. Many civilians have been killed and infrastructure damaged. Is this state terrorism for the BBC or not? Can the West and Israel ever commit terrorist acts or are they the sole preserve of the uncivilised non-West? How precisely does the BBC view this term? Kindly clarify.

E D’Sa

Reply from BBC Information, 28.10.01

Dear Eddie

Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the term ‘terrorism’. I apologise for the delay in our reply. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response, and it is a matter of regret to us that you have had to wait for so long on this occasion.

The language and terminology used in our news reports is an important consideration. The reporting of terrorist attacks is not as straightforward as may first appear and each instance is considered individually. The way we describe particular organisations depends on many things, including the context in which we are reporting; what may be a fair description of one group may not be true of another. In respect of BBC policy, our Producers’ Guidelines states:

‘Reporting terrorist violence is an area which particularly tests our international services. Our credibility is severely undermined if international audiences detect a bias for or against any of those involved. Neutral language is key: even the word ‘terrorist’ can appear judgmental in parts of the world where there is no clear consensus about the legitimacy of militant political groups.’

Thank you again for contacting the BBC.


Colin Cumming
BBC Information