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British Biased Corporation? Terrorists in London, gunmen in Mumbai

BBC says it has not banned t-word, insiders say debate rages on in newsroom

Written by Mihirsharma | New Delhi |
December 3, 2008 1:19:17 am

The BBC, attempting to appear unbiased, has laid itself open to accusations of bias. A group of politicians in the UK’s ruling Labour party have questioned the BBC’s use — or its decision to avoid using — the word “terrorist” to describe the 10 men responsible for nearly 200 deaths in Mumbai and calling them “gunmen” or “militants” instead.

One of them, Steve Pound, who represents the South Asian-heavy constituency of Ealing North in the British Parliament, said in a statement released to news agencies that it was “the worst sort of mealy-mouthed posturing.”

The BBC has faced this accusation before: following the July 7, 2005 bombings of the public transport system in London, the perpetrators were described by correspondents as “terrorists”; until, that is, reactions from across the world that detailed how the broadcaster, seemed to be hypocritical in calling those bus bombers in London terrorists, but people who did an identical act in Northern Ireland or Peru “bombers” or “militants”.

Later, BBC chairman Michael Grade told BBC’s Today programme that the broadcaster should have called the July 7 bombers terrorists because they were universally viewed as such within the corporation. BBC is state-owned but independently run. Its guidelines say that the “terrorist” word is not banned, but should be used “sparingly” and that a bare reporting of facts could be a “barrier rather than an aid to understanding” and “undermine” the news organisation’s “credibility”.

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The ultimate decision, they say, is the editor’s and the correspondent’s. Which may explain why British editors after the 7/7 attacks used the word “terrorist” for considerably longer than they did after the attacks in Mumbai. Since then, however, the BBC says it has been particularly circumspect, choosing to avoid making an editorial call for as long as possible on whether something is terrorism or not.

The report archived on the BBC website with the earliest time-stamp, in fact, chooses to call the Mumbai attackers gunmen in most places, and “suspected terrorists” in one — perhaps because the context of the latter is the measures the police said they were taking to contain them. In comparison, the BBC took several days to make the same leap after the London terrorist attacks.

Such decisions are generally made by the London-based editorial corps; those members of the Indian bureau as well as some London-based correspondents who were contacted were unwilling to speak on record. The London-based BBC press office, however, told The Indian Express: “We are not calling them freedom fighters. We are calling them ‘bombers’ or ‘militants’. The fact is terrorist does not have a universal meaning. It translates as freedom fighters in certain languages. We are not alone in not calling them terrorists.”

It also appears that the BBC’s Hindi and Urdu services are much more willing to use the word than the flagship English-language service. CNN, too, took an early editorial call about the use of the word: the attackers are described as “terrorists” in most archived news stories. Of course, all major international bodies have described what happened as “terrorist” attacks: the UN Security Council’s statement called them “reprehensible acts of terrorism”.

When asked at what point the consensus that the act was terrorism and that the actors were terrorists would become so overwhelming that choosing not to call them so would itself act as a “barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, the BBC had no comment. A senior BBC correspondent, however, did say that “debate rages on” within the organization. Another said the organisation delays making the call as long as possible because it is “naturally conservative” in such things.

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