BBC Terrorist Policy to Prevent Bias is Biased

An independent panel reported that the BBC’s refusal to use the word “terrorist” to describe terrorists is itself a value judgment that biases coverage.

The BBC has rejected a call made by an independent panel studying charges of bias in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to change its editorial policies on the use of the word “terrorist” and appoint a senior editor to oversee its Middle East coverage. Using the word “terrorist” to describe attacks on civilians, BBC management argued in a paper released June 19, would make the “very value judgments” it had been asked to eschew.

An independent panel in May found the BBC’s reporting from Israel did “not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.”


The report chided the BBC over its reluctance to use the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” and recommended it describe violent attacks upon civilians that had the intent of causing terror for political or ideological reasons “whether perpetrated by state or non-state agencies” as “terrorism.”

The BBC’s Board of Governors “welcomed the finding of no deliberate or systematic bias” noting, “most viewers and listeners” in the UK “regard the BBC as unbiased.” However, they said they had “not been persuaded to change the Editorial Guidelines” on the use of the word “terrorist.” Using the word “terrorist” in the manner defined by the panel, BBC management argued, “would exclude attacks on soldiers” and would make “the very value judgments” the Editorial Guidelines “ask us to avoid.” The BBC management stated that they do permit the use of the word “terrorist,” but cautioned its reporters “against its use without attribution.”

This is the paradox described by the rock band Rush in their 1981 classic “Free Will”: “If you chose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Unlike many on the right, I acknowledge the BBC’s premise: The use of the label “terrorist” essentially poisons the well and tarnishes not only the group commiting the terrorism but also the cause for which they fight. Phrases like “Islamic terrorists” or “Palestinian terrorists” are not necessarily self-contained in the minds of readers to Hamas, al Qaeda, and the like but to Muslims and Palestinians generally. At the same time, however, to mislabel terrorists as “militants” or “insurgents” or to eschew labels altogether has the opposite effect; it legitates the actions of the terrorists by elevating them to co-equal status with the soldiers of a state.

Where precisely one draws the line is a judgment call. It is well beyond where BBC has placed it, however.

FILED UNDER: Media, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven Plunk says:

    How about drawing the line at purposely targeting noncombatants or civilians?

  2. James Joyner says:

    That’s where I draw it. BBC apparently feels that there is no moral distinction between that and killing soldiers, however.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I guess the BBC didn’t want to rehash the German complaints about Dresden.