The BBC’s head of editorial policy has explained why the broadcaster chooses not to use the word “terrorist” to describe Hamas fighters after the corporation was heavily criticised for maintaining its long-standing position.
Politicians, lawyers and journalists have joined a backlash against the licence fee-funded organisation’s decision as the BBC’s venerated foreign correspondent John Simpson defended the coverage – claiming “calling someone a terrorist means you’re taking sides”.
What has happened?
Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from the Palestinian territory of Gaza on Saturday, in what has been condemned as the deadliest day in the state’s history.
Fighters stormed Israel’s Supernova music festival, massacring more than 260 people. At the same time, Hamas laid siege to other Israeli communities, killing hundreds more and taking soldiers and civilians hostage.
Israel subsequently declared war on Hamas, calling them “human animals” while announcing a complete siege of Gaza.
The Israeli Defence Forces’ data shows at least 1,300 Israelis have died, and more than 2,700 have been injured so far.
Gaza Health Ministry reports that at least 1,354 Palestinians have died, and 6,049 have been injured to date.
What is Hamas?
The group emerged after splitting from the Muslim Brotherhood during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 1987. It wants to eradicate the Jewish state, and is prepared to do it through armed violence.
Hamas is the governing power in the Gaza Strip, which it rules by force.
The UK government has had Hamas on its list of terrorist organisations since 2021. The US, the EU, Canada, Egypt and Japan also refer to Hamas as a designated terrorist organisation.
But Hamas also has allies, and it is part of a regional alliance including Iran, Syria, and the Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What is the BBC’s policy?
The guidelines suggest journalists use words which specifically describe the perpetrator, such as “bomber”, “attacker” or “gunman” instead. In full, its guidelines on the use of language state:
“Our reporting of possible acts of terror should be timely and responsible, bearing in mind our requirement for due accuracy and impartiality. Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements. We should not use the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution.
“The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as ‘bomber’, ‘attacker’, ‘gunman’, ‘kidnapper’, ‘insurgent’ and ‘militant’. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.”
Who has been critical of the stance?
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has accused broadcasters of trying to “wilfully mislead” by not using the word terrorist.
In Westminster, UK defence secretary Grant Shapps called on the corporation to “get the moral compass out” and Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the broadcaster to “explain” its reasoning.
The BBC’s former North America editor Jon Sopel criticised his ex-employer, saying that its current editorial guidelines were “no longer fit for purpose”.
Four of Britain’s most senior lawyers have accused the BBC of abandoning impartiality by refusing to describe Hamas as “terrorists”.
In a letter to Ofcom, Lord Wolfson KC, Lord Pannick KC, Lord Grabiner KC and Jeremy Brier KC urged the regulator to investigate the corporation.
They claimed that “it is beyond doubt that the BBC has not shown impartiality in terms of the nomenclature it uses to refer to Hamas as ‘militants’.”
The authors of the letter said that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and “that is not a matter of debate or discussion. It is a matter of legal fact”.
How has the BBC responded?
On Wednesday, the broadcaster’s David Jordan, head of editorial policy and standards, was questioned by BBC media editor Katie Razzall, and he emphasised concerns about perceptions of “bias” and retaining the “trust” of its audience.
When asked “why not just use the word terrorist”, he responded: “This is a very long-standing policy of the BBC which in our view has stood the test of time.
“It’s a policy that’s been applied to conflicts around the world and indeed conflicts in our own country.
“We didn’t have a policy of describing the IRA as terrorists throughout the Troubles in Northern Ireland. To this day, we don’t call republican splinter groups, for example, and others terrorists in that context.”
He added subjects being interviewed by the BBC, who aren’t the broadcaster’s journalists, are free to use the term.
Jordan said it was because “people ascribe the use of that language to bias on the part of that the BBC if they hear it on one side or the other”.
When questioned on people who find it “offensive” that the “Hamas massacres aren’t being described as being the work of terrorists”, Jordan said: “We’ve called them massacres, we’ve called murders, we’ve called them out for what things are, and that doesn’t in any way devalue the awfulness of what is what is going on. Using words based on terror around it don’t necessarily help people to understand what’s going on.”
He added the approach “of all international broadcasters and many other parts of the media ... helps to keep the trust of all our audiences, helps us to steer a path between two very conflicting narratives in a very emotional and difficult situation”.