Mind Your Language

What do ISIS and The Daily Mail have in common? They both try to change behaviour through fear.

I can’t claim the credit for that assertion. It came from one of my friends when discussing the Dail Mail’s latest hateful and untrue article where it’s claimed the BBC has banned the term “terrorist” when referring to Islamic State. There is, apparently, “fury” that journalists are routinely substututing the word “militants” or “jihadists” in news coverage.

And I think I’d be furious too if – as claimed by the Mail – I were to receive an email from Editorial Policy each time I “slipped up”. Yet in the few weeks since the attacks in Paris, I’ve often referred to them in bulletins as “terrorist” incidents. I’ve produced discussion shows where we’ve openly asked “could Nottingnamshire be the scene of a terrorist attack”, and cconducted vox pops along the lines of “does the threat of terrorism worry you?”

I haven’t received a single email from Editorial Policy.

There was one potentially sensitive story (which I won’t detail here) where “upstairs” issued guidance on a terror-related issue. That guidance was discussed, digested and ultimately over-ruled by a local senior manager. Such sensible discussions often happen. After all, guidance is just that – and it’s usually the case that common sense wins the day.

Even the Mail quickly concedes that there is, in fact, no such ban, but goes on to say that the BBC – quite rightly – urges caution against pejorative terminology. In the same way as we wouldn’t say “ISIS terrorists”, nor would we say “brave RAF pilots”. It’s not a resposible, impartial broadcaster’s place to make such judgements. Terms like those are used, but only when attributed to a named source. Again, responsible journalism.

What isn’t responsible is a gung-ho rag littering its pages with the words “maniacs”. Or routinely running front page headlines and graphics which effectively amount to religious incitement, a crime punishable by a prison sentence.

In the past, it’s also true to say that political interference has clouded some of the language we use. The “Bedroom Tax” was revised to the “Spare Room Subsidy” after pressure from Whitehall. We were left with the silly situation of having to use the phrase “what critics call the Bedroom Tax”. It was less to do with a BBC ruling and more about the management caving in to pressure. I’d hate to think the same will happen this time around.

The Mail hides behind handy quotes from MPs to illustrate the alleged hysteria around the BBC’s actions. But it’s really just an excuse for it to do some more baseless bashing.

And the day I take lessons in ethics from the Daily Mail is the day I quit.

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