One of the many vociferous little wars of words fought on the social medium known as X in the aftermath of the atrocious attack by Hamas on Israeli men women and children on 7 October, was over the use or avoidance of the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’.

Looking at the looming big picture  ̶  a full-on war that could lead to the deaths of yet more Israelis and more Hamas fighters as well as residents of Gaza and many civilians, military and militants from the West Bank, Hezbollah and neighbouring countries  ̶  this skirmish on the X bubble may seem petty. 

But words and language are important, and more powerful than many give them credit for – especially at a time of war. I also have a long-time interest in how media comports itself. So I’ll drill down a little on this sidebar issue of the media and the words being used in this new war. 

Geopolitics is the realm of the male nerds in my family. Although I was once, in 1982 or thereabouts, one of only a small group of young South Africans who knew that Walid Jumblatt and the Druze were not a rock band from Lebanon, but a political player and a minority Muslim sect living in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, I have mostly refrained from entering deep-into-the-night debates on solutions to the Israel/Palestine stalemate. I have also not kept a particularly close watch on the myriad of other factional disputes and brutalities, what I like to call by the Yiddish word ‘faribels’, of the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, even my occasional glances in that direction have made it clear that Hamas is a genocidal organisation that has regularly been proven to have lied in its propaganda. It cares little for any people, including the Palestinian people it’s held hostage, without recourse to elections, in Gaza since it took over control in 2007. 

But back to that little spat that broke out when the BBC chose to describe Hamas as a militant organisation with fighters, and to make no reference to terrorism or terrorists in reporting the start of this latest Israeli/Gaza conflict. 

Defending the BBC from its critics, veteran BBC correspondent and World Affairs Editor John Simpson says his colleagues are adhering to the organisation’s style guide, and avoiding a loaded word. It is not, he says, the broadcaster’s job, according to its founding principles, to tell people whom to support and whom to condemn.

I’m familiar with style guides and the need for journalists to follow the style of their employer. I was part of a team that drafted the first style guide for Independent Radio News back in the early eighties at Capital 604. It broke away from the position of the government-controlled SABC, and was the first in South Africa to recommend journalists to avoid using the word terrorist. We were at that time very much aware that a terrorist in the South African context could as easily be another’s freedom fighter. We were also very much liberal children of our time.

It’s interesting to see that the BBC News style guide has, since 2006, had a special editorial guideline section Israel and the Palestinians ( )which indicates a slightly more prescriptive approach than in its general style guide:

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.’

The trouble with this careful ‘non-judgemental’ approach in reporting for what is admittedly, when it comes to the BBC, a vast, diverse audience of listeners, is that it often fails to adequately convey the horror of the ‘unprecedented attack’ by ‘Hamas militants’ on Israeli civilians.    

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has accused the BBC of practising double standards. Last year it declared it believed it to be the third most anti-semitic entity after Hamas and Iran.  

According to a report by Craig Simpson in The Telegraph on the row over the BBC’s style guidance, the Communications Director at the SWC, Michele Alkin said ‘There has been a long, double standard by the BBC, as well as other media outlets, in terms of usage of the term “terrorist” vis-a-vis Israel.

‘It is absolutely imperative there be one, fair standard used. Sadly, the Jewish State continues to be singled out’. She said the centre wanted a review of the policy concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Style Guides do need constant review. If this isn’t terrorism – defined in Collins Dictionary as ‘the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve political ends’ – what would be the circumstances or scale of an incident involving the slaughter of over a thousand people have to be, before it is called terrorism? Or is the BBC simply betraying its own moral position on a specific issue?   

In the hoard of papers remaining from my old professional life I find an excerpt from a 30+ year-old Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio News style guide. On writing conversational scripts that engage audiences it mentions what I think many journalists are forgetting:  

‘We forget we’re story tellers…we hide behind unnecessary facts and hide behind vague, abstract, lifeless language. …We lose much…much of our humanity’. 

On involvement: ‘We are impartial. We don’t take sides. It does not follow that our news should be without feeling’.

Maybe this is a relic from a gentler, less narcissistic or arrogant media period. 

The Telegraph probably had a little more time on 7 October than the BBC to devise its headline for this atrocious, triggering event in the Middle East. The paper also knows its target audience well: 

Hamas terrorists butcher civilians as stunned Israel suffers ‘9/11’ moment

It’s a headline that certainly comes closer to conveying the story of the actual events of that day; the “truth” that many of us on social media, who dared, could see for ourselves on the videos the terrorists themselves had supplied to the world via their bodycams.

Journalists, however, are continuing to make errors and fools of themselves in their overly eager efforts at impartiality.

The Washington Post App recently carried a caption to an image of ‘a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz’ who is trying to track where her children are. The caption stated; ‘Two of her children had been detained by Hamas’.

There must have been a swift and powerful howl of derision from WP readers to that ridiculous use of the word ‘detained’, because the first caption was very quickly, and unfortunately, also stealthily, corrected to read: ‘Two of her children have been taken hostage by Hamas’.

Mainstream media has also shown a surprising tendency towards the gullibility of a newbie intern, when it comes to Hamas and Palestinian health authorities’ reports on events inside Gaza and casualties among the Palestinians living there. 

In war it is essential to be cautious on any claims that sound slightly out of kilter or which you cannot immediately or easily verify. Media knows this, but the tendency these days seems to be to favour whoever the journalists may have convinced themselves is the underdog; the powerless victim worthy of being given a ‘voice’ and gaining freedom from oppression. The relentless cycle of digital news and social media also pressures them into unfortunate haste.

I realise that by using the term ‘terrorist’ I have nailed my colours to the mast and demonstrated something about my values, just as Hamas did when its attackers came over the Israeli border intent on targeting whoever they came across. 

I am indeed fortunate to enjoy the freedom these days to be able to say what I believe. Maybe this is what the woke call speaking ‘my truth’. 

I am also happy to declare myself one of a very large tribe that believes, whether Jews or non-Jews, liberal or conservative, religious or non-religious, that that there is something repugnant about rejoicing and celebrating the brutal death or abuse of any child; even your enemy’s child; that people who deliberately torture or who purposely kill children, whether on a farm or township in South Africa, are monsters. People who train children to kill other people, whether it is Hamas, or gangsters in the Cape Flats, are monsters whatever their ‘reasons’ for taking this step. 

I am of the tribe that regards Hamas as another Isis. 

As Ayaan Hirsi Ali says in a feature article in the British Daily Mail on 13 October: ‘“hey (ISIS) are the enemies of Israel; they are the enemies of all Jews; they are the enemies of Palestinians; they are the enemies of peace and freedom. They are the enemies of Western civilisation itself’.

There may be many South Africans who say they do not care about Western civilisation. But those who are not wholly ignorant know that it will be missed if it goes.

[Photo: A blood-soaked child’s bed in Kibbutz Kfar Aza seen in a photo shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Oct. 11, 2023 in the aftermath of the Hamas assault on Israel on Oct. 7. (X/Netanyahu)]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.