BBC News revisits a 30 year-old terror attack – avoiding the term terror

On March 31st an article by Megha Mohan appeared on the BBC News website – including in the ‘Features’ section of its Middle East page. Titled “Inside a hijack: The unheard stories of the Pan Am 73 crew“, the article brings accounts of that September 1986 hijacking from six members of the plane’s crew and obviously most of its subject matter focuses on those testimonies of the events.Pan Am 73 art

However, it is interesting to note the way in which the perpetrators of the hijacking – and their perceived motives – are portrayed by the BBC.

The terrorists’ aims are described as follows: [emphasis added]

“The gunmen’s plan was to force the pilots to fly them to Cyprus and Israel, where other members of their militant group were incarcerated on terror charges.”


“Around four hours into the siege, the hijackers began trying to identify the Americans on board. The Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO), which they were members of, was opposed to US and Israeli policy in the Middle East.”

The hijackers are described as follows:

“Security forces laid siege to the New York-bound plane for 16 hours at Karachi airport after the jet was taken over by Palestinian militants on 5 September 1986. There was a bloody end – 22 people killed and about 150 injured.” [emphasis added]

Additional descriptions used throughout the article include “gunmen”, “militants” and “hijackers”.

The description “terrorists” appears in one direct quote:

“Dilip Bidichandani, another steward, is adamant that the pilots’ escape actually saved more lives.

“The pilots evacuating the airplane… meant that we were not at the mercy of the terrorists, who could have instructed the plane to be flown into a building, or even blown up whilst in flight.””

An insert providing background information reads:

“The Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO) is a Palestinian militant group, now considered largely inactive. Also known as Fatah-The Revolutionary Council, it is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and the European Union. It was blamed for a string of attacks in the 1970s and 80s, killing and wounding hundreds of people.” [emphasis added]

Despite those terror listings – and the events described in the article – the BBC continues to employ the euphemistic term “militant” in accordance with its guidelines on “Language when Reporting Terrorism“.

“There is no agreed consensus on what constitutes a terrorist or terrorist act. The use of the word will frequently involve a value judgement.”

Apparently, even over thirty years after the Pan Am 73 hijacking took place, the BBC is still afraid of making a “value judgement” which would involve describing the event and its perpetrators in accurate language.  

Related Articles:

BBC News recycles three year old factual failures in Abu Nidal report

BBC avoidance of the word terror criticized by MPs – again

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