More ‘one man’s terrorist’ from the BBC

Last week’s ninety-fourth anniversary of the Mandate for Palestine (together with the related amateur dramatics from the Palestinian Authority) might perhaps have prompted audiences to search BBC websites for more information on the subject of the League of Nations.

Most of the information turned up by such a search appears on BBC educational sites – for example here, here, here and the rather bizarre video here. Audiences would also find an article from 2011 by historian Charles Townshend on an archived (but accessible) page of the BBC’s History website titled “The League of Nations and the United Nations” which includes an ‘added extra’ towards the end.

LoN art

Beyond the fact that in more than five years since this article’s appearance the BBC has not noticed that it promotes the inaccuracy “President Assad of Egypt”, we see here unqualified promotion of the ‘one man’s terrorist’ cliché.  

“Members of Hamas (the Islamic resistance movement), and the Islamic Jihad organisation, may be terrorists to the government of Israel, but to others they are fighters against oppression.”

As has been noted here before, that approach is employed by those who confuse (intentionally or not) the means – terrorism – with the end. As the philosopher William Vallicella wrote in 2009:

“Often and thoughtlessly repeated, ‘One man’s terrorist in another man’s freedom fighter’ is one of those sayings that cry out for logical and philosophical analysis. Competent analysis will show that clear-thinking persons ought to avoid the saying.

Note first that while freedom is an end, terror is a means. So to call a combatant a terrorist is to say something about his tactics, his means for achieving his ends, while to call a combatant a freedom fighter is to say nothing about his tactics or means for achieving his ends. It follows that one and the same combatant can be both a terrorist and a freedom fighter. For one and the same person can employ terror as his means while having freedom as his end.

Suppose a Palestinian Arab jihadi straps on an explosive belt and detonates himself in a Tel Aviv pizza parlor. He is objectively a terrorist: he kills and maims noncombatants in furtherance of a political agenda which includes freedom from Israeli occupation. The fact that he is a freedom fighter does not make him any less a terrorist. Freedom is his end, but terror is his means. It is nonsense to say that he is a terrorist to Israelis and their supporters and a freedom fighter to Palestinians and their supporters. He is objectively both. It is not a matter of ‘perception’ or point of view or which side one is on.”

The BBC’s inconsistent (and often downright offensive) approach to reporting terrorism is rooted in the fact that it fails to distinguish between means and ends. The result of that is that when a perceived cause is considered ‘understandable’, the description of the means is adjusted accordingly. Thus the BBC continues, for example, to refrain from describing acts of vehicular terrorism against Israelis as terror but is comfortable using that term to portray the same act when it is perpetrated against French citizens. 

Listeners to a BBC Radio 4 discussion on that topic last November were told:

“Well I think the origin of this problem arises from the difference between broadcasting just for the UK and broadcasting out [side] the UK. I think there are very few people who would say that for instance the bombs that the IRA planted in London – or what happened in Paris, to be blunt – was anything other than terrorism. It was a tactic to shock and terrorise people in a city. But what happens when you talk about what might happen in the middle of Israel or in the Palestinian territories? If a bomb goes off there or they’ve stabbed someone to death, what is the language to describe that? And I think that’s partly why the BBC has taken against this word terrorism because it actually – on its international services – does not want to have to make a judgement in these particular countries.”

So long as BBC editors fail to separate the means from the ends it will of course be impossible for the corporation to report on the subject of terrorism in a way which adheres to its professed standards of accuracy and impartiality and fulfils its remit of enhancing understanding of international issues.

As Western countries increasingly struggle to deal with the rise of terrorism on their own streets, the millions of people getting their news from the world’s most influential broadcaster – including policy makers – are more than ever in need of clear and consistent reporting which adheres to those editorial standards and meets that remit. 

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