Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What's in a name? Or why the BBC should stop referring to the 'so-called' Islamic State

In my last blog, The medium is not the message, I took issue with an argument in Jared Cohen's piece for Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015):

'... governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'.

The medium is not the message. In counterinsurgency the message - its design, its credibility and its reception - depends on the language used and the way the language conveys the themes decided by the source. It is possible to argue that before we begin to understand how to defeat modern terrorism, we need to appreciate the importance of discourses, narratives and language in determining how modern terrorism works, how terrorist groups define themselves and are defined by others; and therefore attention to discourses and language  must be central in any strategy designed to confront terrorism. This is particularly crucial when religion and ideology are invoked as justifications for terrorist activity. Success or failure can often depend on the use of a particular word or phrase.      

My response to Cohen was far from ambiguous: 'The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media', I argued, 'is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent journalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to "work with them", aggressively or otherwise'.

BBC journalists are routinely violating the very principles they, in other circumstances, justifiably cherish and have defended certainly since the General Strike of 1926, if not since the very foundation of the organisation in 1922. 

A disturbing trend has crept into BBC journalism over the past several months, and that is a predilection for calling the terrorist group the 'so-called Islamic State'. The use of the qualifier 'so-called' is mistaken, counter-productive, and politically very questionable. 

Like it or loathe it, the Islamic State calls itself Islamic State; that's its name. It is proper to question whether this terrorist organisation represents Islam, and we should confer upon Muslim communities across the world the power to decide whether or not IS’s claim to represent their religion is right and justified. Similarly, it is correct to judge whether IS really is a 'state' at all. It certainly does not demonstrate any of the attributes that we normally associate with states, and IS is not recognised by any sovereign state or the United Nations, so its claim to the term is indeed questionable. But these are discussions that should and must occur without journalists announcing in news bulletins their own verdicts.   

The most crucial reason why BBC journalists should refrain from employing the pronoun 'so-called' in their stories about IS is that its use entails a value judgement; and BBC journalists are not in the business of value judgements. 

In June 2015, a cross-Party group of MPs, backed by the Prime Minister, accused the BBC of legitimising IS by using its name in its reporting. The BBC resisted any change: The Director-General, Tony Hall, said that the broadcaster must remain 'impartial'. But the BBC decided that a qualifier was legitimate, and a spokesman said 'We ... use additional descriptions to help make it clear we are referring to the group as they refer to themselves, such as "so-called" Islamic State.'   

According to Webster’s dictionary, the first definition of 'so called' is 'popularly known or called by this term'. But its second meaning is more relevant in this case, namely 'inaccurately or questionably designated as such' which may give the impression that the speaker has formed a judgement about the veracity of the words that follow.  

By using the pronoun 'so-called', the BBC tacitly accepts the government's agenda and can be accused of engaging in anti-IS propaganda on the government’s behalf. The term undermines the credibility of a world-class news organisation, when maintaining the credibility of the BBC is absolutely essential to counter the narratives of terrorist organisations, as well as authoritarian states. It challenges the very operational values of the BBC and thereby the principles of journalism in a democratic society. ‘So-called’ may suggest to its critics that they are right to question the BBC’s independence, while damaging efforts by journalists throughout the authoritarian world to expand the distance between the news media and government.

Yes, the organisation's claim to be an, or even the, Islamic State should be contested and defied at every opportunity. This challenge should form part of the counter-narrative that will form a credible assault against IS's commanding propaganda strength. But BBC news bulletins are not the appropriate location from which to launch this assault. If a pronoun must be used, the BBC may try using 'the group known as the Islamic State,' or 'self-proclaimed/self-styled Islamic State'. These are more reasonable qualifiers that draw attention to doubts about the organisation's claim, highlight very clearly from where the name comes from (the organisation itself), and still challenge its legitimacy to that name without undermining the BBC’s journalistic integrity.   

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