Time to stop using the word 'terrorist'

THE DOG DAYS
of August are usually the ideal time of year to slow down a bit and
consider something fitting for what older newshands fondly remember as
the silly season.

Well, it got cancelled this year. The natural
and intensive scrutiny of 7 July and 21 July hadn’t really subsided
before we were into Gaza and the latest spike in the Middle East
situation.

And all the while, of course, the attrition was
grinding on in Iraq between the forces of occupation, resistance and
nascent, domestic defence forces. And it’s getting worse, if anything.

But
there is one theme that is common to the London Underground, the Middle
East and Iraq – the growing presence of the suicide bomber.

Which
brings me to a problem. And I’m still looking for the answer. The
answer to the question that comes into our newsroom regularly by
letter, phone and e-mail. Now I cannot say for sure, but I’d lay good
money that the same question is also sent by viewers to the ITV and BBC
newsrooms.

It
always goes something like this: “Dear Channel 4 News, please can you
explain why suicide bombers in Israel are ‘militants’, but suicide
bombers in Iraq are ‘insurgents’, and suicide bombers on the London
Underground are known as ‘terrorists’?”

It is a valid question,
especially right now. And I suspect it’s a question that not many in
our business are keen to front up to. But here goes… First off, these
questioners are right and we in the TV news business need to accept
that and consider why. What is the difference between one person
strapping themselves to explosives and blowing innocent people to
smithereens in one place, and another doing exactly the same thing in a
different location? Evidently, we in the news business think there is
such a gaping difference that we routinely give all three instances
wildly different names.

There’s no avoiding it. The terms
“insurgent”, “militant” and “terrorist” carry different meanings and
gradations of objectivity, even morality.

Is a London “terrorist” bomber somehow further beyond the pale than a mere Hamas “militant”?

I
think most viewers would agree that the different terms suggest the
London suicide bomber is somehow worse. More troubling still, does this
reflect a general liberal TV newsroom consensus?

Is the honest
answer to this repetitious query: “Well, actually, we don’t think
suicide bombers in Tel Aviv are as bad as those in London and we don’t
think the ones in Baghdad are as bad as those in Tel Aviv?” Because
that seems to be what we’re saying. That’s the basic message our
terminology sends out to viewers (and newspapers are also doing much
the same thing) night after night, morning after morning. So:

•”terrorist” = “beyond the pale”

•”militant” = “dodgy, but politically motivated”

•”insurgent” = “all’s fair in love, war and occupation”

Well,
there may or may not be a grain of truth in applying different terms to
what, actually, are very different situations, of course. But the way
that we consciously or unconsciously hesitate to call the likes of
Hamas or al Zarqawi’s bombers “terrorists” on the one hand, yet use
“terrorist” without a thought in the context of London on the other, ought to trouble us more than it does.

Yet
if we are queasy about adopting the Israeli Government’s or the Baghdad
administration’s “terrorist” term – because it’s seen as unobjective
and taking sides when reporting on Israel or Iraq – why is it OK in
London? Are our suicide bombers really so much further beyond the pale
than theirs? Allowing for the facts being very different in all three
situations, I’m still troubled by the different implications and
meanings carried in the different use of language.

Is there a way out of this conundrum? Well, I think there is a possible way out of the mess we’ve got ourselves in.

My
feeling is that the one word that is out of place here – and which has
no business at all in journalism – is “terrorist”. And I believe that
while “insurgent” isn’t great in terms of Iraq, it’s probably the best
word going. Equally (and pace angry Israeli e-mailers here), “militant”
is not wonderfully accurate but is, nevertheless, as near as we can get
to cover the Hamas suicide attacks.

But “terrorist” is the odd
one out. It feels lazy, inaccurate and, most worryingly, it is the
first port of call for governments wanting to spin against political
violence the world over. If we are not happy adopting it in the context
of Hamas, for precisely that reason, then we should be wary of chucking
the phrase around when it comes to London – unless you genuinely feel
that an Israeli toddler blown to bits is less innocent than a London
commuter. I seriously doubt many journos feel that, but that’s what
we’re all implying night after night.

If all else fails, why not
stick to the facts instead of “terrorists” and “terrorism” – which are
vaguely loaded terms of political abuse that are used, debased and
discredited by governments the world over. Just call them suicide
bombers. Is that really so difficult?

And let’s leave the “t”
words to governments, and confine ourselves to the uppercase version
when referring to acts of parliament. It’s more accurate, more factual
and gets us off the hook when all those letters, e-mails and phone
calls point out our doublespeak. I got through years of reporting in
Northern Ireland without using the “t” word – it’s really not that
difficult to do.

And it works.

Alex Thomson is chief reporter on Channel 4 News Next week: Janice Turner

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