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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Biting the BBC bullet

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The butler who calmed his feudal lord by noting that the uproar was a mere revolt and not a revolution, had a point. A revolution needs the brains of a Gandhi or a Lenin, not to mention a replacement for the object of destruction. I would be loath to replace the BBC. I would not even dignify my little protest with the label of ‘revolt’. Moreover, it was Gandhian, which makes it even less glamorous. Perhaps the only relevant part of my response was non-cooperation.

During the sixty hours of unabated terrorism in Mumbai, the one group that was almost as much in demand as security forces was journalists. With media desperate to fill space or time, a journalist could pass off any amount of gibberish as on-the-spot wisdom. Many international radio and television stations did not even demand, or perhaps expect, correct grammar: mangled phrases and minced diction can sound quaintly ethnic.

It was after the last terrorist had been shot in the Taj that something snapped during a telephone conversation with an extremely polite news anchor from the BBC in London. I refused. I said that I would not cooperate with the BBC as long as it described the murderers of Mumbai as “gunmen” rather than calling them what they were: terrorists.

The BBC is full of friends, with whom one has a happy and fulfilling professional relationship since the 1970s. I am privileged to consider the father of the BBC in India, Mark Tully, as a friend. Rita Payne, who headed the South Asia service for television till recently, is another. It was suggested that I might consider writing to Richard Porter, head of BBC World News Content. Perhaps my language was angry, but it only reflected the rage one felt: “I am appalled, astonished, livid at your inability to describe the events in Mumbai as the work of terrorists. You have called them ‘gunmen’, as if they were hired security guards on a night out. When Britain finds a group of men plotting in a home laboratory your government has no hesitation in creating an international storm, and the BBC has no hesitation in calling them terrorists. When nearly two hundred Indian lives are lost, you cannot find a word in your dictionary more persuasive than ‘gunmen’. You are not only pathetic, but you have become utterly biased in your reporting…Shame on you and your kind.”

Mr Porter’s reply was worded in far more courteous language. “The BBC’s policies on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ have long been a subject of public discussion. The guidelines we issue to staff are very clear — we do not ban the use of the word terrorist, but our preference is to use an alternative form of words. There is a judgment inherent in the use of the word, which is not there when we are more precise with our language. ‘Gunman’, or ‘killer’, or ‘bomber’, is an accurate description which does not come with any form of judgment.”

Mr Porter said that BBC policy, of “accuracy and fairness” helped “audiences to understand the world we live in. I believe those audiences can make their own mind up about the people who carried out the attacks in Mumbai and don’t need us to give them any label to reach that judgment”. This seemed a curious claim. Isn’t there judgment in the use of the word ‘killer’? It can hardly be considered a term of endearment. If the BBC called you a ‘killer’ or a gunman or a bomber you would tend to sue, would you not?

But there is a subtler point here, which, at least in my view, acts as implicit protection for terrorism.

There is a clear distinction between gunmen and terrorists. Criminals use guns, and can be called gunmen; they do it for a purpose, to steal or kidnap or loot. Terrorists use guns and bombs in the random killing of innocents in pursuit of a political or personal agenda. The killers at Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus, Taj, Oberoi and a home where Jewish people lived, did not come to steal art, or money, or railway property. I put this point as forcefully as I could to Mr Porter: “It is a shame that the BBC cannot see the difference between a criminal and a terrorist, and chooses in fact to protect the terrorist by giving him the camouflage of a criminal. This is not a matter of semantics. Terrorists are always happy to fudge the definition.”

In response Mr Porter, once again with the maximum courtesy, urged me to read the Editorial Policy guidelines of the BBC, disputed the use of “camouflage” and argued that “our reporting from Mumbai was extremely effective in putting across the full horror of what happened even within the constraints of our policy. And to repeat what I said before, we do not ban the use of the word, and it has been used many times on our output in relation to Mumbai”.

Yes, used by Indians, and by British commentators I am sure, but not by the BBC.

It is possible that Mr Porter’s eyebrow shot up in hurt surprise when he discovered that a story on this protest had appeared on an Indian website. He wrote, “I must therefore assume that everything I say to you will be published, although I did not know that was your original intention.” Actually it was not. I merely did not think that an individual’s reaction would be considered important enough to become a story. But that did not mean that this exchange was in private space. I had no knowledge of Mr Porter’s existence before this correspondence, and am equally certain he had none of mine. Why would I endeavour to enter into a private correspondence with the BBC? The BBC’s policy is a public fact, not a private one, and affects the public discourse, not a private chat. One would also assume that there is nothing that Mr Porter would say privately on his corporation’s policy that he would not be prepared to air publicly.

Institutions do not change their convictions on the basis of a single protest. But media giants need to remember that while the common viewer may not have the sophistication of their committees, or the acumen of their lawyers, or the weight of their power, he does have common sense. Common sense defines the difference between the criminal and the terrorist.

It would be interesting to find out if the BBC called the destruction of the twin towers of New York the work of “gunmen” or “killers” or “airplane bombers”, or whether it called them terrorists. Did the BBC consider the men who killed innocents on London’s trains and buses “bombers” in search of a little private excitement? I am not sure about the nature of the coverage.
What I am sure about is that to describe the terrorists of Mumbai as mere “gunmen” is mealy-mouthed, weak-kneed and just plain offensive.

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M J Akbarhttp://www.mjakbar.org/
M.J. Akbar, Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert magazine, is a leading Indian journalist and author. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. After successfully launching and establishing a weekly news magazine, Sunday, and a daily newspaper, The Telegraph, in the '70s and '80s, he briefly interrupted his career in journalism to enter politics in November 1989 as an elected representative in Parliament. He returned to writing and editing in 1993. His last book 'Blood Brothers', in the words of Khuswant Singh, "could be a textbook on how to write, mix fact, fiction and history. It is beautifully written; it deserves to be in Category A1." Commercially speaking M.J. Akbar is that tangible asset without whom the balance sheet of Indian Journalism will never tally!
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