Decoding Terminology: How BBC’s Word Choices Influence Perceptions of Hamas

In an era where words shape perceptions and narratives dictate ideologies, the BBC’s recent linguistic gymnastics regarding Hamas have sparked a storm of public indignation in the UK. The eye of this storm is John Simpson, the BBC World Affairs editor, who stepped into the arena of public discourse to elucidate the broadcaster’s reluctance to brand the “Hamas gunmen,” perpetrators of heinous acts in southern Israel, as terrorists.

Simpson’s defense hinges on the BBC’s “duty to stay objective,” an admirable standard in journalism, where neutrality is the pillar upon which credibility rests. He emphasizes the broadcaster’s commitment to avoiding “loaded words,” a policy that mirrors the practices of other globally esteemed news institutions. But herein lies the crux: while advocating for objectivity, the BBC paradoxically bends its linguistic rules, particularly in its portrayal of Hamas.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines advocate for the term “militant” over “terrorist” when referring to groups like Hamas. This choice is peculiar, considering that global news agencies like Reuters categorically caution against words with emotional undertones or debatable definitions, advocating for language that preserves neutrality and precision. The term “militant,” with its connotations of legitimacy and just cause, arguably fails this test.

The issue transcends mere semantics; it’s about the implicit narrative crafted by these terminological choices. Labeling someone a “terrorist” delegitimizes their actions and objectives, framing them as the unequivocal ‘villain’ in a narrative where state forces are the ‘heroes’ maintaining order and security. Conversely, the term “militant” elevates sub-state actors like Hamas to a status almost akin to a legitimate state entity, inadvertently endowing their actions with a sense of legitimacy and purpose.

When examined through the lens of the Oxford English Dictionary — the BBC’s own benchmark — the term “militant” implies engagement in legitimate warfare, a context that is grossly misplaced when applied to a sub-state actor known for acts of terror against civilians. This linguistic choice bestows upon Hamas an undeserved legitimacy, equating them, however implicitly, with sovereign states engaged in legitimate armed conflict.

This leads us to question the inconsistency in the BBC’s linguistic stance. Why the hesitance to employ “terrorist,” a term that rightly condemns and delegitimizes Hamas’ atrocities, while simultaneously embracing “militant,” a term that erroneously elevates Hamas to the status of a legitimate state actor?

The answer remains murky, but the implications are clear. By opting for “militant,” the BBC inadvertently aligns Hamas with legitimate state entities like Israel or the United Kingdom, a misrepresentation that distorts public perception and muddies the waters of objective journalism.