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Sunday, December 21, 2008

M J Akbar: Biting the BBC bullet

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."


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