The BBC on Unspeak in Israel/Palestine
October 14, 2006
The BBC has a new style guide advising its journalists on the use of “key terms” when reporting on Israel/Palestine. (Thanks to WIIIAI.) Its intentions, as explained by Middle East bureaux editor Simon Wilson, are honourable – as I would put it, to avoid Unspeak. The guide makes a number of sensible recommendations: for example, to avoid the phrase “cycle of violence”, which “does nothing to explain any of the underlying causes of the conflict and may indeed obscure them”. Quite so: “cycle of violence” is rhetorical handwashing, often underpinned by the racist connotations that inform concepts of “ancient hatreds” and so on. (They’re just a bunch of savages locked in an interminable blood-feud, what are you gonna do?) But of course it’s not all so easy. Here is what the guide says about one of the most contested names, the “barrier”:
The BBC uses the terms “barrier”, “separation barrier” or “West Bank barrier” as acceptable generic descriptions to avoid the political connotations of “security fence” (preferred by the Israeli government) or “apartheid wall” (preferred by the Palestinians).
As per the long discussion of this terminology in Chapter 4 of Unspeak, however, the BBC’s three “acceptable generic descriptions” do not themselves quite avoid “political connotations” either. “Separation barrier” either is a tautology or is using “separation” as Unspeak for “enclosure”. Even the term “barrier”, used on its own or in conjunction with “West Bank”, evokes protection from a threat, as in the Thames flood barrier, or the blood-brain barrier, and thus endorses one official motivation at the expense of others. This is one of those cases (of which there are many) in which the dream of perfectly neutral, transparent terminology appears to be forlorn, but at least they are making an effort. Stranger, though, is what the BBC has to say about “outposts”:
It is generally advisable not to refer to “illegal” outposts (they are all illegal and if you call one illegal some may assume that others are not).
Curious logic. If you refuse to call any “outpost” illegal, surely some may assume that they’re all legal?