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The BBC on Unspeak in Israel/Palestine

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?

  1. 1  Sohail  October 14, 2006, 7:02 pm 

    Hello Steve

    As you know of course, I reject much of your analysis here. This is clearly one of those instances where I feel you just can’t sit on the fence (no pun intended) and pontificate about the merits of adopting neutral language. Such things mean nothing to either side. If anything, neutrality serves the interests of the oppressors by sanitising the atrocities they’re committing. And anyway both sides know perfectly well what the wall is all about. Neither is deluded into believing that it’s something that it isn’t. But let me just say a few things about the BBC’s position on this:

    It’s total crap that ONLY the Palestinians prefer to call it an Apartheid Wall. Plenty of other people (i.e. non-Arabs/Muslims) call it that. As for “separation barrier”, I suppose it’s at least better than “security fence”. B’Tselem, for instance, the leading Israeli Human Rights organisation, prefers the term but notably makes many references in its work to the Apartheid-like policies of the Israeli authorities (i.e. Apartheid roads). See

    As for your concern about an underlying tautology, I don’t see it. Put simply, it’s a barrier that separates Palestinians from Israeli citizens, which is why – as I have argued before – Apartheid is pretty accurate.


  2. 2  Steven  October 14, 2006, 7:12 pm 


  3. 3  Sohail  October 14, 2006, 7:20 pm 

    Yes, that’s certainly one way of evading prickly issues. ;)


  4. 4  Steven  October 14, 2006, 7:24 pm 

    This site is nothing if not a sustained exercise in the evasion of prickly issues. I like to think I’m getting quite good at it.

  5. 5  Sohail  October 14, 2006, 7:26 pm 

    Look, I think I’ll just yawn off for now…

  6. 6  bobw  October 14, 2006, 10:12 pm 

    I cant think of a better example of unspeak than “separation barrier”. I’d add another point to yours: barrier is a rather mild word for describing a 20 ft high concrete wall.

    When you take the political overtones out of a description, you eliminate the meaning of the thing described — e.g. “rectification of frontiers”, or “ethnic cleansing”. Both sound perfectly routine and healthy, dont they!

  7. 7  uncool dude  October 15, 2006, 3:00 am 

    Dear Steven
    In my formative years I was greatly taken with the works of Christopher Hitchens – his prose at times positively exploded off the page like veritable fireworks. The best prose is often a product of what I call the ‘fire in the belly’ effect – sadly not too much in evidence nowadays. It’s a matter of passion really not merely reason.

    Recently Prof Rogers of Bradford University also said that there are occasions when ‘one simply has to choose sides’ – this in exaspiration to the Lebanon crisis. He was immediately castigated by his fellow academics for his departure from the ‘scientific method’ and the hallowed objectivity of the empirical method.

    But, ultimately, this is a small part of what it is to be human. Personally I like Sohail’s passion & honesty. In fact I think Sohail may well turn out to be our, I mean humanity’s, salvation. I don’t mean Sohail personally of course but what she represents within the human character. It is not contemptuous, hubristic, reason that offers our best hopes for the future but rather the countervailing qualities of compassion, empathy, pity, fellow-feeling, comradeship, belonging, and, finally, justly directed anger.

    If I were given the choice between you, Steven, and Sohail I know what I would choose. I trust passion every time. The reasoning intellect is quicksand and I don’t much give a fig for the Habermasian belief, naively or otherwise, in the reasoning power of the dialectic. This is pure existentialism. Let’s get angry. Our humanity requires it.

  8. 8  Adam  October 15, 2006, 11:39 am 


    Great article, although I’m not convinced by your objections to the label “cycle of violence”. Nearly every violent incident in Israel/Palestine is regarded by the perpetrator as a response to a recent violent incident by the other side. The underlying causes obviously fuel this, er, cycle by they are also obscured by it.

    A key challenge that any successful peace process must tackle is breaking this pattern, and removing the “they started it, no they started it” logic that helps the violence to persist. Agreement on “who started it” will never be reached, but we mustn’t let that be an unsurmountable obstacle to peace. Neither must we forget it. The violence has complex underlying causes that any responsible news agency should be able to communicate to a (largely unwilling to understand) public. But it is also cyclical, and it isn’t “rhetorical handwashing” to use the phrase, as long as that isn’t the only perspective you adopt.

    On “outposts”, I agree entirely. If the style guide concedes that all outposts are illegal, you have to wonder what kind of pressure might cause the BBC to resist calling them all “illegal outposts”. Outpost itself is verging on unspeak incidentally. It suggests a man up a watchtower, rather than a fully functional barricaded town.

  9. 9  Steven  October 16, 2006, 8:50 am 

    Adam, I agree with much of what you say above, up until “But it is also cyclical”. And the problem is that in a short news report that refers to a “cycle of violence”, that is likely to be the only perspective offered. I do think that “cycle of violence” Unspeaks particular agency, and abandons the idea of identifying any causes or provocations at all. It helps to present the situation as “intractable”, and of course those with most invested in an idea of intractability are those who wish to preserve the status quo. (A good study on the presentation of “intractability” in relation specifically to Israeli media is Daniel Dor’s Intifada Hits the Headlines.)

    Uncool dude’s comments remind me of the Platonic theory of Star Trek. Evidently I am Spock, and Sohail is Bones. But who will be our James T. Kirk?

  10. 10  the uncool dude  October 16, 2006, 12:51 pm 

    I was thinking more along the lines of Sohail as Kirk with Steven as the wonky computer that thinks humans are flawed and must all be illiminated. Kirk then applies his infallible but all too human logic which causes the computer to start wailing ‘does not compute, does not compute’. It then blows all its fuses. Spock is mightily impressed but puzzled.

  11. 11  Steven  October 16, 2006, 3:25 pm 

    I Am Not Spock. But uncool dude is clearly Scotty. “I cannae change the laws of human nature, cap’n!”

  12. 12  Sohail  October 16, 2006, 8:49 pm 

    Hmmm… interesting bit of projection play going on here. It would be great if Steve were at least a quarter the man Spock is.

    As for me, well, of course I could never be a James T Kirk. That would just be totally against the very carefully constructed multi-racial/gender-specific spirit of Star Trek. I’m a brown male, me. Shatner – even on his best solarium days – was hardly that. So the important question is: were there any brownies (long eared or otherwise) on Star Trek?

    Anyway, I have to confess I never really got into Star Trek. I much preferred Dr Who. In which case, I think I’d definitely be a Dalek, and Steve without doubt, Davros! Now I always thought Dr Who was a very cool dude, so evidently we have a very serious problem here as to who might be him :(

    Any takers out there?

  13. 13  the uncool dude  October 16, 2006, 10:26 pm 

    “Warp factor seven, Scotty”
    “She cannae take it Cap’n”
    “Oohuroo? Not while I’m Captain of this ship.”
    “Where to Cap’n?”
    “Out there Scotty and on ’til morning”
    “Oohuroo? Where are you?”

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