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It's worthwhile to re-examine recent criticism of the ABC style guidelines in light of “what the British Government calls” the London terror attacks.
During the coverage of those attacks the Australian ABC adhered rigorously to its policy of not using the word "Terrorist" to describe the perpetrators. This must have been agonisingly difficult for them when most of the world's media had already started to use the "T" word. On its website the ABC began by calling the incident 'a suspected militant attack', a phrase which jarrs, evoking an image of some middle eastern incident.
By the following morning they had dropped the word "militant" altogether using the phrase: "The London Bomb attack" leaving no impression whatsoever of a connection to the Middle East.
So what IS wrong with the policy of avoiding the “T” word? The ABC official Style Guide, the booklet which sets out the organisation’s attitude to good journalism explains:
Remember, one person’s ‘terrorist’ is usually someone else’s ‘freedom fighter’. ‘Terrorism’, ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’, ‘gunman’, etc. are all labels. Our reports should rely first on facts, and clear descriptions of events, rather than labels that may seem too extreme or too soft, depending on your point of view.
When reporting a conflict, such as in the Middle East, we avoid partisanship, or the perception of it, by not adopting for ourselves the preferred labels of one side or the other - instead confining their use mostly to when giving one side's assessment of the other (e.g. 'what the Israeli Government calls a terrorist cell')...
This instruction is of concern for the following reasons:
I love Allah, I love the land of Palestine and I am a member of Al-Aksa Brigades... my dream was to be a martyr. I believe in death... Since I was a little girl I wanted to carry out an attack.Al-Basr's statement is typical. Perhaps some of her supporters would like her to be a freedom fighter. But by and large people who target civilians, particularly school children see themselves as mighty and ruthless warriors, martyrs, but not freedom fighters. The fact is that these activities have more to do with power than with freedom.
The real logic behind this directive – from ABC Editor-in-chief Russell Balding’s statements in the Senate – is that calling certain groups ‘terrorists’ offends some in the community. Having this statement as the cornerstone of the ABC Style Guide on terrorism is equally offensive to other groups in the community. Why base a policy on who might take offence? Whose sensibilities are being protected? Rather, the ABC’s “fiercely” independent attitude ought to dictate that terrorists may be labelled as such where their actions target civilians irrespective of who gets offended.
There is no argument about the need for the Style Guide to instruct up and coming journalists against labeling. Just as a journalist takes care in labelling a regime ‘democratic’ - remembering that every country is democratic according to its leaders - so should a journalist take care in labelling someone a ‘terrorist’. Equally it is unwarranted to omit usage of an English word from the news and current affairs because some sections of the community could be offended.
The ABC has tried to turn the definition of terrorism into a matter of opinion. But 'terrorist' is not simply an abusive phrase combatants hurl at each other, as the ABC implies, but a tactic, the deliberate targeting of civilians.
The Style Guide entry on Terrorism needs to be removed and re-written.