In reporting the execution of seven foreign construction workers in Nigeria, one British, at the hands of Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Bidalis Sudan (Ansaru), the BBC gave headline prominence to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, announcing that:
Mr Hague condemned the killings as "an act of pure, cold-blooded murder".And with that headline delivery, the BBC's Security Correspondent Frank Gardner elaborated on the perpetrators, a splinter faction of "violent Islamist group Boko Haram", itself a franchise of Al-Qaeda.
Charting the escalation of its campaign in Nigeria, Gardner concluded:
"It's clear that Al-Qaeda's terror tactic of kidnapping for propaganda has spread south from the Sahara to take root in Nigeria."What wasn't clear from the BBC's coverage or Gardner's 'analysis' was any key context for this upsurge: notably, the backlash against Western interventionist forces and the murderous conditions they have helped promote in states like Algeria, Mali and others in the region.
While the origins and 'motivations' of Ansaru were noted by Gardner, any headline message that their violence is largely in response to the West's own violent engagement across Africa was carefully elided, particularly in Gardner's 'specialist' summations on the main news bulletins.
Gardner's labelling of 'violent Islamic fanatics' may seem reasonably accurate to many viewers - how attuned we now seem to such banner media language. And who, in true humanity, could not share in simple sympathy for the victims or feel appalled by the killings?
Yet, imagine Gardner or any other mainstream correspondent speaking of Blair, Bush, Cameron or Obama as 'violent Western fanatics', or asking us to consider their executive orders as "[acts] of pure, cold-blooded murder".
Consider the possibility of Gardner offering background detail not just on the "violent Islamist group Boko Haram", but the 'violent expansionist force, Nato'.
The very idea of calling Nato something like 'the terrorist arm of Western governments' seems utterly unthinkable for most reporters - and, largely because of that, for most of the public.
So, it's heartening to come across a notable journalist saying almost these precise words.
In a short but commendable Channel 4 blog piece, chief correspondent Alex Thomson provides that very rarest of mainstream media offerings: serious criticism of selected, loaded and plainly biased media language.
In particular, Thomson asks, who gets to decide the difference between "murder" and "killing"?:
An old debate given new life this morning by a curious tweet from an experienced BBC Correspondent commenting on the latest killings in Afghanistan. Killings…note that word.
Curious because he describes the deaths of children and civilians as “murder”.Again, remarkable comment, indeed, given the almost blanket absence of journalists able to even comprehend calling our state leaders and their operatives things like "premeditated killers".
It’s an odd word to choose and in the context of a war fought by some Afghans against foreign occupation, a loaded one. In the context of any war, a loaded one.
Murder is a crime. Killing is an act of war. You do not find the BBC calling NATO’s latest killing of women and children in Afghanistan “murder”.
So it underlines the need for careful and more objective terms when covering the brutal business of premeditated killing – aka warfare. The NATO drone operator in the Nevada desert is just a[s] much a premeditated killer as the insurgent suicide bomber pressing the button on Kabul’s ever-congested Jalalabad Road or wherever.
Thomson goes on to question the selective application of that other media favourite, "militant":
Of course the debate goes further. “Militant” is routinely used in the mainstream media to describe people (usually Muslims at the moment) killed by the west.And, with the standard synonym for "militant" being "terrorist", who, Thomson asks, should get to apply that designation:
But if the reporter sees these people as “militants” what does that say about the reporter’s position on the story? Well it says they have one for starters – and it’s broadly sympathetic to western extra-judicial killing.
The word implies some kind of justification for targeting; acceptance at face value of what’s being spun; and just a hint thereby that the target is slightly dehumanised in the word – a ‘militant’, not a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and militant to whom?
It goes more widely. Are the founders of Israel “terrorists”? Or Nelson Mandela and the ANC? Or the French government blowing up Greenpeace’s ship in a New Zealand harbour? Or the British colluding with Loyalist killers? Or Mossad killing its enemies across the globe? Or the Americans in Iraq? Or…? Or…?Of course, what's published at a Channel 4 blog piece, even by that outlet's chief correspondent, still lacks the mass exposure of BBC headlining and the staged 'gravitas' of 'security' correspondents like Gardner.
But, perhaps encouraged by such pieces and, inter alia, the maturing of an alternative, independent media that's forever speaking such rational truths, a few other journalists may now feel a little less inhibited in calling Western invasions, drone attacks and other such aggressions the murderous terror acts they really are.