Sunday, 1 August 2010

BBC: making space for the dead

A letter sent to the BBC last week. 'Lack of space' here prevents me from elaborating on why I felt the need to send it.


(I'd have written "John", but that has four letters instead of the two in "Me".)


To Helen Boaden
Director BBC News

Dear Helen Boaden

I'm requesting an urgent investigation into the BBC's written response to a complaint on the reporting of Israel's attack on the Mavi Marmara aid boat to Gaza.

(Israel admits Gaza flotilla raid 'mistakes', 13 July 2010.)

The article includes this particular line:
"Eight Turks and one Turkish-American died in the naval raid in international waters, which provoked a major outcry."
Having asked why the BBC had used the word "died", rather than the more accurate "killed", the complainant was told:
"In the story you cite, it is rather more likely that "died" was used simply because there are space restrictions on the first four paragraphs of any story, and it is a shorter word."

One is almost lost for words, just as the BBC seems lost for space to permit two additional letters, making a six letter word, to describe the actual manner in which nine people lost their lives.

Are those lives really that unimportant, so inconsequential, that the BBC can't allow - among multiple paragraphs of 'Israel says' comment - two additional letters?

These nine people were, quite evidently, killed by Israeli commandos. And there should be no need to explain the more appropriate use of that word rather than the more passive "died".

The crass insensitivity of this sentence is almost beyond belief. But it helps confirm the tortured ways in which BBC language is selected, abbreviated and neutralised in the service of power. Even when reporting the deaths of human beings.

The BBC should issue an immediate, unequivocal apology for this disgraceful statement, directed, in particular, to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara.

I await your considered response on the matter.

I am copying this letter to the BBC Trust.


John Hilley


Dear Mr Hilley,

Thank you for your email to Helen Boaden which has been passed to me.

Should the person who made the original complaint wish to take it further within our complaints procedure that is a matter for that complainant. But if you would like to make a separate complaint about BBC coverage we would ask you to send it via the webform at The BBC has an established complaints procedure to ensure that correspondence is directed towards the appropriate journalist or programme. In this way, complaints are handled in the most efficient and effective way for our audiences and for our programme-makers.


Sean Moss
Complaints Adviser
BBC Complaints



Ta fr yr lett. Yr dng a marv job.



Anonymous said...


perhaps you should expand on why you felt the need to send the letter.

As far as I'm concerned, this complaint - although posted on a ML messageboard - is private correspondence between the gentleman and those in charge of the BBC News website. How you can get involved is beyond me.

Sure, you have a point inasmuch as "killed" is more suitable than "died", but it's hardly a grave offence, nor would it appear an intentional slight on those killed by the Israeli forces attack on the flotilla.

Point is, let the gentleman who sent the original complaint follow up on his response if he feels so inclined. You don't need to become the Matt Allwright of the ML messageboard by leaping upon your high horse every time you read something you don't like. The response you got from the BBC gentleman is short and to the point, and no more than was necessary to send to you.



John Hilley said...

Thanks for your comments, Pauline.

Here's a little more elaboration, should it be needed, on why I sent the message.

Firstly, and very importantly, the correspondence between the original complainant and the BBC is not private. It's in the public domain, put there by the complainant for all to see at the ML site and wherever else it might be published. As with any discussion of a now openly-viewable statement, my further comment to the BBC was entirely standard. I'm simply challenging the BBC's now-readable words about the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Taking your argument to its illogical conclusion, one might ask what business you have in commenting on my 'private' correspondence here with the BBC? The point being that it's not private either, it's also in the public domain, put there by me for you and others to read and further comment on. So, you have every right to post your thoughts here on the issue, just as I have the right to send mine to the BBC.

Secondly, my comments to the BBC concern not just the decision to use "died" rather than "killed" in the text. They're about the specific excuse given for doing so: supposedly, reasons of space. Now, if you can't see the crass reasoning behind that excuse, and the need to complain about it, there's not much point in me trying to illuminate you otherwise.

Imagine a similar complaint to the BBC over the use of "died" rather than "killed" in the case of a British soldier shot or blown up in Afghanistan. Imagine the BBC telling the complainant that they had been unable to write that the soldier had been "killed" due to lack of a two letter space. You can be very sure that, in the highly unlikely event of the BBC ever issuing such a statement, they would soon be putting out a grovelling apology.

So, yes, a "grave offence" has been committed in this case by claiming that the deaths of nine peace activists don't merit that 'extra' two-letter space.

I've asked the BBC to defend that decision and their disgraceful excuse. Their refusal to engage me on the matter is not an issue of protocol, it's another spurious excuse for avoiding the issue. That's because they themselves know their words on the matter are inexcusable.


Anonymous said...


thanks for your response but I think you're missing the point.

The BBC Complaints process is most likely under enough pressure without the prospect of you, or anyone else, adding to it by complaining about their response to someone else.

Where do we draw the line with this? If someone elects to publish their complaint on a blog, their website or whatever, they are absolutely entitled to do so. But this will lead to further pressure on a complaints system that's entirely unwarranted and unnecessary. An individual might be unhappy with - and I'm not being churlish here,as it means as much to some people as Middle East issues do to you and those at the ML board - a response to a complaint about EastEnders. It's entirely counterproductive for someone then to jump into the middle of the complaints process and complain about a response which, up until that very point, had absolutely nothing to do with them. Indeed, they may not even have initially agreed with the meat and bones of the original complaint.

Feel free to complain about the original BBC Online article, and to discuss it with others at the board or blog in question. Just, please, keep it there.

In my opinion, and it's only an opinion - I'm not saying I'm right, I don't think you have any right to be getting involved in someone else's complaints to the BBC.

Your comparison with an imagined article on soldier deaths in Afghanistan is, as you well know, hypothetical and you have absolutely no idea what the response to such a complaint would be. Your imagined complaint is therefore one step up on the ladder from the classic "how would you like it if it was your son/daughter...." response.

The BBC's "refusal" to engage you on the matter is completely an issue for protocol, and if you can't see that, then there's no point in me trying to illuminate you further.


John Hilley said...


"Feel free to complain about the original BBC Online article, and to discuss it with others at the board or blog in question. Just, please, keep it there."

Pauline, I don't know if you're connected to the BBC or an aspiring BBC complaints adviser - you're certainly saying all the 'right' things.

Whatever the case, you should really try to think a little more deeply and compassionately about the importance of human life and the language our media seem ready to use - and excuse themselves from using - when reporting those killed by oppressive military forces.

I'm deeply touched by your concern for our 'overburdened' BBC complaints system. However, be assured that when it comes to a choice between helping to expose establishment propaganda - much of it serving to justify Western warmongering - and freeing up BBC space for soap moans, then, as even you might suspect, it's a no-brainer.

I'm more concerned right now with the humanitarian pressure the people of Gaza are under rather than the "pressure" on the BBC's facile complaints process.

As I've said many times, the main purpose of trying to elicit responses from the BBC is to further illustrate the kind of conformist, power-sustaining purpose they serve.

The killing of others, and biased reporting of such killings, concerns us all, and is worthy of any kind of collective comment. I don't actually care about BBC 'protocol' when it comes to challenging the kind of words and excuses which help sanitise that killing.

Kind regards


Keith said...

Shit, so struggling for space are the BBC that they didnt bother saying one word, not one letter, about the latest killing of a Palestinian by Israeli forces.


Aidan said...

Hi John

After reading this exchange (via ML) I'm confused. Where in the text does this person defend the BBC?

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Surely Pauline, the real issue is that the reply to the reader in question is an insult to his or her intelligence. The BBC is supposed to be accountable and such disrespect in response to a legitimate point demonstrates that it is not. That, surely, concerns us all?



John Hilley said...

Hi Aidan

You ask:

"Where in the text does this person defend the BBC?"

The defence is clearly implicit in that person's prioritised concern over the 'overburdened' complaints system rather than with the ways in which the killings have been presented.

I might, in turn, ask, as a matter of priorities, where does this person defend or applaud the peace activists? And where does this person question the BBC's comments, excuses and evasions?



Aidan said...

Hi John

Thanks for the clarification.
I have to say that I didn't read it that way. And I'm left with the feeling that there was some misunderstanding in that exchange. I don't like it when people exit an argument having reinforced comfortable assumptions about each other. But maybe that didn't happen :-)

Best wishes

P.S. "Killed" is the wrong word for me too. "Murdered" is probably the most accurate word.

John Hilley said...

Thanks Aidan

Nice point about "reinforcing comfortable assumptions" in the course of such exchanges.

I think the best we can do is to have open and courteous dialogue, while trying to learn something of the others' view/perspective, even where there's no real meeting of minds. It's good, healthy and educational to be challenged and encouraged to think closely about one's position.

In that same vein, I always sincerely hope that the letters we write to journalists and editors are viewed and taken as constructive criticism.

And, I agree, "murdered" is the most appropriate word, one which the BBC - or most other mainstream media - wouldn't countenance using when reporting state/military killing.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I too thank Aidan for his input, much appreciated.

I agree with you that healthy debate is always to be welcomed, and views constantly challenged when there's something at stake.

For the record, I don't work for the BBC, and have no desire to work for their complaints department. I can't imagine there would be much joy derived from issuing responses formed, most likely, from a standard template. I also imagine it's not much fun going round in circles - as seen from some of your own correspondence with the corporation on these very pages.