Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

In the Footsteps of Reith: BBC’s Language Quandary

John Reith, the BBC’s founder, once succinctly declared the broadcaster’s purpose as one to “educate, inform, and entertain.” However, as Robert Philpot astutely observes in a recent op-ed for The Times of Israel, “the BBC’s coverage of Israel’s conflict with Hamas appears to fall short on the first two accounts”. Accusations of failing to grasp the true nature of the enemy and being accused of “parroting Hamas propaganda” linger, with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett asserting a conspicuous lack of “moral clarity”.

In defense of the BBC, Senior World Affairs Editor John Simpson contends from the broadcaster’s website that the avoidance of the term “terrorist” in describing Hamas gunmen aligns with the broadcaster’s foundational principles. Simpson argues that “terrorism” is a loaded term, and the BBC’s role is to present facts impartially, avoiding moral endorsements or condemnations. While acknowledging governmental designations of Hamas as a terrorist organization, the BBC refrains from using such terms in its own voice, fostering objectivity and allowing audiences to form independent opinions. This approach, Simpson asserts, is consistent with the BBC’s historical commitment to objectivity, even during tumultuous periods like World War II and conflicts involving groups like the IRA.

Yet, Simpson’s defense, on closer examination, appears unconvincing. It skirts a more profound issue—the undeniable influence of language on our perception of the world. The BBC’s choice of “neutral” language, ostensibly to allow viewers to form their own opinions, is a flawed approach. Language is never neutral; each word carries a weight, bias, and inherent worldview.

Philosopher Karl Popper’s theories on semantics underscore this perspective, emphasizing that words are not mere descriptors but active shapers of reality. The refusal to label terrorists as such is not a benign act of linguistic neutrality; it is a deliberate influence on how we perceive and understand the world.

Words construct narratives and influence our shared reality. By refraining from labeling terrorists, the BBC implicitly takes a stance that distorts the truth and muddies the waters of reality. In an ideal world, language might be neutral, but our words bear the weight of history, culture, and politics. The broadcaster’s use of “neutral” language is not an objective pursuit; it is a relinquishing of responsibility that denies the public the clarity and truth they deserve.

The BBC must recognize the significant impact of the words it chooses. Language actively participates in constructing our reality. Refusing to use the term “terrorists” is not a pursuit of neutrality; it is an endorsement of ambiguity, a disservice to the public, and a departure from the moral clarity demanded by figures like Bennett. Let us not be deceived by the illusion of linguistic neutrality; instead, we must demand a commitment to moral clarity, just as Bennett rightfully urges.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD).
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