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Artillery Row

The T word and the BBC

Why is the Beeb so coy about the nature of Hamas?

The BBC and terrorism have long had a difficult relationship. Once again, the national broadcaster is struggling with the “t” word after the Hamas attack on Israel. “Terrorist attack.” There. I’ve said it.

My own time at the BBC was marked, amongst other things, by the debate over an actor voicing the justifications of Gerry Adams for the latest IRA outrage. It was claimed that Adams thought the actor did it better.

It was one of those through-the-looking-glass manifestations prompted by the impeccable logic that, to use Margaret Thatcher’s words, terrorists should be “deprived of the oxygen of publicity”.

Attacks, particularly on the British mainland, were designed with publicity in mind. Another bomb in Belfast? Meuh. A bomb in the heart of the world’s leading financial centre? Hold the front page.

The difficulty was, of course, that it was impossible for news organisations to ignore the large hole in Bishopsgate or the devastated barracks pub.

It was also reasonable enough to hold the man ultimately responsible to account. In reality, that rarely happened, beyond the scripted platitudes of the self-proclaimed freedom fighter.

The BBC also had to deal with audience sensitivity about what they showed of the aftermath of attacks.

There was a show reel, kept for visiting dignitaries to the newsroom such as senior military men or overseas politicians, asking the very question: “Where do we stop?” Some of what was on that reel would give you nightmares for a month. Necklacing and machetes in Soweto, the glass and limb strewn streets in Northern Ireland, death by mob. Intriguingly, what the BBC had been prepared to show in the 70s was notably more graphic than footage aired by the 90s.

This was less to do with heightened squeamishness than it was with awareness of the terror lying at the heart of purpose. See this. Be afraid. There was also a lurking understanding of human nature. Rarity has value. We soon numb to the commonplace — even if the commonplace is ghastly.

The final component was the recognition that the very interest of news teams was an incitement to more. Crews were told time and again to withdraw from situations where the lens might be driving rather than recording violence, remembering that terrorism takes form beyond bombing, in the more day-to-day work of intimidation, beating and shooting.

This hard stop on the depiction of terrorism red in tooth and claw put broadcasters in a bind, though. Every picture tells a story, and the picture of remains being shovelled into a bag or the burnt-to-a-crisp body told only one tale. It hardly needed to be said.

That did not stop the endless and circular arguments on what constituted terrorism. You know the line. One man’s freedom fighter … At the apex of the debate was Nelson Mandela. The Gerry Adams of South Africa according to BOSS, imprisoned figurehead to an oppressed majority to pretty much everyone else. One needn’t stop there, though.

The Nazis routinely condemned the resistance movements of occupied Europe as “terrorists”. Indeed much of their methodology in terms of kidnap, assassination and bombings would sit easily within Bader Meinhof or the Red Brigade. It’s just they were the “goodies”.

The BBC is on the couch, talking about anything but its cultural trauma

The spiral is endless. Frenchmen who had survived the cellars of the Gestapo were, within ten years, repeating their techniques in Algeria.

In a similar vein, the Germans, who had perfected area bombing in the Spanish Civil War and over Rotterdam, took deep offence when the favour was returned by the Allies. Terrorflieger as bomber crews were dubbed faced the very real danger of Lynchjustiz or Dachau if captured. It is in the nature of things that people under bombing are terrified. “Shock and awe” is as much the point as the power station and the factory.

Camerawoman Susan Stein filmed the aftermath of the road to Basra in the first Gulf War — a “turkey shoot” as US pilots called it. The grinning skulls, skeletal arms welded to the burnt out cabs of trucks were the stuff of horror. It went on for miles. Only later was the footage shown, in a documentary on the work of war correspondents.

In that regard, there is something of the Blackadder to these arguments.

General Melchett condemns German intelligence: “Filthy Hun weasels, fighting their dirty underhand war!”

Captain Darling: “And, fortunately, one of our spies.”

General Melchett again: “Splendid fellows, brave heroes … ”

These are the equivocations of fringe meetings in Liverpool and dinner table debate. That doesn’t make them unimportant considerations, but they are what psychologists call “the intellectual defence”. It allows seemingly substantial musings to stand in the way of the essential issue. The BBC is on the couch, talking about anything but its cultural trauma. Its people are conflicted. Part of them, well, can’t quite bring themselves to say what their subconscious thinks.

The facts, though, are straightforward. Hamas is an organisation proscribed as “terrorist” by many governments throughout the world, including that of the “Britain” implied in the British Broadcasting Corporation.

It is not a sovereign representative, waging war with a democratic mandate or imprimatur.

Raids on raves, the parading of naked women on trucks, the kidnap of young and old, throat cutting, beheading, their photography and dissemination, all motivated by a visceral age-old hatred have a single purpose in mind: to terrorise a largely civilian population before sheltering amongst its own civilian population.

I’ve looked it up. It’s what terrorists are and do. Here, BBC, is the news.

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