One of the most striking things about the debate in the Commons this afternoon on Britain and International Security was that rather than debate the complexities of intervening in Syria, a lot of MPs were very keen to talk about the name of the terror group the government might take action against. MP after MP from all sides of the House rose to complain about the BBC’s decision not to call the group ‘Daesh’, and started to hatch a powerful plan to gang up on the broadcaster and use ‘Daesh’ anyway, until the corporation relents.
Alex Salmond even went so far as to say that ‘we could actually achieve something together’ - not in combating the terror group per se, but at least in getting the BBC to rebrand it. Same difference.
Poor Michael Fallon and his opposite number Vernon Coaker struggled to keep up with the demands of those around them, with Fallon resorting at one point to calling the group ‘Isil-Daesh’, followed by Coaker calling them ‘Islamic… [pause]’, ‘Daesh’, ‘Isil’ and ‘er, er’ all in one breath.
Now, as I said in an earlier post, while language is powerful, this sort of thing is what people who are supposed to be powerful end up talking about when they feel powerless, when an issue feels just too big to take hold of at once. Air strikes against Assad in Syria were complex enough two years ago. Now MPs are being asked to weigh up air strikes against some of the forces who were ranged against the leader the 2013 air strikes were going to be against, and that is even more knotty and difficult to follow. Much easier, then, to unite around a common cause of getting a broadcaster to change its name, rather like someone ‘liking’ a Facebook page that trumpets their anti-poverty credentials, but doing nothing more to help combat poverty.
But what this also is, beyond arguing about language, is an attempt by politicians to tell journalists what to do. It is a letter, granted one written in a cordial tone, from a group of 120 MPs from across the Commons demanding a change in the BBC style guide.
If MPs wrote to other news organisations asking them to change their style guide, the response would probably be that they should combine sex with travel and stop trying to meddle with editorial independence.Naturally, the BBC has to send out a formal and more polite response, and naturally that response didn’t exactly quieten the story down, because it included the line ‘this term may give the impression of support for those who coined it and that would not preserve the BBC’s impartiality’ and that ‘Daesh’ was a ‘pejorative’ term. Few people really care for the feelings of a barbarous group of terrorists, which makes the word ‘pejorative’ sound particularly ridiculous.
Perhaps the BBC is wrong to continue to call the terror group ‘so-called Islamic State’ or ‘Islamic State group’, but that is a matter for the BBC, and those who consume the BBC’s output, the licence-fee payers. Perhaps it might consider a change in response to viewers’ complaints, along similar lines as the Chishti letter, that a vast majority of Muslims do find the idea that the group is Islamic or a State is ‘despicable and insulting to their peaceful religion’. Or perhaps other viewers might take the view that Rod Liddle does in this week’s Spectator, that the name is entirely appropriate. But the point is that politicians should not be trying to dictate what journalists write or say. That’s not how it works.
The appearance of Alex Salmond’s name on the list of signatories to the letter, and his contributions to today’s debate, in which he made it perfectly clear that he was still angry with the BBC for its coverage of last year’s referendum ('far be it for me to defend the BBC, since it has done so little in Scotland recently to merit defence'), reminds us that there are some politicians who would rather broadcasters did what they demanded.
It’s not just the language they use to describe a terror group, but the way they ask questions, and cover the answers. Politicians can’t help it: they don’t like being criticised, the flaws in their plans being highlighted, and their mistakes reported. If they can stop this happening, they will. If they see even a little bending to their demands from a news organisation, they are likely to push for more and more concessions that favour them. If the turkey finds the farmer will do as he asks, he’ll keep asking, all the way up to Christmas. It’s a good time to write to the BBC and demand that it make some changes that MPs prefer, given the approach of Charter renewal. But it’s also a good opportunity for the BBC to turn back and say thanks but no thanks to the bossy politicos.
Instead of accepting that the broadcaster should not be taking instructions from politicians, those MPs are now trying to force it to change the name of the terror group, to ‘actually achieve something’, as Salmond put it. As well as the fabulous fantasy that even a pejorative rebrand would make the terrorists stop and say ‘oh yeah, we should really stop chopping children in half, chucking gay people off buildings and beheading journalists on ‘slick’ videos, thanks for pointing it out guys’, MPs now seem to be pouring more effort into a question of editorial style than even the most assiduous grey cardigan-ed sub-editor.
Will they ‘actually achieve something’ that helps the people in the countries being ravaged by Isis, or just ‘achieve’ a ‘victory for common sense’ that means they can pat themselves on the back, toddle off home, and think that today they really made a difference, without even having to get their heads around what they’d like to see from the UK government in terms of whether action against Isis in Syria could make a difference, what the limits of that action would be, and what the legal basis for doing so when President Assad doesn’t look likely to ask the UK to join the strikes in the country? They did discuss these questions in this afternoon’s debate, but it was on the subject of Isil/Isis/Daesh/IS/They Who Must Not Be Named that MPs seemed to grow the most aerated, and a number started their interventions with the issue of the name, before moving onto other issues. They are free to use whichever name they want, but then so are journalists free to use the terms their organisation has settled on without politicians bossing them around. That's the annoying thing about democracy.