9 Mar 2013

‘Murder’ or ‘killings’ – why we need to take care with the words of war

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”.

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 much a premeditated killer as the insurgent suicide bomber pressing the button on Kabul’s ever-congested Jalalabad Road or wherever.

Of course NATO and others draw up rules of engagement and the following primer kindly sent me this morning, may be of use: http://t.co/hjSxC3qiml

But for reporters this won’t get us far and leaping to loaded terms of criminal guilt as in “murder” (particularly prior to any judicial process) is just plain wrong in fact, wrong in law and taking sides.

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.

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?

That’s interesting. But it’s not objective. And broadcasters are legally bound to be impartial we are constantly told.

My early years in Belfast gave me a healthy suspicion of the mainstream media favourite “terrorist” and “terrorism”.

Clearly thousands did not regard Loyalist bombers as terrorists. Clearly thousands in West Belfast returned Gerry Adams to Westminster in the days when “the politics of condemnation” would not allow him to decry the latest Provo killings.

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…?

All in all when it comes to journalism there are always more accurate words than “militant”, “terrorist”, “terrorism” and yes “murder”.

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