The use of the term ‘terrorism’ is one which has a complex history; it is notoriously difficult to define. The head of BBC Arabic, Talik Kafala, has called for an end to usage of the term by the channel’s journalists. Kafala’s criticism of the word, stemming from news coverage on the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, has started a much needed debate over its political and racial connotations in journalism as a whole. More widely, the debate sheds light upon the role of the news in today’s digital society, and the responsibility it carries. Ultimately, Kafala’s comments should be applauded, and his intervention should catalyse further questioning of the way in which the news handles its irrefutable influence.
One of the principal difficulties with the term ‘terrorism’ is indeed its racial associations. Often defined weakly as ‘an act which causes terror’, in practice, the term is used in an altogether more polarising, offensive manner. It is a common observation that the broadcast media in particular is unashamedly guilty of excluding white criminals from the term. Though content to brand violent extremists Boko Haram and Isis as terrorists, broadcasting outlets appear to stall when confronted with the problematic task of finding a term to accurately describe those such as Anders Breivik. To adopt the simplistic and reductive definition often offered by the mainstream media, none would deny that Breivik’s crimes in killing 77 people in Norway caused a veritable degree of ‘terror’, just as the atrocities of Boko Haram and Isis provoke the same sentiment. The stand-out differentiating factor is indeed ethnicity, and it is this problem, the term’s targeting of people of colour, which renders it not only ‘a barrier to understanding’, as Kafala suggested, but a racially-loaded, discriminatory slur.
The problem in defining terrorism has led to its racial associations being entrenched institutionally. A glance at the official definitions of the term by both the EU and the UN at first reveals a preoccupation with the act itself. However, in both definitions, as well as that formulated by the United States, the phrase “[to] intimidate a population” emerges as recurrent. The implication here appears to be one of civilizational conflict, of one ‘population’ against another. Such vocabulary confirms that ‘terrorism’ is a word which, even at the loftiest levels of bureaucratic and diplomatic organisation, is associated with origin, ethnicity and nationality. It is for these reasons that use of the term serves only to divide along ethnic and cultural lines.
Alain de Botton’s recent publication The News: A User’s Manual advances the theory of philosopher Hegel, who proposed that a society reaches modernity when the news replaces religion as its dominant authority on matters of moral guidance. Whilst a debatable concept, the centrality of the news to social functioning is beyond doubt. With such influence, the press, particularly the broadcast media, carries great responsibility in diffusing ideas to the public. The link between the media and public opinion is thus established not only in matters of current affairs, but in more abstract ideological terms. Whilst perhaps not deliberate or malicious, continued use of the term ‘terrorism’ abuses this responsibility by having racial stereotyping at its heart. It is therefore imperative that the press collectively turns its back upon the use of such a term, a progression which is both in its own interests, and in the interests of its ever-watching public.