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In the buffer

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Paul Brannan | 14:58 UK time, Friday, 28 July 2006

The language of conflict has always given birth to euphemisms – collateral damage, kinetic targeting and ethnic cleansing are among the more recent entries to the argot of the times.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteGeorge Orwell covered this ground in Politics and the English Language back in 1945. He wrote: "“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

“Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers."

Orwell saw this retreat into euphemism as a consequence of political expediency by those seeking to defend the indefensible. Such phraseology was needed by those who wanted to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

A more recent commentator, Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute, cautioned against adopting the language of the military in reporting on war. “Language has always had a power that tilts towards those who define the terms,” he observed.

And my colleague Jon Williams has also written of the sensitivities of language, specifically the words used to describe the recent taking of the two Israeli soldiers.

The weight of history and its years of tit-for-tat reprisals in the region would lead many people to take issue with Orwell’s conclusion about language. Some would insist that Israel’s actions in southern Lebanon were entirely defensible. But when, in a recent report, we mentioned the proposal for a “buffer zone” between Israel and Lebanon as part of a wider ceasefire plan it prompted one viewer to write and complain.

"'Buffer zone' is a propaganda term used by the Israeli government. It should not be simply repeated by a news organisation.”

Such a description would be mendacious to many Lebanese. For them it’s a straightforward invasion and occupation of their territory.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict, using the Israeli terminology - “buffer zone” - without ascribing it to them would make it appear that we accept the view of it as a purely defensive measure designed to protect Israel from aggression. Not using the term could also make us appear partial, or that we believed the argument that it is nothing to do with self-defence.

So, for future instances, I’ve asked the web team simply to make clear that the expression is one Israel has given to it.

Paul Brannan is deputy editor of the BBC News website


I have always found the term 'ethnic cleansing' very suspect indeed. It sounds as though it should be a good thing, using the word 'cleansing' like that.

Also as a Brit in the USA I am always astonished when newsreaders and journalists say: "so and so claimed CREDIT for the terrorist attack on...etc"

That is such a weird misuse of a word. 'Responsibility' is, of course, the correct word.

  • 2.
  • At 09:05 PM on 28 Jul 2006,
  • towcestarian wrote:

Euphamisms are originated
by the "political" classes (ie the meddlers) to spin their view of reality onto an "electorate". You quote euphemisms of conflict, but they are no different in concept than "politically correct" euphemisms used to manipulate our thoughts on more domestic topics - things like calling thick children "challenged", and very short people "PORG"s.

What is interesting about all euphemisms is the their total inability to actualy change the underlying meaning behind the the bare words. "Ethnic clensing" is a chilling a phrase as anything Mr Orwell could come up with, and "challenged" is the new playground insult to take over from "spaz". "Buffer zone" will quickly take on its real meaning if used enough, so dyou shouldn't be scared of using it, just as "militant" now means "terrorist" rather than a bolshy shop steward.

As for your comment about "the language of the military"... The military (ie the squaddies rather than the generals - who are part of the "political" classes) invent as many anti-euphemisms as euphemisms. Phrases are often deliberately made more graphic; so ambulances become "blood wagons" and people who have burned to death become "crispy-critters". This sort of black humour is a way of mentally surviving the horrors of combat - and is totally misunderstood by anyone fortunate enough not to have to experience it.

  • 3.
  • At 09:20 PM on 28 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

How perceptive of you Mr. Brannan to observe that the choice of words can conjure up horrific images...or disguise them for an audience. Now take this simple example; defenceless people are bombed without warning in buses, restaurants, shopping malls, in subways, in office buildings, in fact almost anywhere they might venture during their daily routine especially in large groups by those who have no regard for human lives including their own, in order to impose their political program on an entire society. Some call the people who perpetrate these acts "militants." Militant is a propaganda term used to defend the world's most heinous criminals by concealing their true goal to terrify not only those of their victims who survive their crimes but entire nations. The description is mendacious to all civilized human beings who value life, especially innocent lives of ordinary people who have no political agenda, take up no arms, have no anger and done no harm towards anyone. Whatever the rights and wrongs of those whose grievances impel them to plan and execute these crimes, using the term "militant" without ascribing it to them alone would make it appear that we accept the legitimacy not only of the grievences but of the acts themselves.

Congratulations BBC for so convincingly making my arguement for me. YOU are an apologist for Al Qaeda and all of its affiliate and sympathetic terrorist organizations around the world. YOU in your own way are every bit as guilty as they are. YOU are the mass murderer's media propagandist and liar par excellance.

  • 4.
  • At 12:43 AM on 29 Jul 2006,
  • Matt Brown wrote:

A wise decision to ascribe "buffer zone" explicitly to the Israeli government. Whether you believe in their cause, their methods or their motives, BBC impartiality must be maintained.

Also, the gentleman in post number 3 does make a good point about the use of other such terms; even if he does so with a little too much enthusiam. Militant is a word to be used with caution. Then again, so is "terrorist"...

  • 5.
  • At 03:06 AM on 29 Jul 2006,
  • M wrote:

RE post #3:

Please read the previous post, towcestarian wrote: "'militant' now means terrorist".

You seem to be in output mode and are clearly posting from an entrenched perspective. Many arguments about semantics would be cut short by consulting a dictionary, e.g. the Oxford English Dictionary:

MILITANT "is a propaganda term used to defend the world's most heinous criminals by concealing their true goal to terrify not only those of their victims who survive their crimes but entire nations."

More generic and standard definitions from the OED:

MILITANT "aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause, and often favouring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods."

TERRORIST "a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects."

All you're really saying with your posts is that you have greater empathy with the Isreali position and probably regard "militant" as a softer word, perhaps due to its less aggressive starting syllable from your linguistic perspective? I can only guess that you have had some direct or close experience of violent acts in this area that is affecting your perception, replacing objectivity with bitterness, condescending sarcasm and wild accusatory hyperbole.

Have you any objective views about "Buffer Zone"?

  • 6.
  • At 02:44 PM on 29 Jul 2006,
  • name wrote:

It's a good thing the BBC pays more attention to views of Lebanese on the term "buffer zone" than they do to British licence fee payers on the terms "terrorist" and "militant", otherwise you'd have people thinking the BBC was supposed to listen to those who fund it and we can't have that.

  • 7.
  • At 12:06 PM on 30 Jul 2006,
  • Dave wrote:

When will see stories such as this on the BBC:

The NY Times talked to Christians fleeing their southern Lebanese homes. The refugees made bare their outrage with Hezbollah tactics:

“Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets,” said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. “They are shooting from between our houses.”

“Please,’’ he added, “write that in your newspaper.”….

One woman, who would not give her name because she had a government job and feared retribution, said Hezbollah fighters had killed a man who was trying to leave Bint Jbail.

“This is what’s happening, but no one wants to say it” for fear of Hezbollah, she said.

Of course, such complexities dilute the simple message the BBC is trying to get across - Everything is the fault of Israel.

Please respond to this!

  • 8.
  • At 06:48 PM on 30 Jul 2006,
  • Sweetie wrote:

To Mark,

"How perceptive of you Mr. Brannan to observe that the choice of words can conjure up horrific images...or disguise them for an audience."

The choice of words are powerless in front of the images we see on our TV screens, they neither conjure nor disguise .

Disguising the truth is the biggest crime .

  • 9.
  • At 12:28 AM on 31 Jul 2006,
  • Jonathan wrote:

I find it ironic that the BBC(The Ministry of Truth) should quote Orwell

  • 10.
  • At 10:10 AM on 31 Jul 2006,
  • Vinny wrote:

You are absolutely correct in pointing out that the use of terms conditions the reader and is part of 'selling' an agenda. It also in many instances then takes on a legal existence. The entrenched power has historically always branded anybody agitating against the status quo a terrorist - the British against leaders of the Indian freedom struggle, the Aparthied South African government against members of the ANC etc. An example that struck me was that for many years the media used the term 'rubber bullets' and gulled readers into the sense that these just stung but no worse. They strangely enough killed people and finally the media started referring to them as 'steel coated rubber bullets'. Clearly such language is used to manipulate opinion.

  • 11.
  • At 04:14 PM on 31 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Sweetie post # 8, it's the images you don't see which disguise the whole truth. It's the images of Israelis being blown to bits in their restaurants, shopping malls, buses, even their own cars and homes by people whose only goal in life is to kill them and destroy their nation. The BBC is a facilitator of terrorism by selectively editing what you see and don't see to present a clearly targeted political point of view consistant with their own agenda. Why don't we see for example images of Arab genocide in Darfur where there has been horrific slaughter and destruction on a massive scale which dwarfs all of Lebanon and Palestine combined? Because the BBC doesn't care to present it to you, it is inconsistant with their anti American anti Israeli pro Euro Socialist political theology. They will show you a thousand images of destroyed buildings in Lebanon where 600 people have died in war before they will show you ten in Darfur where 300,000 were murdered in cold blood by their own government and its friendly militias. I stick with my original comment and observation that BBC is the mass murderer's best possible propagandist, apologist, and liar.

This post is dope.
Its enduring message is not only sustainable, but lasting and permanent. Time and time again, the BBC's commitment to freedom is laudable.
Terrorist, insurgent, militant.
Grrrrrrrrzonk, wbpwbpwbp...

  • 13.
  • At 10:55 PM on 31 Jul 2006,
  • miika wrote:

600+ dead in Lebanon, by Israeli munitions.

70+ dead in Israel, by Hezbollah munitions.

Makes you wonder about the mass murderer's best possible propagandist, apologist, and liars, doesn't it, when everyone keeps skipping those minor inconvienient facts.

As much as the real apologists for the current program of genocidal ethnic cleansing efforts in the region would like it to be otherwise, you can't argue the math, even if you try to deflect the argument by attacking those reporting that math.

Anything that cannot be expressed mathematically is a theory, not a fact, the quote goes.

I think the "propaganda" is pretty much secondary to the math here. Unless, of course, the propagandists would like to explain once more just how a ten-fold disparity between deaths on either side is "proportionate"?

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