Should the BBC call Hamas terrorists? What people are saying about the escalating row

Left, the aftermath of the Hamas attacks at the Supernova festival in Re'im, Israel, where at least 260 people were murdered on Saturday. The BBC is refusing to label Hamas terrorists. (Getty Images/PA)
Left, the aftermath of the Hamas attacks at the Supernova festival in Re'im, Israel, where at least 260 people were murdered on Saturday. The BBC is refusing to label Hamas terrorists. (Getty Images/PA)

What's happening? Days into the Israel-Hamas war, the BBC is under huge pressure over its refusal to describe Hamas as terrorists.

This pressure is coming from the very top of government. According to The Times, Rishi Sunak wants the BBC to start labelling Hamas terrorists. His ministers have been saying the same thing.

However, the BBC has defended its position, with veteran correspondent John Simpson saying that calling Hamas terrorists would amount to taking sides.

Hamas launched deadly attacks on Israel last weekend, with about 1,300 people killed and a further 150 kidnapped. US president Joe Biden condemned it as the “deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust”.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza, which is governed by Hamas, have led to more than 1,400 deaths.

Here, Yahoo News UK sets out what is being said on both sides of the debate surrounding the BBC's policy.

'Verging on disgraceful'

Defence secretary Grant Shapps upped the ante on Friday. He suggested the BBC should follow the government's legal stance and start describing Hamas as terrorists, given it is proscribed by the UK as a terrorist organisation.

“When Parliament makes a law, that is then the law and the organisation in question is terrorist,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He accused the corporation of being not “particularly interested” in the “Hamas terrorists”.

Shapps has been particularly vocal on the matter, having also said on Wednesday that the BBC’s policy was “verging on disgraceful”.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly and culture secretary Lucy Frazer have also called for a rethink - as has Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Starmer said on Wednesday: “I think the BBC needs to explain why it isn’t [describing Hamas as terrorists]. I said ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ and to me that’s obviously what we are witnessing.”

Four of Britain’s top lawyers have also complained to Ofcom about the BBC's stance.

The Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis called for urgent change, saying that while guidelines may have been “borne out of well-intentioned aspirations to appear accurate and impartial”, the “depth of the terror that Hamas has inflicted upon innocent people across Israel in recent days is not in doubt”.

Meanwhile, Noah Abrahams, a Jewish reporter, has resigned from the BBC over its stance. He told TalkTV on Thursday: “I think the BBC’s refusal to use the correct terminology is unjustifiable.”

'Not the BBC's job'

John Simpson during a live broadcast of BBC Radio 4's Today programme at Wigmore Hall in central London as the programme celebrates its 60th anniversary. (Photo by Rick Findler/PA Images via Getty Images)
'Terrorism is a loaded word': John Simpson. (PA Images via Getty Images)

In an article for the BBC, John Simpson, its world affairs editor, defended the corporation's stance: “Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It's simply not the BBC's job to tell people who to support and who to condemn - who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

“We regularly point out that the British and other governments have condemned Hamas as a terrorist organisation, but that's their business. We also run interviews with guests and quote contributors who describe Hamas as terrorists.

“The key point is that we don't say it in our voice. Our business is to present our audiences with the facts, and let them make up their own minds.”

Nick Robinson, the BBC Radio 4 Today presenter, also weighed in. He posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “No one watching the reporting of my BBC colleagues in Israel can have any doubt of the horror of what has happened. I understand entirely why some want the word ‘terrorism’ used.

"It is, though, the long-standing practice of BBC, ITV and Sky to report others using that language rather than using it ourselves.”

Similar criticism does not appear to have been targeted at other broadcasters or news organisations.

What has the BBC itself said?

The BBC's London headquarters. (PA)
The BBC's London headquarters. (PA)

A BBC spokesperson said: “We always take our use of language very seriously. Anyone watching or listening to our coverage will hear the word ‘terrorist’ used many times - we attribute it to those who are using it, for example, the UK government.

“This is an approach that has been used for decades, and is in line with that of other broadcasters. The BBC is an editorially independent broadcaster whose job is to explain precisely what is happening ‘on the ground’ so our audiences can make their own judgment.”

The BBC’s editorial guidelines on terrorism tell reporters and editors: “The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened.

“We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as ‘bomber’, ‘attacker’, ‘gunman’, ‘kidnapper’, ‘insurgent’ and ‘militant’.

“We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.”

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