SO WHAT’S the best name for an unspeakable terrorist organisation? Prime Minister David Cameron used a spot on the Today programme On Monday to complain about the BBC using the phrase Islamic State. Later that day in a Commons debate on the UK’s response to the massacre in Tunisia, Mr Cameron said the broadcaster should use the term Isil, the label preferred by many UK politicians. This is short for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the description favoured by MI5. Mr Cameron observed: “I think saying Isil is probably better than Islamic State because it is neither, in my view, Islamic or a state.”
Alongside this debate there has been pressure from a cross-party group of MPs in a campaign led by the Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, urging the BBC to instead adopt the term “Daesh”.
There is a possible problem with this term, and it has nothing to do with whether or not it is more suitable. It is simply that most ordinary people find it difficult enough to keep up with the news, without finding a yet another troubling new acronym to stumble over. The term “Daesh” is based on an Arabic acronym, and we all know how handy those are. It stands for – and here I have copied and pasted, for reasons which will hopefully become clear – al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham.
I think perhaps we can already see the difficulty here. This translates as Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria), but is said to be close to “Dahes” or “one who sows discord”.
Sowing discord is exactly what these people do, so there is at least that in favour of “Daesh”, if sadly not much else.
A letter from Mr Chishti, signed by 120 MPs, was sent to BBC director general Tony Hall last week. Those supporting his call for a change included Boris Johnson – serial leaper on to many a passing bandwagon – and Keith Vaz, the publicity-averse chair of the home affairs select committee.
These things are never easy. When Mr Cameron said on the Today programme that Muslim listens would recoil every time they heard the words Islamic State in connection with this “appalling, barbarous regime” he had a point. Yet I still feel Mr Hall was right to reject calls for the change, even if his grounds for doing so were tortuous in a manner suggesting the darkest-ever edition of the TV comedy W1A. In rejecting the demands, Mr Hall said that using Daesh would not preserve the BBC’s impartiality as, according to a report in The Times, it risked giving the impression that the BBC supported the group’s opponents. Mr Hall was said to claim that the term was used pejoratively by its enemies.
Adding only the proviso that this was reported by the BBC-hating Times, this does sound like the most bonkers attempt ever at being even-handed to those who don’t deserve it. It must have been quite a meeting when that one was thrashed out.
I think the simplest way ahead is to slip in a cautionary “so-called” every time this appalling collective is mentioned. That is straightforward and adds a necessary note of caution, while not encumbering the poor, bewildered and tragedy-hued viewer with something else to remember.
As for Mr Cameron having a go at the BBC, he does like to do that, and on the Today programme he rushed in with his criticism too quickly if you ask me, as if taking a bite out of the Corporation was more important than the sombre topic of the moment. But then this is the man who said on the campaign bus before the election: “I’m going to close them [the BBC] after the election.” Well, that’s according to some reports. It was probably a joke, and I am rolling on the floor as I write this. But it sounds to me like the sort of joke that comes with serious intent attached.
As Siobhan Sharpe (brilliantly, horribly imagined by Jessica Hynes), likes to say in W1A: “Let’s nail this puppy to the floor.” Incidentally, according to some reports, that phrase from the first series ended up being used in the BBC newsroom.