The habitual skepticism of the BBC, taken to new lengths

EDITOR’S NOTE: DUH! Someone point out that maybe the Beeb was saying “so-called Islamic State” instead of “so-called Islamic State TARGETS” — in other words, rightly doubting the terrorist’s legitimacy as “the Islamic State” — which is an appropriate form of skepticism — rather than doubting that the targets were actually associated with the terrorist group. This seems likely. In which case, I am officially an idiot. Never mind…

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That’s the rule tyro journalists are taught from the start: Take nothing for granted; believe nothing that you haven’t checked.

But as much as American reporters may have internalized that, no one in this country takes it to the extremes that British media do. Even in their headlines, they attribute things that American media would not, putting the most routine statements of fact in quotes. For instance, today they have a headline that says, “Top Nigerian ‘internet scammer’ arrested.” Because you have to be careful — it may turn out he really IS a deposed minister who wants to share several million dollars with us.

This practice reached a new level today. I received this news alert today from The Washington Post:

WP alert

And this one right after it from the BBC:

BBC alert

I could see putting “Islamic State targets” in quotes, as the Beeb often does with government statements.

But “so-called”? To me, that’s just a few shades short of “liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Did the Beeb have some particular reason to doubt that these were actual ISIL targets in this instance — reason that escaped other news outlets?

The thing is, they had already covered themselves with “Pentagon says.” If the Pentagon had said we’d shot down pretty pink winged unicorns, you really wouldn’t need to distance yourself further, as long as you included the “Pentagon says.” No matter how scrupulous you are.

There’s such a thing as being too scrupulous by half, and I think the BBC accomplished that today…

Oh, by the way, in case y’all want to talk about the alleged U.S. airstrikes in Libya (“alleged” because, for all we know, there were no airstrikes at all!), this would be a good place to do it. Just ignore my pedantic ramblings…

12 thoughts on “The habitual skepticism of the BBC, taken to new lengths

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, if this had been The Guardian instead of the Beeb, the story would have been accompanied by a leader (editorial) noting how beastly the Americans are, and a sidebar from Glenn Greenwald…

  2. Jeff

    When I hear “so called Islamic State,” I interpret it as a reminder that the UK and/or the BBC do not recognize ISIL as a legitimate government. I think I hear it three or four times a day.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, I’m PROBABLY an idiot. It’s possible that they meant it the way I took it. (Remember, I’m reading it within the context of their super-careful attribution and quotes when they report something told them by government. I was also diagramming the “so-called” as modifying “targets.”) But you’re right; people challenge the legitimacy of ISIL by saying “so-called Islamic State” all the time. It’s definitely a thing.

        And when they do, I wonder why they go to the trouble. Call it something other than Islamic State, and you don’t have to qualify it. How about Daesh?…

        I say ISIL, or ISIS, and don’t bother with the “so-called.” We have to call them something…

            1. Bryan Caskey

              There’s no need to call them names that they “hate”. First, those people are already about as angry/motivated to kill as they can be. It’s not like they’re sitting there thinking: “Oh, you called us Daesh? Now, we’re really steamed!“.

              I’m far less concerned about what we call them than what we do about them.

              1. Katharine Thomas

                This is the name used in the Middle East by people who have been hurt by them the most. It emphasizes that they are not Islamic and they are not a state. It’s not just to tick them off, it’s their name.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, forget that example, and look at this characteristically skeptical BBC headline today:

    Canadian police ‘kill terror suspect’

    So… why does “kill terror suspect” have to be in quotes?

    Does the BBC doubt that the suspect was killed?

    I can fully understand wanting to reserve judgment on whether he was indeed a terrorist, in the name of healthy journalistic skepticism. But this says “terror SUSPECT.” Does reasonable doubt exist that the authorities SUSPECT him of being a terrorist? Do we think the Mounties are lying about the fact they suspected him, or mistaken — could they indeed not know for sure whether they suspected him or not?

    I really think “suspect” is enough of a hedge word without the quotes. But the Beeb will use them, every time.

    Weird. I find myself wondering whether quotation marks mean something different in England. If so, it’s odd that I hadn’t noticed before. Although I HAVE noticed that some British writers use single quotes when their characters speak, and double quotes for quotes within quotes — the opposite of what we do…


        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes. I was thinking of it all wrong.

          Hazard of blogging. Before something like that appeared in the paper, one of my colleagues would have pointed out that I was looking at it wrong, and I’d have said, “never mind”…

          Blogging affords one unlimited opportunities to go off half-cocked.


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