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Government privately pressured BBC director-general to call Hamas ‘terrorists’ in news reports

The BBC is on a collision course with ministers after resisting mounting pressure to rip up language guidelines which advise staff against calling Hamas attackers “terrorists”.

During a meeting with BBC boss Tim Davie, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer urged the Director-General to review the style guide, which warns against using emotive language like “terrorists” in its news reports.

BBC coverage of the Hamas attacks on Israel refers to the group as “militants”.

“I made extremely clear my view that these were acts of terror carried out by a terrorist organisation,” Ms Frazer wrote in a letter to Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which recounted her conversation with Mr Davie.

Ms Frazer wrote that she “asked the Director-General whether the BBC was considering, in the light of this and recent events, if it was now appropriate to review their guidelines, and, if not, whether they were confident that they were in fact abiding by their own BBC News Style Guide which specifically refers to the fact that ‘an action or event can be described as a terror attack or an act of terror’”.

The Culture Secretary, who has launched a review into the future of the BBC licence fee, said editorial judgements were ultimately a matter for the broadcaster.

But she added: “I strongly believe that the language used to describe these horrific attacks matters and I highlighted this to the Director-General.”

Ms Frazer will be aware of the sensitivity surrounding her intervention after she had to defend herself for holding talks with Mr Davie following allegations made about presenter Huw Edwards.

Mr Davie is understood to have defended the BBC’s coverage of the Hamas attacks in the meeting and declined to commit to a formal review.

A source said: “Tim accepts that there will be ongoing discussion about individual words and that the BBC could do more to clarify the language it uses. Overall, he believes the BBC has got the balance right across its coverage.”

The BBC guidelines state that calling the perpetrators of attacks “terrorists” can “imply judgement where there is no clear consensus about the legitimacy of militant political groups”.

The BBC said: “We have included contributors who have condemned the attackers as terrorists and we have reported that Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by many Western governments, including the UK.”

Insiders said BBC voices are using the phrase “acts of terror” which is permitted under the guidelines. And on Tuesday, it published a story online in which the word terrorists was quoted in the headline.

However the BBC risks inflaming relations with the Government by defying calls for a full-scale review of its language.

The Prime Minister led criticism of the BBC, saying of the attacks: “’This is not a time for equivocation, we should call it out for what it is.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly chided the corporation during an appearance on BBC Breakfast. He said: “These are all terrorist attacks and I would urge you to reflect that in your reporting. Hamas is a terrorist organisation – these are not militants, they are terrorists.”

In a letter to Ms Frazer, the Board of Deputies’ Ms van der Zyl wrote: “The continuous refusal of UK news channels, including the BBC, to refer to Hamas as what it is – a terrorist organisation – feels little short of obscene.” She called for “an urgent review of the BBC’s guidelines”.

In another letter to Mr Davie, Ms van der Zyl said “not calling Hamas’ attacks on Israeli citizens terrorism is not impartiality, it is undermining the true nature of these attacks”.

The BBC has admitted that a News channel interview with Refaat Alareer, a lecturer at Gaza’s Islamic University, who compared the Hamas attacks to the “Warsaw ghetto uprising”, was “offensive”.

Mr Alareer will not be used a contributor again, the BBC said.

The BBC was approached for comment on the meeting between Mr Davie and Ms Frazer.

The BBC’s guidelines state that the word “terrorist” can be a “barrier rather than an aid” to helping audiences understand news stories.

“We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened,” the guidelines say.

“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.”

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