Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Pointless Candle On The Cake

By killing two policemen today in Mallorca, and with a huge bomb that destroyed a Guardia Civil barracks yesterday in Burgos, ETA have reminded everyone of their continuing presence and their ability to survive under intense police pressure. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the organisation, but the half-century is not a happy one for a group that should never really have survived beyond the age of 16 at most. ETA may believe that they can force the Spanish government back into negotiations with bombs like those we have seen this week, but such an outcome has rarely looked further away than it does at the moment.

Today's attack has also provoked a new frenzy amongst those who are determined to force the foreign media to use their language when writing about ETA. It's a bit sad to see otherwise creditable media organisations urging on this silly campaign that tries to enforce an obligatory vocabulary on those whose job is supposed to be that of informing their readers. The fact that this time the assault happens with Twitter does little to make it any more worthwhile. I've been through the argument before, and I still think that a news bulletin that begins with the compulsory "La banda terrorista" offers neither information nor insight into what is going on. I used to think it was partly a cultural thing in a country where many seem to believe that reality is nothing more than a reflection of the words you choose to describe it. However, I now think it's more to do with a lack of tradition of genuinely independent journalism.

Those lost souls who are determined to waste their lives trying to introduce the word "terrorist" into the English Wikipedia article on ETA show the same inability to distinguish between information and propaganda in an encyclopaedia. Unsurprisingly the Spanish language article takes a different line. The common assumption in Spain seems to be that the description of ETA as "Basque separatists" is revealing foreign ignorance about the truth of the situation. The fact is that many of the journalists using this kind of description have spent years in Spain, and are often better informed about what is going on in the country than many of those who are so quick to criticise them.

When the far right ex-president of the Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo recently accused the widow of ETA's previous victim of using the language of the nationalists and terrorists at her husband's funeral, only a tiny fraction of those who are so noisy against the foreign press had anything to say about it. There are perhaps already too many media sources content to feed the prejudices of those who read them as opposed to attempting to enlighten, so let's applaud those who refuse to bend under the pressure to do the same.


moscow said...

ETA is inching closer and closer to an Omagh-like killing.

Pueblo girl said...

The debate over language usage you highlight is another example of the entrenched positions taken over the problem of ETA, which do nothing to open the way to creative, effective and flexible solutions. If ETA has survived for 50 years, in part this is because for 50 years, Spain has implemented policies which do not work. For example, given the similarities between Sinn Fein and Batasuna, and the role the former played in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, outlawing Batasuna was perhaps not a constructive move.

Graeme said...


Its not very easy to guess what ETA might try and do but this weeks attacks do not signal any change of strategy - they have tried to blow up Guardia Civil barracks for years. Attacks on the security forces are much easier for them to sell to their political base than an Omagh type bombing.

@Pueblo girl

I agree with you on the question of Batasuna but I do not believe that is the reason why the last negotiation failed. ETA would probably have got an Irish style deal on the prisoners and legalisation of Batasuna but I think they wanted more and they either miscalculated the situation or they simply were not ready to leave their weapons.

Colin said...

This is a hard row to hoe, Graeme. And I guess it doesn't help that even left-of-centre papers seem only too happy to perpetuate what you don't like. See the column in today's El Pais, in which "terrorist group" "terrorist organisation" and "terrorist movement" are all used. And by a Professor of Political Sciences! But I guess he may be right of centre.

I believe I understand where you are coming from but would you also have difficulty, say, putting handy labels on Stalin and Hitler on the grounds we can all make up our own minds about how they went about their business? Or does it rather depend on whether one has some sympathy with the political objectives, if not the means?

Graeme said...

I would argue it's a harder row to hoe in the opposite direction Colin, at least from the point of view of maintaining a coherent standpoint. I didn't present the issue as being between left and right in Spain because I know it isn't that clear. Neither am I arguing that journalists should be prohibited from using the word terrorist, but we should understand the difference between an opinion piece and an article that attempts to explain what is happening. In the end many, but not all, people in Spain believe that journalists are obliged to participate in the battle against ETA. I'm with the minority on that one.

As for the comparison with Hitler or Stalin what really helps us to understand the enormity of what they did is knowledge about the facts of the Holocaust or the Gulag. Insisting that journalists write "the very bad man Hitler", or "the awful dictator Stalin" does little to help.

Lavengro said...

Opinions differ, but it would help if the BBC could get its act together about who or what is or is not a terrorist.

My blog:

Graeme said...

The fact that news organisations tend not to be very consistent, especially when the problem is closer to home, only backs up the argument for avoiding loose usage of the word terrorism. Peter, if you seriously think the BBC piece you cite on your blog is ETA propaganda you'd better not read what I've written on De Juana Chaos ;)

Troy said...

Do you think that "Basque separatists" adequately describes them?

After all, the English language does have a huge lexicon and we are able to make fine distinctions between things.

Like laptop and PC.

So shouldn't a difference be made between separatists and people who like to blow others up?

I know that if I were a separatist, I would like people to make the distinction.

Graeme said...

How about "armed separatist" Troy? There's nothing about believing in the use of terror that stops you fromm professing other beliefs, you can be a republican, a racist, a monarchist, an ecologist, a separatist or any number of other things - perhaps excluding pacifists.

Troy said...

Well 'armed separatist' is better or should I say slightly more accurate. I say slightly because I am not entirely convinced that the current generation of ETAras even know what they are fighting for. Sure you may get a knee-jerk answer regarding 'independence' or something along those lines, but imagine if these thugs actually got it? They wouldn't have a clue what to do then.

To me they strike me as a comfy group of mafiosos who live off of extortion rather than a group of freedom fighters. As you said yourself in your post, their 'reason' for blowing people up ended around their 16th birthday.

'Armed separatist' or 'terrorist group', neither square with me. Mafia or a similar word is more accurate.

ejh said...

To me they strike me as a comfy group of mafiosos who live off of extortion rather than a group of freedom fighters.

I doubt that they're "comfy", whatever else they are.

Troy said...

Doubt that they're comfy?

Not having to work, leave a menacing note in someone's mailbox saying, "Give me x amount or...start your car at your own risk." Telepizza and Patxaran courtesy of the PNV.

And if you do get caught, contrary to ETA propaganda, Spanish jails aren't really hard time. Swimming pools, plasma TV's and conjugal visits, seems pretty comfy to me. Not exactly El Che in the Bolivian highlands.

ejh said...

Surprised more people don't do it really.

mondraussie said...

I apologise for weighing into this debate over a week late, but I've only just read your post.. the point you make about about language usage and the semantic implications of chosing one word over another is indeed valid but the term "basque separatists", like Troy says, does not really adequately describe things. It also fails to take into account that there are a great number of basques here who would describe their political and ideological standpoint as "separatist" and yet who are not members nor supporters of ETA. And what then do we call these people?

I agree wholeheartedly that the spanish press is far from objective and have an astonishing propensity to jump to conclusions before the facts are known, but exactly which part of detonating a bomb in a public place (with or without warning calls) does not equal terrorism?

Graeme said...

Mondraussie, I think the real problem is not one of semantics, but one of politics. Who can really give a satisfactory definition of terrorism that covers all the contexts of where the word is used? It's nice to think that there are acts which can be described as objectively terrorist but what happens is that many of the people who have it clear as far as car bombs are concerned are not so sure when it comes to the reprisal missile attack onto a house where a "suspect" may live or the 500 pounder that gets dropped from 5000 metres onto an Afghan wedding party.

My point in the original post is not really about what any of us may consider to be terrorism. If the foreign media did what many Spanish people want them to do with ETA, then you quickly end up with a one page foreign section that says little more than "some terrorists killed some people in 5 countries yesterday". What use would that be in telling us what is really happening in those places? I want information and context and then to be left to make my own mind up. We have too much manipulation of news already.

Tom said...

The fact is that the BBC, quite rightly, tries to avoid attributing the term 'terrorist' to anyone. It will quote other people using that term because that's simply repeating a quote. The term is too slippery for a responsible journalist to use and doesn't help any of us understand what's going on any better.

That's their policy and it makes perfect sense to me.

ejh said...

The fact is that the BBC, quite rightly, tries to avoid attributing the term 'terrorist' to anyone.

I wouldn't bet your life savings on that claim.

Tom said...

It's generally true. You can check, if you like. I have.

ejh said...

In what way did you "check"?

Tom said...

EJH - It's really very simple:

I must say that I'm surprised that someone who lists the illustrious Lenin's Tomb as one of his blogs would know about (a) this policy at the BBC and (b) how to use Google.

You'll see in the results of that search that the word 'terrorist' when employed on the BBC's website, is nearly always taken either from a quote or the name of a law. So, someone calls someone else a 'terrorist' or someone is arrested under the 'terrorism' Act.

The purpose of my original statement was not to defend the BBC exactly, just to point out that the Corporation is not acting unusually when it refers to ETA as 'separatist' rather than 'terrorist'. I am quite sure that the BBC used to refer to the IRA as 'terrorist', but I'm too young to remember those days.

ejh said...

Well y'see Tom, not only am I quite old enough to remember that very well, I'm also old enough to be a qualified information professional and therefore know a tiny bit about information retrieval - and indeed old enough to know that Google searches aren't always the best way of finding everything. For instance, you could have actually used the BBC site's own search function (you probably want to search News and Sport and personally I'd organise the results by date). This would have been, ah, "very simple".

Now it's true that a lot of what is to be found involves either quotations, or reported speech, or repeats terms used in reports - but then again it's true that a vast proportion of reporting involves quoting people, or reporting what they've said, or summarising reports and statements.

However, I don't think everything comes under that rubric and if there was a policy to avoid using the term I'd like to see a link to something declaring or describing that policy (like this perhaps) rather than demonstrating that a lot of the time, BBC reporters are reporting other people's words rather than using their own.

When there is editorialisation, I think there's a general preference to avoid the term but I think the way you put it probably exaggerates the strength of that preference. And so, as I say, I wouldn't put my life savings on it.

Tom said...

No one's asking you to put your life savings on it, Senyor EJH. I don't see that we're in disagreement here, though a seasoned professional such as yourself would no doubt agree that the BBC's in-house search engine "sucks" and that Google's indexing power is often invaluable to the inquisitive data retriever. Indeed, using both search methods (and possibly, even a third!) would imply a more thorough technique and would undoubtedly provide a bigger bag of results through which to sift.

Anyway, in order to avoid further contamination of Graeme's comments page, I've contacted the BBC to ask them if they have any editorial policy regarding this word. I'm not going to bet my life savings (currently approximately €200) on getting a reply but I shall be sure to let you know if I receive one.

Adéu i bon dia.

ejh said...

Desgraciamente no hablo catalán pero ayer mi coche se estropeó en Altafalla.

Actually I think the BBC site's search function isn't too bad (certainly compared to, say, that possessed by the Guardian) and would have been the wiser first choice in this instance. However, as I occasionally* find myself saying, the best search strategy is often "asking somebody who's in a position to know" so you may be on the right lines here.

[* usually when somebody asks a factual question on a bulletin board and some halfwit tries to mock them by asking whether they've ever heard of Google.]