One man's victim of poverty is another man's mindless thug

LANGUAGE OF REPORTING: “ONE MAN’S terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” as the saying – penned first by author Gerald…

LANGUAGE OF REPORTING:"ONE MAN'S terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," as the saying – penned first by author Gerald Seymour in the 1975 thriller Harry's Game, and repeated ad nauseam since – puts it.

Everything depends on your point of view. So what should we call the people who for the last four nights have been running riot in half a dozen English cities?

The BBC, for one, began last weekend by calling them “protesters”, presumably because the initial rioting in Tottenham north London on Saturday was, or appeared to be, a protest at the lack of a satisfactory police response to questions about the death of Mark Duggan.

It was a term the corporation continued to use for at least two further days, drawing criticism from members of the public who took to Twitter to express their disapproval.


“Why do the press keep calling the rioters here protesters?” asked Linda Keen. “They’re not protesting about or for anything.”

Rob Steadman agreed: “This has nothing to do with protest.”

Amid accusations of political correctness and questions about whether the BBC considered “violence and looting” and “pure criminality” synonymous with legitimate protest, the corporation has insisted its reporters had also used the word “rioters” and that no guidelines had been issued – unlike in 2005, when head of BBC news Helen Boaden circulated a memo in the wake of the 7/7 attacks on London warning that “the word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”.

Some agreed it wasn’t easy to choose the appropriate terminology.

“They are suffering from high taxes, low income, unemployment and high prices . . . Should they be called rioters or protesters?” tweeted one user.

However the majority objected forcefully to the word protester and many were not even happy with rioter.

Dee Modha thought “thugs, hooligans and opportunists” would be better words, while Chris Sutcliffe, abandoning all niceties, urged everyone to “start using the correct word. Terrorists.”

That may seem excessive. Choice of words very often implies a subjective judgement, as for example the Guardian’s style guide on the word terrorists points out.

It adds: “We need to be very careful about using the term”, and suggests alternatives – militants, radicals, separatists – that may sometimes be more appropriate.

The trouble is that one man’s “excessive” may be another man’s “appropriate”.

The tabloid press on the other hand has had few linguistic qualms. “Copycat cretins”, was how the Metro free newspaper described the rioters yesterday .

The Daily Mirroropted for "gangs of mindless yobs", the Daily Mail"anarchists", and the Sunwent for "morons", "thugs" and "idiots". Nor have the public been shy in their choice of words: "Looters are scum" was the verdict emblazoned on the T-shirt of a woman helping with the clean-up in London. – ( Guardianservice)