What does the BBC say about the ambiguous and offensive term the “British Isles”?

BBC

BBC (Photo credit: SlipStreamJC)

The BBC said the following to me when asked about if the term “British Isles” was ambiguous or offensive:

“The use of the term “British Isles” is considered acceptable in our house style guide. The vast majority of our readership would understand it as a geographical designation with no insulting undertones.”

English: Flag map of the UK (+ constituent cou...

Flag map of the UK (+ constituent countries) and the Republic of Ireland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I searched for their style guide and found it after some googleing.

From the BBC’s style guide, Page 39:

“The British Isles is not a political entity. It is a geographical unit, the archipelago off the west coast of continental Europe covering Scotland,Wales, England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Confused already?”

Note the last line is actually in the manual!

Hmmm. The Republic of Ireland is in the British Isles? Really? The BBC’s own readership, never mind the BBC’s writers, are confused on this one. Just take a look below at comments made by the BBC’s audience in its own site forums!

(if you wish to complain to the BBC about their use of the term “British Isles” then follow this link. If you get an interesting response you can share it in the comments below or send it to me).

“redheylin (24) – Yep, I saw that. But the ‘Britsh Isles’ is a very outmoded term. The Republic of Ireland is not British and the Channel Islands are an really an archipelago more geographically associated with the coast of Normandy (France) rather than part of the British Isles.

It is a bit of an anachronistic phrase.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/pm/2010/02/what_should_we_do.shtml

I like this one. I wish I was articulate and smart enough to make my point so concisely.

In fairness, the following post, in response to someone who is unsure, agrees with the BBC’s own style guide.

“Horse; I’ve no idea if it’s ‘official’ but at school (waaaaay too long ago) we were told that’Great Britain’ is England, Wales & Scotland; ‘United Kingdom’ adds Northern Ireland to those three (as in the UK Passport mentioning ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland’); ‘British Isles’ then adds Eire [sic] to the UK.

So, in some technical way that eludes me, Eire seems to be considered as ‘British’, but plainly isn’t part of the Kingdom any more, since Her Maj is no longer head of state.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/pm/2010/02/what_should_we_do.shtml

P.S. it’s spelt Éire. That’s a fada over the ‘e’ (press and hold ALT-GR SHIFT and any vowel to put a fada over it on any keyboard in the UK or Ireland). In fairness to the above, the naming of the Irish state is confusing. Éire should only be used to refer to Ireland in the Irish medium. The English is Ireland, or after the Republic of Ireland act, the Republic of Ireland is an acceptable description of the state, but not Irish Republic. The Irish Republic was a 32 county, all-Ireland republic declared in 1916, that the IRA are trying to obtain. Understandably, Éire is used in the UK in everyday speech by many (I have not seen or heard it used else where) for the Republic of Ireland to distinguish it from the island of Ireland (which includes Northern Ireland).

This is just one of the numerous arguments in the BBC’s forums that I could pick. Every page where they use the term British Isles, or Great Britain to mean the UK, you find comments usually in the forum demonstrating this confusion. The coverage of the Olympic’s, especially the UK’s Olympic Football team, lead to much confusion.

The BBC’s own journalists add to the confusion by not using their term, as stated in their style guide, consistently. Look at the following quote, for example:

“The flame has travelled around the British Isles, visiting the Republic of Ireland on the way, and will spend its final week touring the Olympic host city.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18854465

This quote from a BBC article demonstrates my point that the term “British Isles” is not needed. Indeed, its the forced use of it that causes ambiguity, and often the offence. Lets take the BBC’s definition of the “British Isles”, as quoted at the top of this page, from their own handbook. Then the quote here is inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, the torch did not travel around the “British Isles”; it didn’t go through the Isle of Man nor did it go to Channel Islands. You can see the path taken by the torch here. Surely what the author meant was that torch travelled around the UK, stopping off in Ireland on the way.Its ease not to cause offence and make an article clear by not using the term “British Isles”

I respect the author’s attempt to try and make clear that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the “British Isles”, but this is the second point where the article is inaccurate according the BBC’s own style guide. From talking to Irish people, this is what most of them think the British mean when they use the term “British Isles” i.e. it doesn’t include the Republic of Ireland. As such, they ignore the term, as it doesn’t relate to them. The only way forward is to stop using the term and leave it to gather dust in some archive.

The BBC needs to show that it is big enough to be the first to move on this. I hope I have made my point that the term “British Isles” is confusing and ambiguous and that the BBC’s own audience find it ambiguous (as evidenced by their own comments). Further, the BBC’s own writers use it to mean what ever they happen to like it to mean. It is therefore neither accurate nor precise. So why use it? Unless you are trying to be offensive?

How could the BBC, and everyone else, avoid this mess? Simple. Avoid the term “British Isles” and use a more appropriate, less ambiguous and less offensive term to refer to the groupings that they wish to. Most of the time  this term is used, it is used inaccurately. In the case of the BBC, violating their Editorial Guidance (e.g.  section 1.2.2) and making them look like ignorant twits that don’t know the boundaries of their own country. I suggest that they adapt their style guide to reflect this, including guidance on what terms and when to use them. A paragraph added to page 39 would suffice. I suppose that is what pisses me off most about it, they don’t ever need to use the term, ever. I know I can’t find a situation where it was needed and an alternative term wasn’t easier or more accurate to use. There is always a better term that the “British Isles”.

If only the BBC would listen to its own advice in its style guide:

“Try to
avoid annoying your audience.”