An Open Letter to the BBC

An open letter to the BBC:

I recently gave feedback to the complaints department of the BBC about the use of the term “British Isles”. My argument was that the term is ambiguous at best and offensive at worst. As such, I suggested that the BBC should avoid using the term, as in most cases they are not using it accurately, as per their own style guide (definition on page 39).

The BBC initially informed me that the term was a “geographical designation” with no “insulting undertones” and that their audience understood its meaning. However, a simple glance at the comments left by the BBC’s audience clearly shows that they are confused about what the term really means. Further, a subsequent email from the BBC confirms that the BBC are aware that it is found to be offensive by some and the BBC’s own style guide admits that the situation surrounding the names of countries and regions is “confusing”. This is further complicated by the BBC’s writers not using the term consistently or accurately; using it to mean some changeable sub-set of groupings of islands.

This term causes offence because it is an archaic term that can be interpreted to imply that Ireland is somehow British (despite what British people maintain about its definition). However, if you used it as purely a geographical term and accurately you can avoid the vast majority of offence that can be caused by it and make your articles more accurate and less ambiguous.

Firstly, if it is a “geographical  designation” then it should be used in purely a geographical setting and not used in articles regarding politics, people or culture. When it is not used in a purely geographical setting then it implies that there is one homogeneous culture on these islands and that we all have one homogeneous view. This is clearly not the case. Further, in political and royal matters it is increasingly problematic because it implies that typically the British government or the royal family are speaking and ruling in the Republic, again this erroneous and can cause controversy.

Secondly, the term should only be used when it is actually referring to your definition in the style guide and not used when referring to sub-sets of these islands. This is where it causes most offense and is most problematic, especially because it is used to mean different things by different authors.  I notice in your style guide some very sensible advice about not alienating or using terms that would offend people from non-London regions of the UK. May I suggest that you extended this respect to your nearest neighbours in Ireland and stop using this archaic term, or at least use it accurately and in a purely geographical setting so as to stop misleading your audience. I am aware that you do not “ban” words, but insisting on the word being used strictly as in your definition would go along way.

I don’t think asking for the BBC to be accurate and precise in its language, especially when it can avoid offence, that it is aware it can cause, is too much to ask.