In reporting atrocities we try to employ the correct terminology for the sake of clarity, not political statement.
The Gazette had the unpleasant duty last week of reporting the public killing of a female colleague, Samira Saleh al-Naimi, in Mosul, northern Iraq. We thought it unnecessary to add any words of outrage, relying on what bare facts were available from two regional sources to do the job.
However, several readers contributed thoughts, including one taking us to task for describing the killing as an ‘execution’ rather than a murder, pointing out that ‘execution denotes killing with judicial authority’.
I agree with the commenter’s point, as do most authorities on journalistic English.
The Financial Times style guide, for example, says: ‘Terrorists kill, murder or shoot their victims; they do not execute them.’ The Guardian’s rulebook defines execution as ‘the carrying out of a death sentence by a lawful authority, so a terrorist, for example, does not “execute” someone’.
Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary, which is always open on my desk, includes the definition ‘the killing of someone as a political act’.
Despite the OED, I believe the distinction is worth preserving, because the tendency to describe any cold-blooded killing as an ‘execution’ is not necessarily journalistic laziness. On one hand it plainly suits opponents of the death penalty to conflate judicial killing with murder, even if carried out with due process (such possibility is an argument for another day).
On the other hand there are those who derive a radically chic frisson from parroting some terrorist psychopath’s claim to legitimacy.
My choice of the word was deliberate. Upon the information available, al-Naimi was killed by the de facto ruling authority in Mosul, the self-styled Islamic State, following the sentence of a court for the ‘crime’ of apostasy. That seems to amount to killing with judicial authority. On that basis, I distinguish it from the killing of hostages such as the aid worker David Haines, which we would not hesitate to describe as murder.
Of course it could be argued that both killings were carried out with the same aim - to terrorise - and with the absence of anything resembling a civilised judicial process. They were equally sickening. However it appeared to me there is a qualitative difference and, for the moment, I stand by our choice of terminology. Needless to say, nothing in my choice of words should imply the slightest endorsement of IS or the system of ‘justice’ it purports to administer.
Against the big picture, does this really matter? To me it does. Early in my career I reported from the Middle East for five years and try to keep up with events. Two years ago, I was in northern Iraq, reporting for the Gazette.
I have personal friends facing the threat of IS. I think we owe it to people like Samira Saleh al-Naimi to try our best to get our language right.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor