“Vietcong” – what’s in a word?

Recently, as I was doing a rare spot of ironing, I caught part of a TV discussion between John Simpson and a BBC anchor about, amongst other things, the US government decision to open negotiations with the Taliban. In the context of this discussion, Simpson mentioned the “Vietcong”, or “Viet Cong”, on several occasions, as an example of – inevitably – an “enemy” with whom the US was eventually forced to negotiate.

Recalling from my university days that the term “Viet Cong” was anything but neutral, I decided to write to Professor Ngo Vinh Long (of the University of Maine) to establish the facts concerning the term’s origins…


Dear Professor Ngo Vinh Long,

Please excuse the unsolicited mail, but I wondered if you might be able to shed some light on the origins of the label “Vietcong”, which has entered the (western) vernacular as a descriptor for the Vietnamese who fought against the US during the “Vietnam war”?

My current understanding is that the label derives from a longer phrase “Viet Gian Cong San”, originally used by the US-backed Diem regime to tar all those within, or sympathetic to, the NLF as “communists”. But is this accurate?

With best wishes,

Joe Sucksmith

Dear Mr Sucksmith,

The term Việt Cộng was invented by Colonel Nguyễn Văn Châu, director of the Central Psychological War Service of the South Vietnamese Armed forces from 1956 to 1962. I knew him personally because from 1959 to late 1962 I was also a military map maker, making 1/25,000 military maps of the entire South Vietnam and parts of Cambodia and Laos. At that time there was also a “Communist Denunciation Campaign” (Phong trào Tố Cộng) and Colonel Châu intentionally coined the term as a homonym for “Diệt Cộng” (Annihilate the Communists) since the D and V are pronounced like a Y in Southern accent. He was very proud of this play on words and kept on repeating it to me and others many times.

Colonel Châu gave a detailed interview on this and other psychological warfare techniques that he and the Saigon regime used to Richard Dudman, known as the dean of American journalism (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 24, 1972.)

From what I know, I don’t think the term comes from Việt Gian Cộng Sản, which is certainly never used in any official documents from South Vietnam.


Ngô Vĩnh

Dear Ngo Vinh,

Many thanks for the response, which I find fascinating. Perhaps I could ask a brief follow-up…

What term is used most often within Vietnamese literature to describe the South Vietnamese who resisted the US-backed Diem regime, and later invading US forces?


The term “quân kháng chiến” (resistance fighters) and “quân giải phóng” (liberation fighters) were used the most.

Ngô Vĩnh

Many thanks. Does it follow from this that most Vietnamese would consider the term “Viet Cong” to be essentially pejorative? Or just merely inaccurate?


Pejorative. The majority of the people fighting with the Front for the National Liberation of Vietnam did not consider themselves communists in anyway. They considered themselves nationalists or patriots. That was one of the reasons why Hanoi disbanded the PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government, which composed of the “NLF” and other groups) almost immediately after “Liberation.”

Ngô Vĩnh


So there you have it: “Viet Cong” – a pejorative term, coined by the propaganda wing of the US-backed Diem regime, and designed to characterise those resisting US-backed aggression as “communists”.

Small wonder its use is so widespread at the BBC… 😉

The gatekeeper-in-chief strikes again…

In an earlier post, I asked whether the BBC Trust would investigate the axing of Ilan Ziv’s “Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story”.

The answer, but of course, is no..

Dear Mr Sucksmith

Decision not to broadcast ‘Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story’ in April 2013

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust about the BBC’s decision not to broadcast Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story in April 2013. I am very sorry that you feel the BBC has not given you a proper response to your complaint.

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s Trustees for them to reach a final decision. If you want to find out more about how the complaints system works – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the web link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

There are two committees which decide complaints: the Editorial Standards Committee and the Complaints and Appeals Board. The Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) hears complaints about specific broadcasts, where there is a significant risk that one of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines has been breached. The Complaints and Appeals Board (CAB) hears general complaints which may relate to programme output, or may be about any other part of the BBC’s operations (for example, complaints about TV Licence collection).

I should explain that the Trust does not take every appeal that comes to it. In deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the complaint and only ones that stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives more information about this.

I have read the correspondence that has already passed between you and the BBC.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response but I do not believe your appeal should be put in front of the Trustees. I have attached a summary of your appeal as well as the reasons behind my decision with this letter. As this Annex may be drawn on when the Committee minutes are written, the writing style is formal. While I regret the impersonal feel of this, I hope you will appreciate it allows the Trust to work efficiently.

If you disagree with my decision and would like the Trustees to review it, please reply with your reasons by 30 September 2013 to the Complaints Adviser at trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk or at the above address. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document if possible.

Correspondence that is received after this date may not be considered as part of your request for a review of the decision. If, exceptionally, you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your original letter of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their October meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your case will be given to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser


Decision to withdraw programme about Jerusalem

According to the General Complaints Procedure, the Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of substance”. This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal.


The complainant had contacted the BBC after it decided to withdraw the programme Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery from broadcast. He had sought information about the editorial reasoning for not broadcasting the programme and who had taken the decision.

“em>Ilan Ziv’s film was originally acquired earlier this year to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. Acquisitions are often prepared for transmission close to broadcast and it was only at this point that it was decided that the film did not fit the season editorially and was not shown. We would like to assure you that this was an internal decision and there was no political pressure involved in the decision to suspend this programme. We’re sorry for any disappointment caused but please be assured we are talking to the director about future plans for the film, the outcome of which will be published on the BBC’s FAQ website: http://faq.external.bbc.co.uk/ in due course.”

When the complainant pressed for further information, he was told:

…we are not in a position to discuss the specific details at present. As we have said, we are talking to the director about future plans for the film and we will publish the outcome on our FAQ website at http://faq.external.bbc.co.uk/ once these plans are decided. In the meantime we regret there is no more we can add.

The complainant had initially escalated is complaint to the BBC Trust on 3 June 2013. The Trust Unit considered that BBC Audience Services ought to give more information and, on 18 July, he was sent the following response:

Ilan Ziv’s film about the archaeology and history of Jerusalem and surrounding areas was acquired by the BBC for transmission during a BBC Four archaeology season. It was found during the re-versioning of the film to 60 minutes in length that it covered broader issues and for that reason, it was decided to withdraw it from this particular season. The BBC is now working with the film maker on a new version of the film and will issue a further statement once that process is complete.


The complainant remained dissatisfied. He appealed to the Trust and stated:

…the circumstances surrounding the original axing need to be adequately explained. And of course, the more the BBC Executive procrastinates, the greater the impression they have something to hide. To re-iterate: I am seeking a full explanation of what was meant by the phrase “does not fit editorially”. This will obviously entail reference to the specific editorial criteria that the programme was considered against, and the reasons why these criteria were not considered to have been met. I think it would also be useful to know HOW these decisions were made, and by WHOM.

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) carefully read the correspondence which had passed between the complainant and the BBC, and she acknowledged the strength of the complainant’s feelings. She noted that the Executive said that the programme had been acquired to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. She noted that the most recent response from the BBC had elaborated on its first reply and had explained that it was only when the film was being shortened prior to transmission that it emerged the film covered broader issues than had initially been understood and it was subsequently withdrawn from the series about archaeology.

The Adviser noted that the complainant had been told the film would be shown at a later point and had been given a webpage that would be updated once a new date had been confirmed. The Adviser considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that the complainant had been given a reasoned and reasonable response on this point and did not believe it had a reasonable prospect of success, therefore she did not consider it should be put before Trustees.

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser understood that the complainant felt frustrated that the BBC had not given further details about the decision. However, she considered there was no obligation on the BBC to do this. She noted that the Royal Charter and the accompanying Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC drew a distinction between the role of the BBC Trust and that of the BBC Executive Board, led by the Director-General. “The direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” was specifically defined in the Charter (paragraph 38, (1) (b)) as a duty that was the responsibility of the Executive Board, and one in which the Trust did not get involved unless, for example, it related to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards which did not apply in this case. Decisions relating to what programmes to include within a themed series fell within the “editorial and creative output” of the BBC and were the responsibility of the BBC Executive. The issue of how much detail to provide about the reasons for such decisions was also a matter for the Executive.

Therefore the Adviser considered that it was not appropriate for the appeal to be put before Trustees on this point. Therefore the Adviser considered the appeal did not have a reasonable prospect of success and should not be put before Trustees.

BBC complaints and Capita

I’ve just received a response to a complaint, submitted via the BBC’s webforms, that reveals it was forwarded to News On-line by private company, Capita. Cue a quick google search of “BBC Complaints AND Capita”, and up pop links that show the webforms are indeed managed by Capita, to whom complaints handling more generally has been out-sourced. I did *not* know this!

One of the docs that came up on the google search was this one:


…which, though I haven’t had time to read it all, looks half interesting. For instance, it would appear that staff employed by Capita don’t simply record and allocate, they actually *respond* to complaints! In respect of email/webform complaints, for instance, the document states that:

“These are sent via a webform on the BBC Complaints website. Most are answered by Audience
Services/Capita except for News Online complaints which are routed to BBC News Online for
direct reply.”

Needless to say, this puts some of the dumb-ass responses I’ve received to date into perspective.

Mass state surveillance – some questions for Martin Horwood

A letter to the Gloucestershire Echo, published Monday 29 July 2013.


Dear Sir,

Back in 2008, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, Martin Horwood, could be found encouraging UK citizens to set limits on GCHQ’s eavesdropping capabilities. As reported by the Echo at the time, Martin was “deeply concerned about the civil liberties implications” of government plans to “monitor and store every single text message and e-mail sent in Britain, as well as records of every single website visit made within the country”.

Fast forward to the present and Martin Horwood can now be found lambasting whistleblower Edward Snowden for revealing that GCHQ, via a programme codenamed “Tempora”, indiscriminately (and almost certainly illegally, given current UK statutes) intercepts, stores and scans colossal volumes of communications data sent/received by UK citizens. More worrying still, Martin Horwood’s office has recently confirmed to me, by email, that Martin does not consider this mass surveillance programme to represent a threat to privacy!

The above in mind, I’d be grateful if Martin could grace the Echo’s letters page to explain:

(a) The dramatic shift in his perspective between 2008 and 2013; and

(b) How his 2013 views square with the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto pledge to “protect and restore [our] freedoms” and “end plans to store [our] email and internet records without good cause”.

Yours faithfully,

Joe Sucksmith

Julia MacGregor: representing her members, or representing GCHQ?

Dear GCHQ,

In a recent Echo article, journalist Joe Lane revealed that:

As a direct result of [Edward Snowden’s] claims, an internal electronic message board entitled Proud to Work for GCHQ has been launched, where staff can leave comments to reflect their pride in their efforts to protect national security.”

Some questions about this, if I may…

1. Are you able to confirm how Joe Lane came by this information?

2. Am I correct in assuming that the release of this information, relating as it does to an internal message board, would have required prior approval from GCHQ? If so, I’d be grateful if you could confirm the grounds on which approval was granted?

3. Given the clear public interest element, I’d like to request – under all relevant FOI statutes – the disclosure of all comments that have been left by staff (suitably anonymised, of course) on this message board.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Sucksmith



Thank you for your email.

In answer to your questions:

1. Julia is the Chair of the GCG and is at liberty to engage with the Press as and when she feels it is appropriate to benefit her members.

2. As a matter of courtesy GCHQ were informed beforehand of Julia’s intention to engage with the Press and we fully support her efforts in this area. Julia doesn’t need authorisation from GCHQ to represent her membership and we have no issues with anything she said or did.

3. Your Freedom of Information request will be forwarded to the appropriate area and someone will be back in touch with you soon.


GCHQ Press Office

[This message has been sent by a mobile device]

Many thanks. Are you saying that it’s ok for staff to disclose to the press details of internal message boards (that would otherwise never make it into the public domain) without seeking prior approval from GCHQ?

This sounds an awful lot like “leaking” to me.

Look forward to hearing from you.




I refer you to my earlier answer.


GCHQ Press Office

[This message has been sent by a mobile device]

Many thanks. Your “earlier answer”, to my specific question about whether Julia was required to obtain approval before disclosing to the public details of the internal “Proud to Work at GCHQ” message board, was that “Julia doesn’t need authorisation from GCHQ to represent her membership”. Do I infer from this that the answer to my original question is “no” (as in, authorisation not required to disclose details of internal message board)? I’d be grateful if you could clarify.


Protective Marking: UNCLASSIFIED


Regarding your latest question, we are not prepared to reveal the nature or content of discussions held between GCHQ and the Chair of the GCG.


GCHQ Press Office

Thanks. So there were “discussions” then? Are you able to clarify why “discussions” were required given Julia “doesn’t need authorisation from GCHQ” and “is at liberty to engage with the Press as and when she feels it is appropriate”?



I feel we have adequately explained our position over the course of your many emails.

We won’t be looking to respond to any further enquiries from you on this particular topic as we are of the opinion that we have said all that needs to be said to answer your questions.


Press Office

[This message has been sent by a mobile device]

Email to Julia MacGregor regards mass surveillance by GCHQ

Dear Julia,

In a recent interview with the BBC, you stated – in respect of Ed Snowden’s leaks about NSA/GCHQ – that:

Staff are very hurt, very angry about the allegations in the newspapers. There have been implications that we don’t work within the law and we absolutely do. We work completely within the law, completely within policy and completely within the spirit of the law. So these allegations that we are trying to circumvent the law and use back channels to exchange intelligence are just complete rubbish.”

While I have some sympathy with these sentiments, it seems to me that the illegality or otherwise of GCHQ’s work is ultimately a red herring. The real issue here is the development of what former NSA employee Thomas Drake describes as a “vast, systemic, institutionalized, industrial-scale Leviathan surveillance state that has clearly gone far beyond the original mandate to deal with terrorism “.

Such a characterisation in mind, do you at least accept that Ed Snowden’s revelations have kick-started a much needed debate about what level of surveillance is acceptable within a (supposedly) liberal democracy?

Best regards,



Hi Joe

I’m afraid I’ve got no comment to make on this issue. You need to contact the GCHQ Press Office.




Over to you GCHQ Press Office!



Protective Marking: UNCLASSIFIED


Thank you for your email.

It is worth pointing out to you that GCHQ takes its obligations under the law very seriously. Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I’d also like to point you to the statement made by the Foreign Secretary to the House of Commons on 10 June in support of the work of GCHQ and its partnerships.


GCHQ Press Office