As debate rages over press regulation following the Lord Leveson report one issue that should be on the agenda is protection against racism and prejudice.
Under the existing Press Complaints Commission editors have been given a green light to be as racist as they dare provided it is directed against a whole community as opposed to an individual.
This has long been a bugbear of mine. The PCC has frequently been called a paper tiger, a toothless club of editors protecting each others’ backs under the pretext of self-regulation.
And one of the clearest examples of this is their failure to protect communities against headlines springing from made up stories designed to whip up the hatred of their readers rather than inform the public in the public’s interest.
In the PCC’s eyes it just doesn’t matter how personally offended you are about an article. It is of no consequence whether a newspaper attacks the sacred tenets of your faith, stereotypes your community or incites anger that could provoke violence in the streets. If you are not personally named in the piece your only redress is the police and courts.
As a result the likes of the Daily Express and Daily Mail regularly splash with front-pages of bile-stirring outrage over immigration and exaggerated or even invented stories about Muslims.
The Leveson report cited several examples:
The Sun: Ran a fabricated story about a Muslim plot to kill prominent British Jews.
Daily Mail: Ran an inaccurate story headed “Café wins fight to fry bacon after Muslim complaints.”
Daily Mail: Wrongly reported that a judge allowed an immigrant to stay in the UK because his “right to family life” protected his relationship with his cat.
Daily Mail: Wrongly reported that a failed asylum seeker was allowed to stay in Britain “because he goes to the gym.”
Daily Mail: Ran an untrue story that a Tamil hunger striker had been caught on a surveillance camera eating McDonald’s burgers.
Daily Express: Published a front-page headline “Muslim plot to kill the Pope” which had no basis in fact.
Daily Express: Ran a story headlined “Migrants more likely to claim jobless benefits” although the study concerned showed migrants were less likely to claim benefits.
Daily Star: Ran a story about a non-existent ban on selling Remembrance poppies in Muslim areas with a fictional claim that a council was to provide “Muslim-only public loos.”
Daily Star: Ran an entirely speculative story “Asylum seekers eat our donkeys” about nine donkeys disappeared from Greenwich Royal Park.
The PCC has specific guidance on reporting asylum and immigration stories warning editors to avoid the “danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts.”
However it is clear that this guidance is no deterrent to newspapers and something much stronger and enforceable, is needed.
The examples Leveson highlighted is just the tip of the iceberg. The TabloidWatch blog chronicles many other such examples. The Daily Express is the worst offender with front-page headlines such as:
BRITAIN MUST BAN ALL MIGRANTS
ONE IN 5 BRITONS WILL BE ETHNICS
KEEP OUT, BRITAIN IS FULL UP
MUSLIM SCHOOLS BAN OUR CULTURE
WHITE MEN TO FACE JOBS BAN
STRANGERS IN OUR OWN COUNTRY
Leveson, to his credit, devoted some time to this area, and wrote:
The identification of Muslims, migrants, asylum seekers and gypsies/travellers as the targets of press hostility and/or xenophobia in the press, was supported by the evidence seen by the Inquiry.
The following headlines, which appeared to have little factual basis but which may have contributed to a negative perception of Muslims in the UK: ‘Muslim Schools Ban Our Culture’; ‘BBC Puts Muslims Before You!’; ‘Christmas is Banned: It Offends Muslims’; ‘Brit Kids Forced to Eat Halal School Dinners!’; ‘Muslims Tell Us How To Run Our Schools’.
The evidence demonstrates that sections of the press betray a tendency, which is far from being universal or even preponderant, to portray Muslims in a negative light.
The tendency identified in the preceding paragraph is not limited to the representation of Muslims and applies in a similar way to some other minority ethnic groups.
The evidence suggested that, in relation to reporting on Muslims, immigrants and asylum seekers, there was a tendency for some titles to adopt a sensationalist mode of reporting intended to support a world-view rather than to report a story.
It is one thing for a newspaper to take the view that immigration should be reduced, or that the asylum and/or human rights system should be reformed, and to report on true stories which support those political views. It is another thing to misreport stories either wilfully or reckless as to their truth or accuracy, in order to ensure that they support those political views. And it does appear that certain parts of the press do, on occasion, prioritise the political stance of the title over the accuracy of the story.
Nonetheless, when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning.
The press can have significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts. While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment.
Although the majority of the press appear to discharge this responsibility with care, there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.
While great care is needed over press regulation there is a pressing need for protection against the constant stream of hateful stories targeted at groups of people which incite hatred and prejudice. I believe this demands legislation, in particular meshing together a new press law with existing equalities laws.
It should no longer be acceptable to print unfounded or highly exaggerated headlines attacking Muslims, asylum seekers or any particular community without the editors and journalists being held accountable.
As a journalist of many years I value press freedom highly but with freedom must come responsibility. And it is clear that sections of the popular press are determined to spread disharmony, resentment, suspicion and loathing of particular communities on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis all in the name of commercial sales.
The only time I can recall the PCC ever slapping down a publication for unfairly criticising a whole community was on the issue of accuracy. When Rod Liddle of the Spectator wrote that African-Caribbean’s were responsible for committing most crimes the PCC forced the magazine to apologise because Ministry of Justice figures proved otherwise.
Yet there was not a word in the judgement about racism. Indeed there was no mention of several other comments Liddle had made in the same article, such as the claim that Caribbean’s had not contributed anything to Britain’s culture other than “rap and goat curry”, a comment that is not just inaccurate but dripping in prejudice.
But when columnist Taki, writing in the same magazine, claimed that Caribbean’s were “multiplying like flies” that somehow passed the PCC’s accuracy test.
In both cases racism didn’t feature at all because the PCC’s code of conduct only deals with prejudice if it has been specifically directed against a named individual.
If someone can demonstrate how we can create an effective self-regulatory regime that deals with this area I will be interested to hear those arguments. But until that day, I maintain that statutory regulation is needed to deal with the issue of deliberate prejudice.
To quote Leveson again, certain newspapers are guilty of running stories “calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment.”
The arguments for a statutory regime which stops this are strong. Self-regulation has manifestly failed – even with specific PCC guidance – and is highly unlikely to provide a solution in the future. In the absence of a convincing case that newspapers can deal with such excesses themselves we should legislate to stop this torrent of prejudice and hatred.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway
THE LIBERAL VIEW
I posted this blog on the Alliance of Liberal Democrats Facebook page where my views met a great deal of opposition. I repost the thread below to show the sort of views that elevate the concept of free speech – which I am heavily in favour of – over protection of communities that are at the rough end of prejudice and racism as a result of the climate of hate whipped up by certain tabloids: