This week, editors of national newspapers and the Editor’s Code Committee appeared before the Home Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee as part of its inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences. Whilst social media often has the spotlight for its lack of regulation, it is important that effective regulation is also maintained for other media, including the press.
If you’ve ever had cause to complain about an article in the press (and if not, hopefully this one won’t change things), chances are you will have reviewed the Editor’s Code of Practice, administered by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).The Code establishes regulatory rules for newspapers and magazines regulated by IPSO.
At the end of last year, the Code Committee announced its intention to make significant changes to the Code, foremost that editors should generally avoid naming children between arrest for criminal offence and appearance in court. For the first time ever, the Code Committee published the submissions it received during its review and reported on its rationale for making the decisions it has. So far, so good.
So what’s the problem? At present, IPSO will consider complaints under the Editor’s Code clause on discrimination concerning individuals. So, if a person of a protected characteristic is discriminated against, they can complain about it – great! However, if a group of people – migrants, the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, and so on – are subjects of discriminatory comment, the only route through IPSO is to complain under the code clause on ‘accuracy’. This is an issue the aforementioned Home Affairs Committee has already discussed.
Numerous articles stimulate public discussion and debate about groups of people with protected characteristics, which in some cases inspire – unintentionally or otherwise – racist, antisemitic or Islamophobic discourse.
Readers might recall Katie Hopkins’ 2015 article in which she likened migrants to “cockroaches”. In this case, IPSO adjudicated under ‘accuracy’, rather than discrimination. It ruled that “as no individual was identified in the article, IPSO did not accept a complaint under Clause 12 [discrimination] but it considered the article under Clause 1 – Accuracy”. So were migrants accurately described as cockroaches? IPSO judged the article to be “a polemic, which expressed strong and, to many people, abhorrent views of asylum-seekers and migrants generally”. Separately, the article was referred to police for investigation as potential incitement to racial hatred.
Earlier parliamentary reports found that migrants are insufficiently protected as a collective from discrimination in the press. In the past, groups subjected to dehumanization include the Jews, branded as rats by the Nazis, and the Tutsis, marked as cockroaches by Hutus in the Rwandan genocide. Comparisons of the type Hopkins made are grossly offensive and discriminatory, falling far short of the tone of political debate the Committee on Standards called for in its report on intimidation in public life. Surely the Code Committee is ripe for ridicule if, rather than considering whether discrimination has occurred, it is deciding if ‘cockroach’ is an accurate term for a migrant?
On 27th July 2010, Christina Patterson wrote a piece for The Independent, commenting that “when I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn’t realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention.” She continued to refer to religious and other practices of Muslims and Jews as collective groups throughout the piece. In a subsequent article in The Independent that same year, it was noted that Patterson had some defenders, including one who argued “it was right to highlight the sense of superiority some Jews have towards gentiles.” This superiority stereotype is, according to recently released reports, one of the most commonly held antisemitic beliefs in British society.
In its deconstruction of Patterson’s article, the widely respected Jewish communal group, the Community Security Trust, argued that the piece treated Muslims and Jews “as nothing more than uncivilised mirror images of one another; and ranges, seamlessly, from genital mutilation to castigating Jews in Volvos with mobile phones, bad manners and “chosen” people haughtiness”. CST explains that the term “goyim” has been used by journalists to “invoke the notion that Jews believe others to be inferior beings” and that the “motif of “chosen people” (and therefore “goyim”) is a core historical element of antisemitism throughout the ages.”
Discriminatory content such as this is, thankfully, fairly irregular, but the lack of recourse through the Editor’s Code is troubling.
Parliament and other key bodies have long voiced concerns about this matter. The Joint Committee on Human Rights found the Editor’s Code to be substantively lacking. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiries into Electoral Conduct and Antisemitism also called for action. The Commission for Racial Equality (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) has stated its concerns too. Meanwhile in Australia, the press regulator does not differ in approach between individuals and groups, with press freedom suffering no apparent constriction as a result.
There is hope. Impress, the independent press regulator, does include recourse for groups. Meanwhile, despite failing to adopt the recommendations that the Antisemitism Policy Trust and others recommended, the Code Committee has accepted our recommendation that the Code be updated to specify that groups may have recourse where an individual is subjected to discrimination, in the context of a significant code breach with accompanying public interest.
Of course, it is illogical and inconsistent to accept that an impact on groups can occur when an individual is targeted, but yet also deny groups the same right when they are discriminated against en masse. To this end, we will continue to argue that where articles meet a public interest test, determined by IPSO, groups should have recourse to complain without a specific individual having been discriminated against.
Freedom of speech and a free press are central to a thriving democracy. It should, and must, be at the vanguard of our politics and public debate. There is a right to offend, but failing to provide the tools for action to groups that are collectively discriminated against, erodes the very freedoms on which that same democracy thrives.