Did the Sunday Times publish and not give a damn?

A big selling point for established newspapers titles in the age of social media and jumped up rivals like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post is that they can be trusted. The Leveson Inquiry may have traduced some titles but most of Fleet Street claims high standards of professionalism.

Journalists generally are well trained, libel laws (which are hard to enforce over social media) require restraint and every word which appears in the physical newspaper goes through several pairs of eyes. At the Daily Mail (where I work) the editor personally reads and edits all the opinion page articles, columnists and many of the features.

Nevertheless, controversial material does sneak through. But I can think of few blunders as crass and offensive as the Kevin Myers column in the Sunday Times singling out Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz, two of the highest paid women at the BBC, as being Jewish. The author unhelpfully added: “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price.”

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As well as being inaccurate, another Jewish BBC reporter, the excellent Emily Maitlis, is underpaid, Myers’ comment also was viciously anti-Semitic. Possibly, the editorial standards in the Sunday Times’s Irish edition are less strict than in the main paper. But it is hard to imagine any self-respecting comment editor, sub-editor or editor allowing a racist trope of this kind being published. If applied to any other racial minority the writer, the editor and the paper might potentially face prosecution for hate crimes.

Generally speaking the Murdoch press is as Jewish friendly as it is possible to be. It has an array of Jewish columnist on The Times (and for that matter Dominic Lawson on the Sunday Times). The Sun is hardline pro-Israel and anti-boycott.

Of all the titles and broadcasters in the Murdoch stable the Sunday Times does appear to have more trouble than most. In January 2013, it published an offensive cartoon by Gerald Scarfe depicting Binyamin Netanyahu building a wall using blood-red mortar. Unfortunately, it was the first week in office for editor Martin Ivens.

As a vice-president of the Board of Deputies at the time, I suggested we directly contact Murdoch (which we did) and fulsome apologies were forthcoming. Murdoch insisted that the cartoon did not in any way reflect the Sunday Times’s editorial line.

Longer-term Sunday Times watchers might disagree. After all, it was the same paper which outed former Israeli nuclear scientist, Mordechai Vanunu. Over a considerable period of time it sought to portray him as a victim of Israeli abuse of freedom of speech and the the press. Yet it is indisputable that in spite of being in one of the most dangerous regions in the world, press freedom in Israel is sacrosanct.

Editor Martin Ivens cannot be held wholly responsible for what appears in the Irish edition.

Most London editors preside over a variety of regional and online editions and any one person would find it impossible to police such an array of outlets.

What they can be held responsible for is appointing devolved or other national editors who would allow such obviously disreputable material to be printed.

Credit must go again to Rupert Murdoch for an apology and the removal of the online version of the offending column as quickly as he did. But the damage had been done and a narrative of high pay for Jewish women at the BBC will have lodged in some of the unbalanced minds who inhabit social media.

Apologies clearly are not enough. The Sunday Times, as the great investigative paper that it is, cannot afford its credibility to be challenged. It needs to conduct a full probe, check how the article was commissioned and edited and make sure those allegedly responsible are disciplined.

There is another puzzle about all of this. The Jewish organisation to get out front and condemn the article was the self-appointed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism.

It was highly effective in its response. It left some more established community organisations playing catch-up.

About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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