EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Media watchdog chief backs tighter discrimination code

24th Feb 2017
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Media watchdog chief backs tighter discrimination code

Chair of the UK’s press watchdog IPSO, Sir Alan Moses, tells Ahmed J Versi, Editor of The Muslim News that the regulator has issues with the Editors’ Code of Practice on discrimination (Photo: The Muslim News)

Ahmed J Versi

The Chairman of the watchdog set up to regulate press standards acknowledges that there are issues with the Editors’ Code of Practice relating to discrimination and is seeking to deal with the problem that particularly affects Muslims in a background of growing Islamophobia.

In an exclusive interview with The Muslim News, Sir Alan Moses also revealed that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is about to publish its standing on the position of The Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh as an IPSO board member following his controversial attack made against Channel 4 News reporter Fatima Manji, who made a complaint against his newspaper but was rejected by its Complaints Committee.

Kavanagh publicly backed his former Editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, who suggested that Manji should not have been allowed by Channel 4 to present a report on last July’s Nice terror attack because she wore a hijab. IPSO ruled that the Editor was “entitled” to express his views even though they were “undoubtedly offensive to the complainant and caused widespread concern and distress to others.”

A group of parliamentarians as well as hundreds of Muslims had been seeking clarification on whether the IPSO board member, who claimed the Channel 4 presenter was making “a fool of herself” with her charges of “discrimination,” is in breach of the expectations of an independent press regulator, and whether his position at IPSO is tenable.

Although Sir Alan was not at liberty to reveal what would happen if anything to Kavanagh, he told The Muslim News, “What I can tell you is the Complaints Committee have made it abundantly plain and it’s the truth because I was there that the board has absolutely no say in Trevor Kavanagh and has no say in the resolving that complaint.”

“The views expressed by Mr Kavanagh in his column following the IPSO ruling on Manji v The Sun were made in a personal capacity and do not represent the view of IPSO. It is important that we protect those who complain to us, whether their complaint is upheld or not, from any comeback from any consequences as a result of making a complaint and we are going to publish what the board has to say about that,” he told The Muslim News.

ISPO’s distanced itself from comments made by its board member Trevor Kavanaghs in which he claimed the Channel 4 presenter Fatima Manji was making “a fool of herself” for complaining about Kelvin’ MacKenzies Islamophobic rant

Sir Alan spent over 40 years as a barrister and a judge, most latterly at the Court of Appeal, before being appointed to the regulator when it was set up in 2014 following Leveson report. He is in a unique position as being chair of both the board, responsible for the oversight, vision and strategic direction of IPSO as well as the Complaints Committee.

During his interview, he spelt out what he saw as real problems particularly with the Editors’ Code Clause 12 on discrimination which states:

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

On unnecessary identification of either racial or religious background, he said the rule applied to such stories like a robbery, theft or violence. With regard to Muslim youths attacking passers-by, then that “clearly would be unnecessary racial or religious identification that could be regarded as a breach of the Article against discrimination,” he explained.

“But more difficult is the criticism of a group. I mean if you share that faith and somebody writes something that you find detestable about that faith then you feel that it is an attack on you personally. But IPSO would probably regard it as not being a breach of the Editors’ Code.”

“And we’ve come right up against what I think is a fundamental problem from our point of view and from your point of you and that is how you draft a clause in a code of behaviour in any set of provisions which would make newspapers cut that out and at the same time preserve the right of a newspaper to criticise a group or religion. This seems to me a real difficulty.”

The Chairman emphasised that it was not a sign of failure as such why newspapers did not listen but he recognised that the animosity towards Muslims “feeds the flames of Islamophobia.” Changing the codes of practice though was through a consultation process with editors though he had “no doubt that there will be the large number of suggestions of typing up discrimination clause.”

“Why can’t you have a clause that says you are not to write pejorative remarks, discriminatory remarks about a particular group or a particular faith? The answer is that if you did that you would be more than in danger, you would be almost certainly preventing any discussion, any criticism of a group or religion and that would surely be indefensible as well,” he insisted.

Fatima Manji slams IPSO regulator for condoning “hate speech”

Although it was much more difficult, Moses suggested that Muslims should keep constantly asking and making complaints and that he thought the Complaints Committee “may have to toughen up on that” as there was the “constant need to bear in mind the atmosphere that is created by these sorts of stories in a context of Islamophobia.”

“My ideal would be to go on considering whether you could change the Editors’ Code to cover it so that it’s something less than incitement to hatred but something more than mere criticism. And secondly to be able to publish guidance and then have discussions with managing editors and editors about that guidance and I certainly agree that it needs public discussion,” he lamented.

While it was very important to consider it whether the answer is to amend Clause 12, the former Appeals Judge said what he would also “like to do for a start is to encourage the police to be much more proactive in bringing prosecutions” though he expressed reservations whether they would.

“We ought to remember that under the Public Order Act, writing something that incites racial hatred does not require proof of an intention to insight racial hatred. And it’s about time there were some prosecutions so people who write carelessly about such issues, it’d be quite good to have a tap on the door by the police.”

Since being established over two years ago, the watchdog set up by a Royal Charter has like its predecessor frequently been branded as “toothless”.  So far it has not fined any newspaper found to be in breach of standards rules, which also covers such issues as accuracy, invasion of privacy, intrusion into grief or shock and harassment. Nor has it yet demanded equal prominence for corrections

On the issue of corrections, Sir Alan said that with regard to font size IPSO is to publish “better guidelines than we have done so far, as to what due prominence.”

“The test of due prominence is that which has to be proportionate to the importance of the story and not just the positioning size of the headline.”

“We regard as the most important feature to ensure that there’s published something that brings home sufficiently that the newspaper has breached the Code, and that doesn’t require in our view necessarily as a splash of equal prominence. We’ve had if you look at the Daily Express in the last week two large front page corrections.” One was on statistics and the other about the EU and immigration.

With regard to The Sun and its demonisation of Muslims in its headline last year claiming that one-in-five Muslims supported ISIS, the paper was forced to admit that it was “significantly misleading” and the Chairman acknowledged that it was a “big” headline but that the serious correction was only on page four and not page one like the original. Yet he remained adamant that the readers would have been “under absolutely no doubt” about the correction and that “they would’ve seen [the correction] straight away online”.

Record complaints about Sun’s ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ headline

He also accepted that the timing of the correction was very important but again was “more difficult.” The idea would be “a correction the next day because otherwise, it becomes stale… unless the newspaper agrees and there are next day corrections, but only where the newspaper does it of their own volition.”

“Otherwise there is a dispute, there’s the complainant saying, ‘you did this and you shouldn’t do that’, and the newspaper kicking back saying ‘that’s absolutely outrageous we are perfectly entitled to say that’, which we have to resolve. Now fairness demands that we hear both sides and by the time that’s happened in any difficult case, days, weeks have passed,” he further explained.

On repeated systemic breach of the code by a newspaper, the Chairman said that the regulator had not yet launched any investigation yet but it had “very much in mind our powers to do so.” He referred to an independent assessment carried out by former civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling, saying it shouldn’t be done “in order to show power and muscularity.”

Sir Alan said that he felt very strongly about having a public debate and public forum about issues, “particularly Muslim issues in this highly inflammatory atmosphere and the increase that it causes that the fanning the flames of Islamophobia (which) is a very serious difficult issue.”

The newspapers and politicians always say that they are not responsible for the attacks on Muslims on what they write and say. They say there is no correlation between what they say and attacks on Muslims.

“I think it’s very difficult to say. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t directly, sorry to put it in such a negative way, directly correlated. I just simply think it’s a very difficult thing to prove. But I have the strongest suspicion you’re absolutely right there is a direct correlation. And it’s something that’s very very concerning,” said Sir Alan.

Sir Alan refuted the suggestion that mainstream newspapers sometimes publish fake news. “Fake news is a phrase that should never be used because if it’s fake it isn’t news at all. But making up malicious lies and getting it wrong of course there’s a spectrum and sometimes the inaccuracies get eclipsed to being just fake stories. All I’m saying is that the newspapers that have signed up and committed to a set of standards are totally different from the spreading of the web of malicious stories and at least there are some standards to which the public can see whether they obey them or not that they are at least committed and that we will police.”


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