Newspaper headlines – you couldn’t make them up. But they just did.
May – Media Monitoring Blog
By Georgia Tomlinson and Daisy Cooper
What happens when regulation fails and editors ignore public outrage? Here is a textbook example: last month Katie Hopkins’s opinion piece in the Sun entitled “Rescue boats? I’d rather use gunships to stop migrants” generated around 400 complaints to the press’s tame self-regulator, IPSO. It did nothing, because “clause 12 [of the Editors’ Code of Practice] … does not apply to groups or categories of people”. What IPSO’s impotence to take action did do is send a clear message to sections of the press that they have nothing to fear if they step up their anti-immigrant agenda. Whilst we identified two such articles in March and three in April, in May the number jumped to six.
One such story appeared in the Daily Express, a paper that has consistently taken a hard anti-immigration line. The unequivocal headline claimed: ‘Britain lets a paedophile migrant apply for asylum.’
This is misleading – constituting a breach of Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code on Accuracy – as any migrant is entitled to apply for asylum if they are in the UK; there isn’t an individual or body tasked with deciding whether to ‘let’ someone apply for asylum. (Indeed it’s hard to see how anyone could be prevented from making an initial application.) This is especially disappointing because even the failed PCC managed to issue guidance explaining the difference between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. Furthermore, the misleading statement in the headline is not even corrected in the body of the article. Some would argue that the misleading statement additionally is discriminatory because it seeks to stigmatise migrants. However currently IPSO would not even consider a complaint on this basis because the Editor’s Code only applies to individual victims of pejorative and prejudicial comments, or of irrelevant references to their minority status.
The fact that the article contributes to an anti-immigrant agenda – and on the basis of a misleading headline, is distasteful to many but this in itself is not considered an issue of press standards.
The Daily Mail also published a completely fabricated quotation in a front-page headline “Bank Chief: Foreign workers drag down UK wages”, breaching Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code.
The article claimed that Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, had made an “explosive intervention” by stating that “a huge influx of foreign workers is threatening the economy by holding down wages.” In fact his comments, which are quoted in a small section of page 4, were that the UK labour force has “expanded significantly.” in recent years, due to a number of factors, one of which is “strong population growth partly driven by net migration.”
This was the only reference he made to migrants or migration in his speech and, importantly, he made no mention of wages at all. The Telegraph also ran the same story on their front page with the headline, “Record migrant worker levels pushing down British wages.” Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme that same day, Carney clarified that most of the increase in labour supply had been down to British employees working more hours and older workers staying in employment; over the last two years, these factors had been ten times as significant as migration.
The Daily Mail included an article titled: ‘Holiday Britons caught up in migrant nightmare: As hundreds keep arriving every night, how many more can Kos take?’ but it was its online version that was offensive enough to provoke anger from its own readers. Originally entitled “Holidaymakers’ misery as boat people from Syria and Afghanistan seeking asylum set up migrant camp to turn popular Greek island of Kos into ‘disgusting’ hellhole”, it was “amended to reflect the text of the article more specifically” following demands from its own readers:
“You want me to feel sorry for the tourists??? The ones with money enough to go on holiday and who have a home and safety to go back to? DM, you need to rewrite the whole article with a different perspective. This is embarrassing.”
Whilst this is a question of taste and decency – an issue rightly left to editors and not covered by the Editors’ Code – it is interesting that readers can express their anger about online articles through the comment section, in this case prompting the paper to amend its headline. Had the original online article been printed in the daily newspaper, readers would have had nowhere to go. Indeed, they face two barriers. First, the industry-puppet IPSO and the industry-dominated Code Committee (Chaired by Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail itself) has pre-determined what can and cannot be considered discriminatory (ruling out any complaints about discrimination and prejudice directed against minority groups); this is in defiance of the recommendation by Sir Brian Leveson that a properly independent Code Committee should determine what conduct should be a breach of the Code. The consequence of the terms of the Code and the way it is enforced (or not), is to effectively reject any complaint from a concerned reader who is not the subject of the prejudice in the offending article. Second, the “opportunity to reply” mentioned in the Code is applied by IPSO, as by the PCC before it, in such a way that it gives no right of reply to have a letter published criticising the discriminatory coverage – even one correcting facts or distortions.
When Nurse Victorino Chua was found guilty of murdering two patients and poisoning a further 20, the Daily Mail reacted with the front-page headline “Did the Filpino nurse murder 11 more?” Clause 12 (ii) of the Editor’s Code on discriminatory reporting, requires that a mention of race, nationality etc in relation to a criminal (for example) is “genuinely relevant” to avoid the problem of “black criminal due in court” stories. Arguably, the reference to the nurse’s nationality was “genuinely relevant” to the story (a requirement of clause 12(ii) of the Editors’ Code) as, according to the article, in 2013 the Nursing and Midwifery Council suspended the recruitment of foreign nurses from a number of countries, including the Philippines. The paper also claimed to have evidence of a “shambolic recruitment process” in the Philippines since checks had been “tightened up”, although a strong denial by the responsible agency is quoted in the article. Whilst we are as yet unable to determine whether these claims are accurate or not (which would constitute a breach of Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code), there is clearly a risk that any claims – if not substantiated – contribute to what the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights described as “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion” in the British media.
There is however less doubt over another Daily Mail article: “NHS STILL hiring Filipino nurses despite Victorino Chua scandal” which prompted a backlash from Filipino groups and nursing bodies who criticised the Mail for singling out nurses from the Philippines on the basis of one criminal case.
The Sun also published an opinion piece by Louise Mensch with the headline ‘Letting migrants vote is kick in the ballots for Britain,’ which breached the accuracy clause of the Editors’ Code. She claimed: “In the last census, there were millions, yes millions, of Pakistani and Indian citizens living in the UK and voting on our Parliament.” In fact, according to a report conducted by the migrants’ rights network and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) entitled ‘Migrant Voters in the 2015 General Election,’ the number of these people from India and Pakistan entitled to vote in the UK elections was just over 1 million (1,046,000). As voter turnout in this election was 66.1%, the number of individuals with this background who actually voted was most likely under one million.
As well as regular inaccuracies and slurs against migrants, from time to time the newspapers also get into a frenzy over ‘political correctness’. In our January blog ‘“British political correctness gone mad!” or not’ we reported a trend in the press for publishing stories claiming that various institutions had a “left-wing agenda.” This month there were more stories that claimed to show ‘political correctness gone mad.’
The most notable of these was a story in the Sun, repeated in a piece by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail the next day. The Sun article entitled “It’s going to PC down’” reported that “the BBC is looking for a new weather presenter – and says they don’t need any qualifications but they must be disabled,” and quoted an anonymous source describing it as “political correctness gone mad.” At the end of the article they included a quote from a BBC spokesperson which clarified that “this is a temporary scheme that aims to provide presenter training opportunities… There are no jobs guaranteed at the end of training.” Not only is The Sun’s assertion inaccurate and misleading (a breach of clause 1) but, having taken care to check its accuracy and receiving a clarification from the BBC, the Sun decided to include the inaccurate description anyway!
This error was repeated by Richard Littlejohn in his piece entitled “Disabled BBC weathermen? Bring back the bouncing dwarf”, thereby also breaching the accuracy clause of the Code. It also included prejudiced statements such as “And (don’t get me started) why are there so many dopey birds wittering on about football and rugby, especially on the BBC? At this rate, it won’t be long before Match of The Day is introduced by a paraplegic Somali transsexual in a burka.” Though the phrase ‘dopey birds’ is clearly discriminatory towards women sports commentators, he does not name any specific ones – as IPSO has confirmed, its Code of Practice “does not apply to groups or categories of people”. This means there is no avenue for womens’ organisations or women sports commentators to have any complaints considered.
The Daily Mirror also strived to allege this political correctness. In an “EXCLUSIVE” article, the Mirror reported that the NHS West Essex Clinical Commissioning Group had changed its IVF policy for financial reasons: it had decided to provide just 2 free cycles of IVF instead of the recommended 3 to women under 40 so as to guarantee 1 free cycle to women aged 40 and over. (And in doing so, CCGs can not discriminate against or in favour of disabled and gay couples.)
The full-page article set out how NHS rules (on the age brackets within which couples are entitled to IVF) varied in different parts of the country, and featured the stories of “victims” from Staffordshire and Berkshire who had qualified for only one round of IVF and had fallen foul of the age policy.
The newspaper then incorrectly claimed 1) that young women were being “denied” IVF treatment when they weren’t (instead just having their entitlement reduced) and 2) that this was due to the need to meet equality targets, when in fact it was to extend access to women aged 40-42. The prominent headline – “Young women denied IVF so equality targets on disabled and gay couples can be met” – is therefore inaccurate on two counts.
Two other stories were particularly concerning.
One involved gross intrusion into the privacy of a vulnerable young woman – for the second time in ten months – with absolutely no public interest defence. A salacious story was published last year about this individual’s activities whilst on holiday in Spain; the young woman had broken no laws and actually appeared to have been a victim of other people’s reckless behaviour. The latest story contained details of her private life and included a picture in which, despite her face being pixelated, she would have been easily identifiable.
The other story concerned the reporting of a suicide. In previous blogs, particularly in February’s ‘Dicing with death: the sensational reporting of suicide and death to sell newspapers’, we have drawn attention to the way that the press often misreports instances of suicide, and to stories which violate the Samaritans’ Media Guidelines for the Reporting of Suicide . This month a story which was widely reported in the Express, the Guardian, the Independent, the Mail, the Mirror, the Star, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph also ignored these guidelines. This was the suicide of Olive Cooke, who at 92 was Britain’s longest serving poppy-seller.
Despite the fact that the Samaritan’ Guidelines warn against ‘over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide’ because of the dangers of copycat attempts, newspapers claimed that the cause of Olive’s suicide was receiving too many calls from charities asking her for donations. The Daily Mail ran a front page headline, “Hounded to death by cold callers: Poppy seller, 92, jumps off bridge after being plagued for cash by charities,” whilst the Sun’s front page read: “Killed by her kindness: Poor Olive, 92 was hounded by other charities’ 10 begging letters a day.” At the inquest, this lady’s family insisted that while the letters and phone calls were intrusive and a nuisance, the charities were categorically not to blame for her death: Olive had left a note explaining the reasons which were connected to depression and issues around being elderly.
You’d think you couldn’t make it up. Sadly the papers just did.