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The Times and Muslims: a compelling case for an IPSO standards investigation

By Brian Cathcart

Four times in just 17 months in 2019-21 the Times was forced to admit libel and pay damages and in all four cases the subjects of the false allegations were Muslims, yet somehow this has failed to trigger an IPSO standards investigation.

The threshold for such a formal investigation is deliberately set high: a problem must appear to be both ‘serious’ and ‘systemic’. But libel is always a serious matter in journalism, and four libels in such a short period, all involving victims with one thing in common, should surely prompt suspicion of something systemic.

And, as IPSO knows, it is not as if these four cases came out of the blue, because even before 2019 the Times had already demonstrated a readiness to publish, and to defend at the highest level, false allegations involving Muslims. We will return to that, but first here is the list of libels, working backwards from the most recent:

 

Every organisation involving in publishing news makes mistakes and, though libel complaints are rare, sooner or later every such organisation will find itself dealing with one. But four libels in 17 months at a well-resourced national newspaper is extraordinary.

In each case, as we have seen, the Times settled out of court, admitting the libel. Since it undoubtedly has the resources to fight a case through the courts if it considers it might win, it is clear that in all these cases the paper realised it had no hope of winning.

Repeatedly publishing indefensible falsehoods about members of a minority is obviously a gross and inexcusable failure of journalistic standards, and failing to correct this behaviour after repeatedly being forced to apologise and pay damages suggests a deliberate failure at the very highest level. But IPSO has not noticed.  

IPSO’s blindness is the more noteworthy because the Times is the paper of reporter Andrew Norfolk, author of the infamous 2017 front-page Times article: ‘Christian Child forced into Muslim foster care’.

This was a story that encouraged hostility towards Muslims and virtually every detail of it has been proved wrong on the basis of hard evidence from the family courts and the relevant local authority.

The child’s background was much more Muslim than Christian; she was not ‘forced into’ foster care but rescued from a home life marked by drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence; all Norfolk’s allegations suggesting the Muslim foster families were bigots fell apart and the child’s own grandmother praised them for their kindness to her. 

Norfolk’s report was dissected and condemned in a BBC radio documentary and in the UNMASKED report of June 2019 (of which I was co-author, with Paddy French).

Although neither Norfolk nor the Times could rebut the criticisms, not one word of that article has been corrected or withdrawn and the paper simply dismissed its critics as politically motivated. IPSO eventually identified one inaccuracy in one follow-up story by Norfolk that appeared days later; otherwise it has been silent.  

As if that were not enough, UNMASKED scrutinised in detail two further front-page articles by Norfolk that were published in 2018 and found them to be inaccurate in their thrust and in much of their detail, with the other common thread that they unjustifiably presented Muslims as threatening. Not one word of the 66-page UNMASKED study has been faulted by Norfolk or the Times.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Times management has a problem with Muslims. Not only does it fail to sustain a proper atmosphere of vigilance among its reporters and editors when it comes to accurate reporting about Muslims, but it also defends demonstrably false reporting and refuses to halt the falsehoods despite repeated libel defeats.

Two final points. First, it might be suggested that libel is the business of the courts and therefore not a matter for scrutiny by IPSO, but that is incorrect:  IPSO’s own rules explicitly state that a standards investigation may be triggered where ‘substantial legal issues’ are raised. Serial libels of members of one religious minority is a substantial legal issue.

Second, a vigorous standards investigation into the Times’s reporting on Muslims, followed by firm corrective action, might do something to redeem IPSO from the shame of its record on matters of race. In seven years it has never upheld a single complaint relating to racial or religious discrimination

IPSO is currently on… 

without a standards investigation

(and counting)

How do they get away with it?

 

The Times on Muslims.  The Telegraph on science.  The Jewish Chronicle on accuracy.  The Daily Mail’s treatment of the public.

All four of these publications have let down their readers in different ways, and all should be held accountable.  But instead of acting to protect the public, the complaints-handler IPSO has failed to investigate any of these patterns of misreporting in its seven years of existence.

It’s a record which should shame the organisation.

And if none of these cases of serious and systemic standards failures are sufficient to trigger an investigation, what will be?

The Times is libelling Muslims at an extraordinary rate.  The Chronicle has breached the code more than thirty times in three years.  The Telegraph squeezed seven inaccurate stories about a public health emergency into less than four months.  The Mail has caused terrible harm to at least six people over the last few years.

What more could possibly go wrong for IPSO to start holding these publishers accountable?

The truth is that a standards investigation has always been a remote possibility.  When the newspaper industry drew up its plans for IPSO they crafted the rules to make it almost impossible for an investigation to be launched.

That is how we arrived here: seven years of IPSO’s existence, countless cases of abuse, disinformation and discrimination in the press – and yet not a single standards investigation.

The result is that newspapers are emboldened to continue to act, to lie and to abuse, with impunity.  Until IPSO is replaced by an independent regulator, they will continue to do so.

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