Hacked Off and Media Diversity Institute’s open letter on racism in the press has gathered dozens of signatures from Parliamentarians, free speech advocates, and well-known personalities. It has struck a chord – and it’s not hard to see why.
Racism and Islamophobia have become commonplace in some newspapers. This is beyond dispute – just look at some of the examples cited alongside the letter.
But how has this been allowed to happen? The purpose of good regulation is to protect different groups of people against campaigns of newspaper abuse. IPSO has been nowhere to be seen – it won’t even take complaints about group discrimination. By turning a blind eye, and failing to speak up about the issue, IPSO is effectively complicit in the racist and Islamophobic abuse some newspapers have been guilty of.
This open letter provided IPSO with an opportunity to finally – if belatedly – take a stand on the racist press coverage which has been allowed to grow under its watch. They were confronted with extraordinary examples: a Trevor Kavanagh column in The Sun which used language echoing anti-Semitic attacks used by the Nazis. A Katie Hopkins column which referred to migrants as “like cockroaches”. A Rod Liddle article speculating over how he should draw the features of people of colour.
But instead of finally showing an understanding of the problem, IPSO churned out the same meaningless platitudes they always have. Confronted with the sheer scale of abuse, their reaction only served to demonstrate how powerless and unwilling to act they are.
Firstly, in a statement we understand was first published in Press Gazette on February 28th, Sir Alan Moses said this (Hacked Off analysis in pink):
“IPSO rejects the accusation that it condones religious and race-based hate or in any way approves of offensive attacks on groups on the grounds of their beliefs or identity.”
Firstly, it is IPSO’s purported job to “regulate” newspapers – to ensure racist and discriminatory abuse is not published in them. A competent regulator would act – but IPSO does nothing. Indeed its failure to act on the issue amounts to condoning.
Secondly, it is not about material which is “offensive” but that which is seriously abusive.
“Our decisions on discrimination and accuracy make it clear that a finding that there has been no breach of the Editors’ Code does not in any way imply that IPSO approves of what has been written.”
It is not at issue whether IPSO “approves” of coverage in the sense of agreeing with it. It is not the job of a complaints-handler to consider questions of taste and decency – and nor should it be.
But the public do expect to see coverage adequately remedied when it is racially abusive – and that is not happening.
“The real issue, with which the letter fails to grapple, is how to strike a balance between the freedom of a journalist or newspaper to offend a group while protecting individuals.”
Firstly, this misunderstands (or seeks to misrepresent) what the letter is about. It is not primarily about protecting individuals – who already have, albeit very much limited – protection under the Code. Instead it is about protecting groups and communities, who are attacked en masse in some coverage.
Secondly, Sir Alan refers to “strik[ing] a balance” between the freedom to offend and protecting the public. But the problem here is that IPSO does not seek to strike the balance at all – it explicitly will not take complaints about groups. A balance would be to say that abuse which reaches a certain threshold of seriousness will be in breach, weighed against freedom of expression. IPSO says no matter how abusive, no complaint can be brought. That is the opposite of balance.
“We work every day to make these difficult judgments; we seek to maintain the balance between freedom of expression and protecting the public.”
But IPSO does not even make that judgment, because it does not even consider complaints about group discrimination. IPSO’s rule is that “anything goes” for groups. There is no judgment there – it is carte blanche for newspapers to abuse at will.
“A solution to the important problems of where and how the line is to be drawn is not going to be found by the misleading and distorted picture of IPSO’s work, particularly in the misuse of statistics.”
The reference to statistics presumably refers to the letter citing that one discrimination complaint out of over 8000 was upheld by IPSO in 2017. We would welcome any further clarity over that statistic, which came from IPSO. We note the accusation that the statistic was “misused” is not substantiated.
Sir Alan questions where the line should be drawn – but IPSO could make a start by drawing any line – rather than sitting back and refusing to accept any group discrimination complaints.
Then, a blog appeared on IPSO’s website on March 1st which cited the open letter (Hacked Off analysis in pink):
“In recent months there has been significant debate and discussion about the terms of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code and how our Complaints Committee applies the Code to the complaints we receive. We believe that more transparency about Clause 12 and how it applies to individual complaints will help to inform this discussion.
“Clause 12 says that 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. It also states that these details should not be included in a story unless they are genuinely relevant.
“Yesterday, 26 politicians wrote to us raising concerns about racism and Islamophobia in the press. There are no easy answers to the question of how to strike a balance between the freedom of a journalist to or newspaper to offend a group while protecting individuals.”
As above, it not about offense – it is about abuse. And clearly a line must be drawn between freedom to offend and protection from abuse – but IPSO deny that line exists; instead persisting with a steadfast refusal to even consider group discrimination complaints.
On the basis of these remarks, it is clear IPSO have no intention of acting on this issue. They do not even seem to have grasped the problem.
IPSO’s failure makes implementation of the Leveson framework, which would introduce stronger free expression protections alongside meaningful accountability, more urgent than ever.
Add your name to our open letter alongside Baroness Warsi, dozens of MPs, peers and rights organisations.