The row over the media’s responsibilities continues. UK editors reject pleas to outlaw discrimination against ethnic and religious groups, says Press Gazette.

9 December 2020 By Paul Martin

Can the British media regulate itself, or should it be put under greater control? Here’s the Press Gazette’s take.

Top editors have rejected calls to adopt a provision in the Editors’ Code of Practice banning discrimination against groups such as Muslims, Jews and migrant communities in the press.

The Editors’ Code Committee (made up of mainly of top editors) reviews the standards adopted by regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and therefore the majority of the UK press, every three years.

The only change made in this latest review is to add a specific reference to mental health in Clause 2 (privacy), although the committee said this was already implicit.

The clause now reads: “Everyone is entitled to respect for their [changed from his or her] private and family life, home, physical and mental health [currently only ‘health’], and correspondence, including digital communications.”

Mental health charity Mind, which supported the change, said: “Speculation about mental health is commonplace, especially when it comes to people in the public eye.”

Editors’ Code of Practice Committee chairman Neil Benson said: “Mental health was already covered implicitly in the clause, but the amendment makes this explicit and is a timely reminder of the changing attitudes in society.

“Mental health is now openly acknowledged and the press can take some credit for driving that welcome transformation.”

However discrimination against groups, described by IPSO’s former chairman Sir Alan Moses last year as the “greatest issue” the regulator has grappled with, remains unaddressed in the code as the committee resisted calls to change in favour of protecting freedom of expression.

Thirteen of the 35 submissions to the code review consultation referred directly to Clause 12 (discrimination) of the Editors’ Code, 11 of which wanted greater protection for groups.

The code says 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”, and that such details must only be mentioned if genuinely relevant to the story.

This limits the scope of the cause to discrimination against individuals, rather than religious or gender groups who are subject to pejorative stories, and IPSO often refuses to consider third-party complaints brought by representatives of such groups.

A high-profile example is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column in August 2018 in which he compared women in burkas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. It is believed his words may have led to a spike in Islamophobia.

In 2017, just one complaint out of more than 8,000 on discrimination grounds was upheld by IPSO which critics said shows it is “not fit for purpose”.

The regulator publishes a quarterly analysis of the complaints it receives under Clause 12 of the code.

Freedom of expression

Benson, a former Trinity Mirror group executive editor, said: “The code committee concluded that accepting complaints about generalised comments regarding groups would limit freedom of expression and prevent a free press examining and debating key issues.

“It noted that incitement to hatred is already a criminal offence and the code seeks to supplement the law, not to echo or replace it.”

The Institute for the Study of Civil Society had insisted that press freedom should be protected. It said fears of being accused of Islamophobia may impact journalistic reporting and editorial decisions.

[Read more: Daily Express editor Gary Jones backs new IPSO guidelines on reporting of Islam or Muslims]

But a number of community and campaign groups wanted stricter rules, including the Antisemitism Policy Trust which said discrimination is “still rife in the press”.

Some articles had led to public debate about the communities concerned “which in turn inspired or encouraged racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discourse”,” it said.

“Certainly, at least serious consideration would need to be given to the public interest in carrying forward complaints from the groups concerned in these circumstances,” the APT urged.

The Centre for Media Monitoring, set up by the Muslim Council of Britain, agreed it is “quite extraordinary that under the code as it currently stands, an article may breach the Public Order Act against incitement to racial or religious hatred but may still not be in breach of the Editors’ Code”.

The Get The Trolls Out project, led by the Media Diversity Institute, said in its own submission: “While a free press should be allowed to criticise groups, this policy crosses a line when criticism becomes discrimination. At this point, attacks on marginalised communities are commonplace in the British press.

“When the public complains to IPSO, their complaints are overwhelmingly rejected on the basis that it is not against IPSO policy to criticise groups. In practice, this fosters hatred and legitimises discrimination. As a result, racism, anti-religious hatred, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are regularly found in the UK media.”

[Read more: Senior politicians accuse UK press regulator of ‘turning a blind eye’ to racism in the media]

However the Network of Sikh Organisations was pleased with one addition to non-binding guidance on Clause 1 (accuracy) in the Editors’ Codebook, the handbook which supplements the code.

It now advises editors to avoid general descriptions like “Asian” when referring to those convicted in sexual grooming gang cases or other crimes even though it is technically accurate because it can “prompt concern in other communities”.

The Editors’ Code Committee’s members include Daily Telegraph editor Chris Evans, Daily Express editor Gary Jones, Sunday Times editor Emma Tucker and Metro editor Ted Young as well as regional and magazine editors and three independent lay members.

Other suggestions rejected by the committee included:

  • That IPSO should have the power to require apologies and equal rather than due prominence of corrections. The editors decided forced apologies would be “meaningless” and equal prominence would “deal a blow” to established corrections and clarifications columns
  • Stricter rules on reporting of methods of suicide. More examples of best practice will be included in the next codebook, however.

They also declined to follow any of the suggestions put forward by Katrine Petersen of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College and Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

They argued that comment articles often dispute the risks of climate change by “systematically misrepresenting or distorting the evidence” and that although many of these are inaccurate or misleading, they are rarely complained about as the IPSO process is perceived to be unlikely to result in appropriate corrections or sanctions.

The authors of these articles often represent campaign groups which are not transparently declared, they added.

“We are concerned that the staff of comment desks of IPSO member publications often do not have any scientific qualifications or training and do not understand scientific processes and practices,” Petersen and Ward went on.

“As a result, comment desks of IPSO member publications are unable or unwilling to fact check opinion articles, and do not always consult their own specialist reporters, such as science or environment correspondents, about the content of opinion articles before publication.”

They called for IPSO to make clearer that Clause 1 (accuracy) of the code applies to opinion articles, but the committee said this is already the case.

Petersen and Ward also argued for a requirement for any relevant affiliation or potential conflict of interest of an author to be transparently declared in the article or byline.

Benson said: “The Editors’ Codebook explains that Clause 1 (iv) protects the press’s freedom to editorialise and campaign, but it also demands that the press must distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.

“That may lead to opinionated columnists being asked to justify the factual basis for cases they are arguing. In the news columns, it might result in a complaint because a claim has been presented as a fact.”