Journalist union calls for stronger approach to preventing racism in print
THE Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) is under pressure to launch an inquiry following an outcry over an “inflammatory” column by a board member.
A column published in The Sun this week by Trevor Kavanagh, a former editor of the newspaper and board member of Ipso, came under fire for its reference to “the Muslim problem” facing Britain and Europe. Critics noted that the language called to mind “the Jewish problem” described by Nazis.
This led the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to call for a formal investigation by the press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), into what it described as “the prevalence of Islamophobia, racism and hatred espoused in the British press”.
“Trevor Kavanagh's comments are an abuse of free speech and the press standards watchdog should accept complaints that traduce social groups in our society.” Chris Frost, NUJ
The union is renewing its calls for Ipso to accept complaints regarding the representation of groups, as opposed to limiting this to individuals. NUJ ethics council chair Chris Frost said: "Trevor Kavanagh's comments are an abuse of free speech and the press standards watchdog should accept complaints that traduce social groups in our society.
“Kavanagh is using the actions of a small group of individuals to place blame on a whole religion of 1.8 billion people. Ipso claim to be set apart from their predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission, because they can run investigations and do monitoring - now is the time to prove it."
This follows condemnation of The Sun article by over 100 MPs, alongside Muslim and Jewish organisations. Trevor Kavanagh has since hit back at critics in another column for The Sun, describing the reaction as a “concocted explosion of Labour and Islamic hysteria”.
This week has also seen Labour MP and shadow secretary for women and equalities Sarah Champion resign from the party following widespread accusations of racism in a column she wrote for The Sun.
The incident is the latest controversy Kavanagh has found himself embroiled in. Earlier this year, Trevor Kavanagh was the subject of two complaints made on behalf of the Muslim Council. The first complaint related to a substantial factual error regarding the number of child asylum seekers who had been found to be lying about their age, which Ipso upheld and required The Sun to publish the judgement.
The second referred to Kavanagh’s claim that the appearance of Channel 4’s Fatima Manji in a headscarf on the night following the Nice terrorist attack was “provocative”, that she had “singled herself out”, and that she “knew precisely what she was doing”.
Ipso did not uphold the second complaint, on the basis that it was the columnist’s opinion, there were no “significant inaccuracies or misleading statements”, and that, because Manji had publicly stated that she wore the hijab based on her religious beliefs.
Dr Evan Harris, joint executive director of Hacked Off, a group which campaigns for a free and accountable press, told CommonSpace that the sway which press executives hold over Ipso prevents the regulator from fulfilling its role as an independent regulator.
“We support the NUJ’s call but it is doomed to fall on stony ground until there is an independent regulator.” Dr Evan Harris, Hacked Off
Harris said: “Since editors, led by Paul Baker and News UK, have always ensured the Editors’ Code has never covered incitement to hatred against a group, there is no chance Ipso will launch an investigation triggered by this article.
“The industry changed Ipso rules to further insulate themselves from scrutiny by providing that any board member can veto an investigation, which Trevor Kavanagh surely would. We support the NUJ’s call but it is doomed to fall on stony ground until there is an independent regulator.”
Impress, a competing press regulator, noted that in contrast to the Ipso Editors’ Code of Practice, its new Standards Code protects against reporting which incites hatred against vulnerable groups.
The smaller regulator Impress was set up following the Leveson Inquiry, when Ipso took over from the heavily criticised Press Complaints Commission (Ipso). Impress is the regulator backed by the government funded Press Recognition Panel, while Ipso maintains regulation of most of the major publishers.
Jonathan Heawood, CEO of Impress, told CommonSpace: “One of the greatest challenges in any democracy is to balance free speech against the rights of vulnerable groups and individuals. We heard a wide range of opinions in our consultation on the Impress Standards Code.
“Free speech includes the right to offend. However, there is a difference between offensive commentary and incitement to hatred.” Jonathan Heawood, Impress
“Clearly, free speech includes the right to offend. However, there is a difference between offensive commentary and incitement to hatred. Like many other professional journalism codes around the world, the Impress code draws this line.”
The Ipso Code of Practice prohibits “prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's” protected characteristics, or the inclusion of details of these characteristics about an individual “unless genuinely relevant to the story”. The code does not refer to instances where the characteristics relate to groups rather than individuals.
An Ipso spokesperson told CommonSpace: “Ipso looks carefully across every complaint it receives (more than 14,000 last year) to see if there are any trends or themes in editorial standards that indicate targeted action by Ipso is needed.
“For example, we recently issued guidance on publishing information taken from social media after we identified a pattern of complaints from the public and concerns from journalists on that topic.
“We will continue to take action to address editorial standards as appropriate. We keep under review all matters of relevance to press regulation and are grateful for the NUJ’s input on this and other subjects.”
The Scottish Government and UK Government did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publishing.
Picture courtesy of Alisdare Hickson.
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