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Dasha Ilic

Published: 3 December 2012

Country: UK

by Aidan White

burka_uk_pressThe need for urgent action to curb sensational and unethical journalism in the British press is not just about phone-hacking, door-stepping celebrities or intrusion into the private lives of stricken families. It’s also about how some sections of the press are actively engaged in feeding hatred and prejudice.

As a political firestorm rages around the report by Lord Justice Leveson into press ethics and its call for an independent regulator, it’s worth noting the report’s findings and its demand for a wholesale review of how journalism works and particularly in press coverage of race, migration and asylum issues. In his wide-ranging survey of sensationalism and malpractice Leveson concludes that press irresponsibility in this area is not “an aberration.”

He says: “There are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice...”

The extensive evidence put before the inquiry – which can be seen at http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0780/0780_ii.pdf -- illustrates, for instance, how Muslims, migrants, asylum seekers as well as gypsies and travellers are routinely victims of press hostility and xenophobia.

In its submission the Muslim advocacy group ENGAGE said over the last ten years reporting by some of the tabloid press has been increasingly scarred by Islamaphobia. It highlighted numerous examples of offensive headlines, many of which have been later used by far right extremists to further their racist propaganda.

The journalist Peter Oborne who writes for the Daily Telegraph echoed these concerns. He exposed a particular editorial atrocity committed by The Sun with a story under the headline 'Brave Heroes Hounded Out' told how "Muslim yobs" had wrecked a house to prevent British soldiers returning from Afghanistan from moving in.

Oborne said millions of Sun readers might have been outraged and felt justified anger over "the violent and treacherous Muslims who had carried out such a disloyal act against brave British soldiers. But there was one very big problem with the Sun story… there was no Muslim involvement of any kind."

In a pamphlet submitted to the inquiry– Muslims Under Siege – Oborne notes: “This case is far from unique.  (It)..is in fact typical of reporting of the Muslim communities across large parts of the mainstream British media."

Other academic research seen by Leveson supports that view. A report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies reviewed the representation of British Muslims in the press between 2000 – 2008 and concluded: "We found that the bulk of coverage of British Muslims – around two thirds – focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general).”

To counter the barrage of criticism, one of the accused newspapers – the Daily Star -- submitted a dossier containing a bundle of what it described were 'pro-Muslim' articles. Leveson didn’t agree that they were, but his inquiry was unable to reach judgments as to the proportion of 'pro-Muslim' against 'anti-Muslim' piece. There is only clear evidence that some sections of the press betray a tendency to portray Muslims in a negative light.

But, anyway, he points out, that is beside the point. The issue is not whether 'pro' articles cancel out 'anti' articles. “The real point,” he says, “is whether articles unfairly representing Muslims in a negative light are appropriate in a mature democracy which respects both freedom of expression and the right of individuals not to face discrimination.”

Leveson says Britain needs is a regulator with the ability and power to grapple with all the issues related to discrimination, including press coverage of women, people with disabilities, and the gay and lesbian community.

His conclusions are that there is a need to set appropriate standards, and particularly to avoid political advocacy in press reporting of highly-charged issues.

The Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants, the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, and the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, for instance, produced evidence suggesting that the approach of parts of the press to migrants and asylum seekers was a narrative based more on advocacy than reporting.

Some newspapers, they said, were consistently expressing a view of the harm caused by migrants and asylum seekers.

In his response, Leveson defends the right of editors and journalists to express strongly held views but that does not extend, he says, to their “willful blindness to the lack of truth of stories which fit with a newspaper's adopted viewpoint.”

To ram the point home the inquiry highlights a number of factually incorrect stories which raise issues under the Press Complaints Commission Code including:

  • A story in The Sun headlined "Swan Bake" alleging that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses to the phenomenon, but the story had no basis and The Sun was unable to defend itself against a PCC complaint.
  • A Daily Star article headlined "Asylum seekers eat our donkeys"  which told of the disappearance of nine donkeys from Greenwich Royal Park in London and in a piece of total speculation went on to claim that donkey meat was “a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe” and that there were "large numbers of Somalian asylum-seekers" with some Albanians nearby. The article concluded that asylum seekers had eaten the donkeys.
  • A report in the Daily Mail that falsely claimed a judge had allowed an immigrant to remain in the UK because "the right to family life" protected his relationship with his cat.

Leveson concludes that this sort of misreporting which is “reckless as to truth or accuracy” is designed to ensure that the articles support the political views of newspapers.

Further evidence of how journalists are forced to go along with an editorial line that puts politics above accuracy came from the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet – herself a former tabloid journalist. She said reporters she had spoken to “painted a disturbing picture of the nature of the day to day sentiments expressed by senior editorial staff.”

One reporter had been told by the news editor to "write a story about Britain being flooded by asylum-seeking bummers"; another asked to "make stories as right wing as you can"; and yet another journalist was told to go out and find Muslim women to photograph with the instruction: "Just fucking do it. Wrap yourself around a group of women in burkas for a photo."

It is not surprising that the NUJ has strongly welcomed the support that the report gives to the calls for a “conscience clause” to be included in journalists’ employment contracts. Such a clause will give them the right to refuse any assignment or order from editorial executives that requires them to act unethically.

Although his report targets those newspapers that promote a sensationalist style of journalism to support their world-view rather than to report a story, Leveson acknowledges many examples of responsible reporting and he gives credit where it is due.

He cites, for example, the Daily Mail, which although criticised for its reporting of some minority issues, has demonstrated commitment to tackling and condemning racism in its coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder and its campaign for justice in that case.

But in the end the Leveson verdict is a damning indictment of press standards. He is unforgiving of the tabloid politics that overwhelms ethics and promotes reckless and unbalanced reporting.

Recommendations

All of this poses a fresh challenge for a new press regulator, with or without its legal underpinning. Leveson makes modest recommendations – that the existing code on discrimination should be strengthened and the rules should be changed to allow third party complaints in future. This would give a voice to some minority groups currently barred from submitting grievances on behalf of others.

However, it’s not just the rules and working practice that need to change. This sobering review of journalistic practice also highlights the need for a change of mindset within some sections of the popular press.

If the report is to have a lasting impact on the evolution of ethical journalism, the first step must be to reassure Britain’s marginalised and vulnerable communities that the press is ready to eliminate the culture of lies, bias and political manipulation that has poisoned the public imagination and fed hostility.

Any new regulatory body might, therefore, consider establishing a special unit to focus on discrimination issues – particularly hate-speech and intolerance. It should also publish an annual report monitoring press performance in combating bigotry and prejudice. These actions will not change the world, but they might inspire fresh public confidence that media professionals are alert to the dangers of discrimination.


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