Muslims treated differently by newspapers, says press watchdog

  Patricia Nilsson, FT    ৩১ ডিসেম্বর ২০১৯, মঙ্গলবার, ৯:২২    আন্তর্জাতিক

The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the British press has been “the most difficult issue” facing the press watchdog in the past five years, according to its outgoing chief.

“I speak for myself, but I have a suspicion that [Muslims] are from time to time written about in a way that [newspapers] would simply not write about Jews or Roman Catholics,” said Alan Moses, who is standing down after five years as chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. His comments come two months ahead of Ipso’s plans to publish voluntary guidance for journalists when writing about Muslims, who make up roughly 5 per cent of Great Britain’s population, according to 2017 data from the Office for National Statistics.

The regulator has previously issued similar advice for journalists reporting on transsexual people and victims of sexual crime. The decision followed a home affairs select committee hearing last year on Islamophobia and Britain’s print media, during which Ipso was accused of not doing enough to tackle inflammatory and inaccurate writing.

“A shock-jock Muslim story on the front page sells papers,” the former Conservative party chair Sayeeda Warsi told the committee at the time. “This is nothing new, we have been here before — some of the headlines we see now could have been written about the Jewish community in the 1930s and indeed were.” Ipso was founded in 2014, after calls for a tougher system of press self-regulation following the phone hacking scandal. It regulates more than 1,000 British newspapers and can force members in breach of its editors’ code to publish a correction, or pay a fine if there has been a serious and systemic breach.

Sir Alan, who became its first chairman in 2014, said Ipso faced “constant” requests to make its editors’ code stricter on discrimination, which states that the press “must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual based on a range of categories, including religion. “I think producing guidance is the best, sensible and decent way forward,” the former court of appeal judge said, adding that Ipso’s powers to “tell an editor what to write” were unprecedented and had to be administered “proportionally”.

Critics have, however, said that Ipso could do more. Steve Barnett, media professor at the University of Westminster and member of campaign group Hacked Off, argued that The Times’ stories last year about a “white Christian child” who was “forced into Muslim foster care”, which Ipso later found to have been in breach of its rules on accuracy, should have prompted a wider investigation. “Had that disregard for the industry code happened in any other industry, the press would have been up in arms condemning the shocking negligence of these professionals,” Mr Barnett said.

Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said enforced corrections were rarely given as much prominence as the original misleading article. “It’s an incentive to lie and only correct when you get found out,” he said, pointing out that the now debunked story about the girl in foster care could still be read online. Sir Alan, however, asked how stricter rules could be implemented. “Do you have a law that says you have to be like the BBC in taste, balance and decency? I mean, what sort of a rule would it be to say to a newspaper ‘don’t be nasty’?”

He argued that more stringent rules on what newspapers were allowed to write would lead British media down a dangerous path of authoritarianism. “That is not a price worth paying, but it is wretched if you are part of the group that is under attack.” One of the first jobs for Sir Alan’s successor as chairman, Edward Faulks, a former justice minister who sits as an independent peer, will be to defend its guidance on writing about Muslims. It has already been branded a threat to free speech by newspapers such as The Telegraph.

The regulator has said the claims are “groundless”. Addressing concerns raised in The Spectator that Ipso had been “correcting” opinion pieces, the regulator responded that “comment pieces, while free to be partisan, challenge, shock and offend, nonetheless must be accurate”. Some critics have argued that Ipso, which can force members in breach of its editors’ code to publish a correction, or pay a fine if there has been a serious and systemic breach, is too close to the newspapers it seeks to regulate. The organisation is paid for by its members, which also foot the £150,000-a-year salary for the part-time role of the chair. “We never have [issued a fine] because we have not had a newspaper that had a systemic failure,” Sir Alan said, adding that one outlet had been “close to it” because of “a stream of misleading statistics about immigration”.

The newspaper, whose name he would not disclose, improved after Ipso “spoke to them about it”. Mr Barnett questioned the regulator’s definition of a systemic problem. “The serial untruths that were published by British press during the [2016] referendum was a perfect case study of what should have led to an investigation,” he said, referring to front-page stories such as The Sun’s “Queen Backs Brexit” that prompted the monarch to file her first complaint with Ipso.

Sir Alan acknowledged that a creeping disregard of facts in public debate risked spreading to newspapers, because their “absolutely legitimate” political bias was making it “difficult” for journalists and editors to call out lies. “The nature of the press is such that they will be biased towards the party they favour and won’t be critical,” he said. “That is the price you pay for a free press.”

From Financial Times. Main article is here :  Muslims treated differently by newspapers, says press watchdog

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