MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee this week tore apart the press regulator IPSO for its record in dealing with hate speech towards Muslims. IPSO’s chair, Sir Alan Moses, was left floundering.
Committee chair Yvette Cooper opened the questioning with a revelation from IPSO’s own data on its record with complaints about possible press code breaches in relation to discrimination, covered by clause 12 of the code:
‘You told us that you had had 8,148 complaints in a year that cited clause 12. Of those, only one was upheld on the grounds of clause 12 . . . Is that right?’ (Q294)
Moses was obliged to agree that this ‘sounds right’, but he said the figure reflected the limited scope of the clause, under which no complaint can be made if the alleged victim is a group, such as Muslims in general – IPSO only considers complaints about discrimination against individuals.
Cooper asked: ‘Why do you not have incitement to hatred included within your code?’ (Q296) And Sir Alan replied: ‘Because it is a criminal offence. It is merely a fact that regulation ought to deal with those matters in the interstices that are not within the criminal law.’
It was soon clear that Sir Alan had a three-part defence of IPSO’s record. First, discrimination against groups and incitement to hatred were matters for the law, not regulators. Second, the law allowed all sorts of objectionable language but that was the fault of Parliament and not IPSO. And third, any attempt to do anything tougher would probably contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
The committee, led by Cooper, ripped this defence to shreds.
In response to Sir Alan’s repeated assertions that ‘as a regulator we should be dealing with matters that are not the subject of the criminal law’ (Q298), she listed a number of clauses of the IPSO code that matched the law – in matters such as bribery, privacy and the protection of children.
‘You have within the Editor’s Code a whole series of statements that are basically replicating the law of the land,’ she said. ‘Therefore, what is your justification for not including the law on incitement to hatred?’ (Q359)
Moses had no choice but to concede the point and all he could say in IPSO’s defence was that this was the fault of the Editors’ Code Committee (in other words it was a decision taken by a committee dominated by editors under the chairmanship at the time of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail).
As for the risk of breaching the European Convention on Human Rights, Cooper read out section 4.3 of the code used by the Leveson-standard regulator Impress, which states: ‘Publishers must not incite hatred against any group on the basis of that group’s age, disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation or another characteristic that makes that group vulnerable to discrimination.’
She asked Sir Alan whether this ‘goes against the law or might be challenged in the European court?’ (Q354) Sir Alan had to accept that the answer was no.
And it wasn’t over. The Impress chief executive Jonathan Heawood then explained to the committee that the phrasing of the Impress code on this issue was based in part on the study of codes right across Europe. With MP Stuart C. McDonald probing, Heawood went on to say that a number of countries set lower thresholds in law than the UK for illegal hate speech – in other words they define more kinds of speech as unacceptable – without breaching the European Convention on Human Rights.
In short, all of the principal defences offered by IPSO for its pathetic record of inaction on hate speech towards Muslims – one complaint of discrimination upheld out of more than 8,000 – fell away under questioning by MPs.
IPSO, remember, was sold to the British public by Dacre himself as ‘the toughest press regulator in the free world’. Yet it is comprehensively failing to protect British Muslims and other minorities and its excuses simply don’t hold water.
Nobody says it is easy to tackle this problem, or that effective regulation would magic it away, but IPSO can’t even begin to do the job, and that is because – exactly as the Leveson Report foresaw – the corporate newspaper industry will never allow it to.
By the way . . You might consider the subject of press hate speech important, given for example the well-documented increases in violence towards Muslims, but so far as I can tell no journalist from any significant news organisation attended this hearing, and not a single news story about what happened was published.
Perhaps it was predictable that the Mail, the Sun and the Express, as leading propagators of hate speech, would ignore the proceedings. More surprising is the absence of coverage by the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. Press Gazette also ignored it. Truly, this is a see-no-evil industry where its own affairs are concerned.