Press Ethics Critique in 2,000 Pages – Priceless! Thank you Judge Leveson!

“While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment.”

On 29th November 2012, Lord Justice Leveson submitted the report that the Prime Minister asked him to produce following the Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press. The debate and media coverage of the Report has been overwhelming and overexcited, and it will take some time for us all to digest it properly and make sense of the sea of evidence and testimonies, which range from the phone hacking of celebrities and victims of crime to PM’s LOL messages to the now criminally charged former newspaper women, Rebekah Brooks. Lord Justice Leveson has heard it all and in 2,000 pages he makes sense of it. After what can only be called a speed read it is clear that the report is thoughtful and makes the case for a better independent regulator of press ethics.

The Forum’s interest in the Inquiry relates closely to our role as advocates for the rights and better treatment of migrants and refugees. Over the years we have witnessed an increase in scapegoating of this section of our population by sections of the British press, who have often resorted to inflammatory language, bias, inaccuracies, and even completely made up stories such as Swan Bake.

This kind of media demonisation and dehumanisation went unchallenged for several reasons:

1. The industry’s self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission’s rules made it impossible for advocates or community groups to complain.
2. Challenging the powerful press legally or in public requires time and resources which are available to neither migrants and refugees nor their advocates.
3. The ‘Fear factor’ – because there was nothing to stop the press from taking revenge and tarnishing the reputation of those who challenge them – very few did.

The final product of the continued, unchallenged negative media portrayal of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, foreigners… who had no voice to counter it, is the formation of a public perception of immigration as a problem – of immigration as a foreign invasion on the scale of a natural disaster and a threat to our jobs, housing, the NHS, the welfare state and our safety. The political reaction to this public perception, formed on misinformation and fabrications by the press, was to be seen to be dealing with the ‘problem’. So instead of debunking negative media myths, politicians started responding to their agenda. Consecutive governments have sought to reassure the public that they are being ‘tough on immigration’, instead of explaining that they are being mislead about immigration.

The result of this vicious vortex is that hundreds of thousands of people have been stripped of their humanity, dignity and respect. Asylum seekers are no longer allowed to work and study; they are forced into destitution, and forced to survive on £5 per day of a cashless handout. Families are now being ripped apart as British citizens have to earn more than the London Living Wage for at least six months in order to bring their foreign spouses to live with them in the UK. Why? So that the government can show they are reducing immigration? Why? Because immigration is seen as a problem? Why? Because the papers tell the public it is so? Why? Because scary stories sell papers?! I am oversimplifying – but you get the point.

Third Party Complaints

It is in this context that The Forum submitted evidence to Lord Leveson’s Inquiry last year. I must admit I was positively surprised when we were contacted by the Inquiry team to be told our evidence had been included ‘as read’. It felt good to be included and heard – a very new feeling for many of us.

I have followed the Inquiry online as if it was some kind of cult TV show. As a former journalist who worked in a war zone and under a corrupt communist system,  I was fascinated by the lack of boundaries in the relationships between some journalists, media owners and politicians and the criminality of some of their appalling intrusions into peoples’ lives. It became clear to me that immigration as an issue and migrants and refugees as individuals are just collateral damage in these power relationships. Which is why it is even more significant that Lord Justice Leveson included The Forum’s evidence and the submissions of our colleagues in his report. His inclusion of our evidence and his analysis is fair and accurate and his recommendation that: “A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints.” This is exactly what we hoped for. Freedom of speech or freedom of the press is not even an issue here. All we want is a fair opportunity for redress. (Do watch Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off documentary on C4 to get more information on the issues of Freedom of Speech and the Statutory Regulation)

It will probably take a long time for our demands for fair treatment by the future independent regulator to become a reality, so that we are at least allowed to complain when vulnerable minorities are demonised in the press. But despite that, today I finally feel that strange feeling I very rarely experience in our work – that feeling of being heard, recognised, included… the feeling of justice. A feeling that makes me feel I ought to say: Thank you Judge Leveson!

The Forum’s Evidence in the Report

Here are some key extracts from the report relating to the Forum’s evidence:

On page 672 the report states:

3.15 Similar concerns at the damage capable of being caused to community relations and potentially vulnerable individuals have been raised by other organisations, in particular those representing migrant and refugee communities. Such organisations include The Runnymede Trust, the Refugee Council and the Migrant and Refugee Community Forum.

3.16 In written evidence submitted to the Inquiry, both the Refugee Council and Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum suggest that some parts of the press seek deliberately (or, at least, recklessly) to conflate statistics for asylum and immigration to imply a growing “wave” of asylum seekers coming to the UK, despite evidence that the number of asylum seekers has fallen significantly since 2002.  This view is also shared by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which contends that the motive may be a political one. The Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum draws attention to a report by the Cardiff University School of Journalism, ‘What’s The Story’ (2003), which noted that asylum debates tended to focus heavily on statistics and figures which were un-sourced.

3.18 The submissions received in this area went a little further than simply criticising inaccuracies in reporting; they also claimed that there was a tendency in parts of the press to discriminate against certain minorities and to inflame tensions or exacerbate difference. The Refugee Council suggested that some titles were less active than others  in engaging with organisations who work with the relevant communities when seeking comments for articles on asylum and immigration: consequently, negative content is less likely to be balanced with positive stories. ENGAGE drew attention to a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies which concluded that, between 2000 – 2008, references in the press to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.

On Page 672 the report continues:

8.47 It is unquestionably right that, in relation to inherently political questions like immigration and asylum, editors and journalists are entitled to express their strongly held views in their newspapers. However, the concerns raised by the various witnesses were not limited to the expression of views, but included allegations of wilful blindness to the (lack of) truth of stories which fit with a newspaper’s adopted viewpoint. Stories which are factually incorrect clearly raise issues under clause 1 of the Code regardless of clause 12. The organisations drew the Inquiry’s attention to the following as examples:(a) The Sun’s story headlined “Swan Bake”, which alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans from ponds and lakes in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses to the phenomenon, but it seemed there was no basis to the story: the Sun was unable to defend the article against a PCC complaint.412(b) The Daily Star’s article headlined “Asylum seekers eat our donkeys.” The story told of the disappearance of nine donkeys from Greenwich Royal Park. The police were reported as having no idea what had happened to the donkeys but, in a piece of total speculation, the story went on to claim that donkey meat was a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe, that there were “large numbers of Somalian asylum-seekers” in the area and some Albanians nearby, and concluded that asylum seekers had eaten the donkeys.413(c) The Daily Mail’s erroneous report that a judge had allowed an immigrant to remain in the UK because “the right to family life” protected his relationship with his cat.  It is one thing for a newspaper to take the view that immigration should be reduced, or that the asylum and/or human rights system should be reformed, and to report on true stories which support those political views. It is another thing to misreport stories either wilfully or reckless as to their truth or accuracy, in order to ensure that they support those political views. And it does appear that certain parts of the press do, on occasion, prioritise the political stance of the title over the accuracy of the story. Ms Stanistreet, on behalf of the NUJ, gave evidence as follows:“Journalists that I spoke to in the course of collating this testimony painted a disturbing picture of the nature of the day to day sentiments expressed by senior editorial staff- such comments give an insight into the approach taken on coverage of race and ethnicity. These included a reporter being told by the news editor to “write a story about Britain being flooded by asylum-seeking bummers”; instructions to “make stories as right wing as you can”; a reporter being 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”.

On page 673 the report concludes:

8.51 Nonetheless, when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning. The press can have significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts. While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment. Although the majority of the press appear to discharge this responsibility with care, 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 in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.

8.52 Overall, the evidence in relation to the representation of women and minorities suggests that there has been a significant tendency within the press which leads to the publication of prejudicial or pejorative references to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental illness or disability. Whether these publications have also amounted to breaches of the Editors’ Code in every case is debatable, but in the ultimate analysis is little to the point. That failure has, in the main, been limited to a section of the press and may well stem from an undue focus on seeking to reflect the views (even if unsuccessfully) of a particular readership. A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints.

To take a stand on implementation of Judge Leveson’s Report you can sign the petition here:

Leave a Reply