Of the more than 8,000 complaints made to press regulator IPSO within a year that cited its discrimination clause, one has been upheld and one has been reported to police.
The figures were revealed at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee on the topic of hate speech, which included evidence from Independent Press Standards Organisation chairman Sir Alan Moses.
Moses told MPs that IPSO, which regulates the majority of newspaper and magazines in the UK, only rules on discrimination against individuals and not groups.
Clause 12 of the Editors Code of Practice, the standards against which IPSO’s members are held, prohibits “prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability”.
Moses said when an article is inciting hatred it is breaking the law and is therefore a matter for the police and not IPSO, saying the regulator has previously contacted the police over a story.
He said Katie Hopkins’ “cockroaches” article, was passed on to the authorities, but this was the only instance of IPSO having done so since it was set up in 2014.
Pressed by committee chairman Yvette Cooper MP on why IPSO did not include discrimination of groups in the code, Moses said: “You are allowed in the law of this country to attack groups and be abusive about them.”
He said: “All I’m saying is that a balance has to be struck between allowing people to criticise groups in highly negative ways on the one hand and on the other hand seeking to protect individuals.
“It is an extremely difficult task that my committee take very seriously every day.
“The fact that we don’t uphold complaints, I would like to stress, doesn’t mean that we approve or do not find deeply offensive some of the material written. The question is how the balance should be struck.”
He said IPSO’s standards group had “continuing discussions” with anti-hate speech charity groups, adding: “It’s simply not right to say that we just deal with complaints.”
The committee, which had its hearing on Thursday last week, also heard from Tory peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
She told the committee that there were “cases and cases” in the press of anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamaphobia and referenced a number of national news articles.
These included a Times splash about a Christian girl being fostered by a Muslim family and Trevor Kavanagh’s article on “the Muslim problem”. Both, she claimed, were inaccurate.
She said: “These are high-profile ones, but beyond that we have everyday examples of what I call our low-level poisoning of the discourse.”
The former Cabinet minister claimed this was happening because stories about Muslims “sell papers”.
She said: “I think that post-Leveson [Inquiry] when intrusion into people’s private lives and hacking and invasion of privacy were probably not as popular because they couldn’t get away with it in the same way, they had to find a new way to shock people and make them angry – as Paul Dacre would say…
“Unfortunately, because of the climate that we live in and because of this rise in Islamophobia, over time a shock-jock Muslim story on the front page sells newspapers.”
The former Conservative Party chairman said that recent headlines about Muslims echoed those about Jewish people in the 1930s, gay people in the 1950s and Irish Catholics in the 1980s.
“I think it’s the papers’ realising that this M.O. – this mission objective – works and that the ‘other’ of the time, the bogeyman of the time, is British Muslims and therefore it’s an easy way to sell papers.”
She said: “I feel that it does start to impact the way politicians respond to it and the way in which the public then starts talking about it… It starts to poison the debate about the Muslim community and it does impact, I think, on what we say on our streets.”
Professor Chris Frost, chairman of the Ethics Council of the National Union of Journalists, said the problem was mostly confined to the national press and that while freedom of expression was “vitally important” it “needs to be controlled” when it comes to newspapers.
He said: “In order to sell newspaper, one of the best ways to do that, time has shown and all the research shows, is to raise issues of fear.
“People buy newspapers when they believe there is a risk, whatever that may be, far more than they do when everything is nice and comfortable and happy.
“So newspapers have over the years had to develop the idea that there is a risk for which they either prove a solution or at least try to ameliorate what that risk is so then people will continue to buy the newspapers.”
He added: “One of the easiest ways to do that is to pick a group which is an ‘other’ group and at the moment a good one is Muslims, because of Isis, and terrorists based around Isis, it’s easy to say this is a group of which we should be fearful.”
Ipso chairman Moses, Complaints Committee member Nazir Afzal OBE, and IPSO board member Anne Lapping all agreed that there was an issue of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK print media.
Lapping said: “I think the cumulative effect of a lot of stories does poison the atmosphere and a lot of stories are misguided and some of them I think are really deliberately nasty.
“The problem is drawing a line between free speech and comment and things that as a regulator we can deal with.”
Afzal said: “I think we have all suffered at the hands of various newspapers deciding to take a particular line,” but pointed to legislation that allows for abuse to pass, adding: “Many of us, particularly as a Muslim myself, are victims of that kind of abuse.”