Leading editors have rejected new calls to extend the discrimination clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice to cover groups.
Campaigners and groups representing those with ADHD, Muslims, Jews, and gypsies and travellers were among those arguing that a change was needed to end prejudice in the press.
Currently Clause 12 (discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice advises IPSO-regulated publications to “avoid 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” and says reporters should only mention these characteristics at all if “genuinely relevant” to the story.
The clause does not apply to “generalised remarks” about groups or categories, such as a whole religion.
The issue has been much discussed in the nine years since IPSO launched. In 2019, then-chairman Sir Alan Moses described the scope of the discrimination guidelines as the “greatest issue IPSO has had to grapple with”.
The latest assessment and rejection of the idea came as part of the triennial review of the code by the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee. Clause 12 was described as a “common theme” among the submissions.
There were submissions on other issues too, but not changes have been made to the Editors’ Code this time around.
The Antisemitism Policy Trust argued: “Whilst we agree that criticism of political views and beliefs is an integral component of the right to freedom of expression, and that offensive, even outrageous comments are part of our democratic discourse, we are concerned that some publications will publish antisemitic content, such as tropes about Jewish power, without redress, including under the pretense of criticism against Israel or Zionism.
“We have no objection to criticism of the Zionist movement or ideology or criticism of Israel but there should be recourse under the code for someone racially abusing Jews as a collective.”
Campaigners for those with ADHD also wanted Clause 12 to cover groups, claiming that press coverage has insinuated the condition is not real.
Journalist Rachel Charlton Dailey wrote that “these pieces are very damaging to people with ADHD as it can make it harder for them to have their needs met and not be believed by those in positions of power.
“These pieces also incite abuse of disabled people which is very traumatic. Disability, gender, sexuality, race and religion are all protected under the Equality Act, making it illegal to discriminate against people for them, how is it allowed in the media?”
In the first quarter of 2023, a Sunday Times article headlined “I’m sorry, but all this ADHD doesn’t add up” received more than 100 complaints claiming it trivialised the condition and was “uninformed, inaccurate and ableist”, but IPSO noted there was “no complaint of discrimination against an individual”.
Two other articles relating to ADHD received between ten and 100 complaints in the same period which were dismissed for the same reason: the Daily Mail article headlined “Why are so many adults now being diagnosed with ADHD?” and “I’m calm and focused for this ADHD test…” in The Times.
The Editors’ Code Committee’s report appeared to justify the articles. It “noted that there has been an increase in the number of people diagnosed, or self-diagnosed, with ADHD and editors have responded by asking a basic question of journalism: why?”
It also noted that inaccurate and misleading claims about ADHD can be challenged under Clause 1 (accuracy).
‘Racism against Gypsies has been normalised’ in press
Meanwhile, a combined submission from the charities Leeds Gypsy And Traveller Exchange and London Gypsies and Travellers alongside IPSO member the Travellers’ Times argued that an expansion to Clause 12 was needed because the “current UK media environment reporting on Gypsy and Traveller lives is one in which racism and discrimination have been consistently accepted and normalised”.
The Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), which aims to ensure accurate coverage of Muslims and Islam in the press, argued that there should be a lower threshold for discrimination in the media than there is in criminal law.
But the committee said incitement to hatred against a group with protected characteristics is already prohibited by law “so inserting this into the Code was unnecessary”.
CfMM also wanted Clause 12 to cover institutions and organisations including schools, charities, places of worship, companies and other legal entities, and individuals, which the committee considered but decided this would be “unduly restrictive”.
The National Union of Journalists argued that Clause 12 should cover discrimination against “minoritised groups”. However, the committee looked at the NUJ’s own code of conduct which says journalists should produce “no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation”.
“So, the NUJ does not cover groups in its own code of conduct,” the committee’s report said.
Group discrimination ban ‘would inhibit debate’, editors say
Editors sitting on the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee include Chris Evans of The Daily Telegraph (who has just been appointed chairman), Ted Verity of the Daily Mail, Gary Jones of the Daily Express, Ben Taylor of The Sunday Times, Maria Breslin of the Liverpool Echo, David Clegg of The Courier in Scotland, and Ian Carter and Gary Shipton of regional publishers Iliffe Media and National World.
The committee decided to stand by the existing guidance in the handbook that accompanies the Editors’ Code, which says introducing a group discrimination ban “would inhibit debate on important matters, would involve subjective views and would be difficult to adjudicate upon without infringing the freedom of expression of others.
“As always, the Code is striking a balance between the rights of the public to freedom of speech and the rights of the individual – in this case not to face personal discriminatory abuse. Freedom of expression must embrace the right to hold views that others might find distasteful and sometimes offensive.”
Jeremy Clarkson Sun column about Meghan Markle was landmark case
Organisations representing groups of people affected by a discriminatory story can already successfully complain to IPSO.
The most high-profile example came last year when IPSO upheld complaints made by The Fawcett Society, a gender equality charity and the WILDE Foundation, which supports female domestic abuse victims about Jeremy Clarkson’s Sun column describing his “hate” for Meghan Markle.
The regulator said the two women’s groups represented groups of people who had been affected and that there was a “substantial public interest” in the column being assessed.
Conversely in 2022 IPSO rejected 6,000 complaints against a “misogynistic” Mail on Sunday piece about Labour MP Angela Rayner because none of them were made by her or her representatives.
CfMM argued in its submission that the threshold of “substantial public interest” for a representative group making such complaints was “very high”.
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