Tim Dieppe, Christian Concern’s Head of Public Policy, comments the threat to freedom of press.
The press regulator guidelines on Islamophobia were leaked this week and reveal a serious threat to press freedom when it comes to Islam related issues.
Newspapers and magazines are regulated by the Independent Press Standard Organisation (Ipso) which was set up in 2014 following the phone-hacking scandal. For months, Ipso has been working on a project to draft guidance for journalists on how to report on issues connected with Islam and Muslims. Drafts of this guidance were leaked to the thinktank Policy Exchange which has issued a report about the revelations.
Miqdaad Versi’s influence
Miqdaad Versi is a prominent member of the Muslim Council of Britain. He has made it his personal mission to complain about so called ‘Islamophobia’ in UK media. He has issued multiple complaints to Ipso and frequently obtains corrections or apologies. In one case he succeeded by complaining to Ipso in getting mainstream newspapers to issue an correction stating “We are happy to make clear that Islam as a religion does not support so-called honour killings.” This correction notice is actually false. At the very least, there are many Muslims who would disagree with it. Backing in Islamic texts for killing someone who has apostatised is found here. Will Heaven cites a national newspaper editor as confirming that he frequently corrects stories when Versi complains about them as this will put a stop to a deluge of emails which will follow if no correction is published.
It turns out that Versi is a member of the group which has been drawing up the new guidelines about Islam and Muslims. This means that he will soon be complaining to Ipso about stories he objects to, using guidance which he helped to draft. In other words, someone with a vested interest has helped draft the guidance which he will later use for his own ends. Will Heaven explains that in the commercial sphere this is known as ‘regulatory capture’ which means that he will be able use his own rules to his own advantage.
Versi is an activist who wants to dictate what the media can and cannot say about Islam. He controls the Muslim Council of Britain’s ‘Centre for Media Monitoring’ which issues reports about supposed ‘Islamophobia’ in UK media. There is a serious question to answer as to why Versi was involved in drawing up Ipso guidelines at all?
The proposed guidance
A key paragraph in the proposed guidance is the following:
“Journalists should be aware that their content can have an impact on the wider community and on how minority communities are treated. Inaccuracies and insensitivities can damage communities and prevents their accurate representation. They can also contribute to members of communities feeling divorced from, or misunderstood, by the media. Finally, inaccuracies and unbalanced coverage can work to increase tension between communities, which can make harassment more likely.”
Is it really the fault of journalists if minority communities are badly treated or harassed? I am all for accurate reporting, but who defines what is ‘sensitive’? Assuming it is accurate, would it be insensitive to report that a terrorist attack was carried out by a Muslim who explicitly stated he was inspired by the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad?
Then who defines ‘unbalanced’? The media can be accused by every campaign group and political party in the country of being ‘unbalanced’. For one thing, they focus much more on negative news than positive news. Is that something a regulator should interfere with though? Where will this lead to in terms of press freedom? What happens when the regulator complains that your reporting is ‘unbalanced’? Does that sound like a free country?
If the media worries about causing offence then we do not have a free press. It is already the case, as the Casey Review pointed out, that too many public institutions shy away from tackling Islam related issues for fear of being branded ‘Islamophobic’. If the press also felt constrained then we could have been living in a world in which there was no reporting about the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham, or of Islamic rape gangs which has at least led to convictions and girls taken out of shocking abuse.
Who are ‘experts’?
Another disturbing warning in the guidance is the following:
“Identifying the ‘right’ person to speak to can be extremely challenging and journalists should be aware that individuals and organisations may have different interpretations of a particular belief.”
“Does the person you are speaking to have the relevant expertise?”
Clearly there will be different interpretations, but does that mean that one cannot state what the Bible or the Qur’an clearly say? Who decides ‘expertise’ in this context? Perhaps it will be someone who doesn’t agree with that interpretation?
An earlier draft talked of ‘representativeness’ rather than ‘expertise’. Policy Exchange point out that this is a frequent complaint of Miqdaad Versi and the MCB who want the exclusive right to determine who represents Muslims in the UK. This kind of argument can also be made in terms of ‘expertise’. Ipso appears to be openly facilitating this agenda from the MCB and Miqdaad Versi. This is in spite of the fact that the government does not engage with the MCB because of concerns about its association with extremism. This does not bode well for freedom of the press.
Versi is a vocal supporter of the proposed APPG definition of Islamophobia. I have warned about the dangers of this definition for free speech here. Several other advisors to Ipso on the guidance have also publicly supported the APPG definition. Whilst the government has rejected this definition, it seems that Ipso is moving down this line in providing guidance which can be used to censor criticism of Islam.
A chilling effect
There is already a ‘chilling effect’ reported by editors and journalists in relation to how they report about stories that touch on Islam and Muslims. Will Heaven is right to note that “there is a degree of self-censorship going on” when it comes to Islam. Some of our top investigative journalists have been labelled ‘Islamophobic’ for their reporting on rape gangs for example.
Ipso is moving in a disturbing direction. It appears to be aiding and abetting an activist agenda to protect Islam and Muslims from offence. Is this an appropriate role for a press regulator? Furthermore, they have accepted Miqdaad Versi and the MCB as the representatives of Muslims in the UK – a very dubious representation. Are there Christian representatives, or for that matter Jewish, Hindu or Sikh representatives? And would Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, or even Muslims want to be represented by one particular group, let alone individual?
Religious thought police
Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, wrote the foreword to the Policy Exchange report. He is scathing in his criticism of Ipso, arguing that it is: “putting a veto in the hands of self-appointed community spokespeople, or ‘media monitors’ – in effect a religious thought police, which might not seem out of place in Turkey or Saudi Arabia, but which should have no function in the UK.”
“What is most worrying is that, increasingly, those charged with the responsibility to resist this creeping censorship and disguised segregation are quietly surrendering to its advocates. In many cases the reason is a fear of ‘causing offence’. Yet, the job of a journalist is to tell the truth irrespective of the feelings of those involved, if there is a public interest. But increasingly, the words ‘public interest’ are being read as ‘opinion of a well-organised, well-funded, persistent and ruthless lobby.”
Press freedom is about to fall
Philips concludes: “If we give way to the demands being made, the only people who will find themselves silenced will be those who want to tell the truth.”
The freedom of the press is under threat from Muslim activists who want to control what is said about Islam. Ipso, the press regulator, is capitulating to their demands. Unless things change, press freedom is set to fall. Truth will be the victim.