For the eroding of the freedom of the press in Britain, the question seems not so much to be "if" as "to what degree". (Image source: iStock)
The British think-tank Policy Exchange, recently published a report, Eroding the Free Press, about a leaked draft of "Guidance for Reporting on Islam and Muslims". The guidance was drafted by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the UK's independent press regulator, an initiative that IPSO announced in late 2018. In the past, IPSO has, among other issues, published guidance on the reporting of death and inquests, sexual offences, suicides, and transgender people. According to IPSO, its guidance is "designed to support editors and journalists" and "does not limit or restrict editorial decision making, but may inform that decision making".
In a January 2019 blog on IPSO's main priorities for 2019, IPSO Head of Standards Charlotte Urwin laid out the five priorities of the year. "Reporting of Islam and Muslims" was listed as the first priority and described in the following way:
"In October 2018, we began working towards producing guidance for journalists on the reporting of Islam and Muslims in the UK, an area of broad political and social concern. The guidance will help journalists to report on a sensitive area, whilst also ensuring that it does not impinge their right to criticise, challenge or stimulate debate. We have established an informal working group to help us draft the guidance, bringing together academics who have research experience in relation to Islam and Muslims in the UK and representatives of organisations interested in the coverage of Islam..."
Policy Exchange's report on the leaked guidance gives rise for concern. In the words of the report, the guidance, "seems designed to bind the hands of UK newspapers when it comes to reporting on stories relating to Islam and Muslims – with potentially serious long-term consequences for the workings of a free and independent press".
According to the Policy Exchange report, the draft IPSO guidance states:
"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".
As the Policy Exchange authors write:
"In all of this, there seems to be a suggestion that journalists should take a different approach to covering Muslims than that employed towards other faith groups. This all seems remarkably ill-conceived. If we ruled out reporting on matters specific to Muslims not only would we miss some big issues – not least the threat from Islamist extremist terrorism, which continues to dwarf other global terrorist threats – but we would also be unable to report properly on discrimination against Muslims. More generally, we must ask: is it really the role of journalists to consider community cohesion before truth and accuracy? And what are the potential consequences of such an ethos?"
In addition, the draft guidance has a section on "accuracy in reporting", which suggests that journalists should do one, or all of the following: "Provide contextualising information; present more than one opinion; verify the information from another source". While sounding banal and innocuous in and of itself, the guidance goes on to say, more disturbingly:
"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. Journalists may find it helpful to consider the expertise of the person/organisation, their background and any previous comments on the issues, in deciding who to approach for comment."
In a previous draft, the Policy Exchange report tells us, the word was not "expertise", but "representativeness".
It does appear to be the case that what is uppermost in the minds of the drafters of the guidance is not so much factually accurate reporting, but concerns of a far more political nature, namely those of accommodating religious and cultural "sensitivities" and avoiding the causing of any offense.
Another aspect also concerns the authors of the Policy Exchange report: The "informal working group" under IPSO that has authored the guidance apparently includes members who have publicly supported the new definition of "Islamophobia" as defined by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG). In December 2018 the APPG published Report on the inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia / anti-Muslim hatred. The report, conflating religion with ethnic origin or nationality, defined "Islamophobia" as a form of racism: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness." For a full account of that report, see Gatestone's previous reporting on the issue here.
The authors of the Policy Exchange Report write:
"Against this backdrop, one might ask whether the IPSO 'guidance' process is being used to advance the kind of 'anti-Islamophobia' agenda promoted by the APPG on British Muslims... despite the fact that the Government has deemed that definition not fit for purpose... one of the things that makes the APPG's attempts to institutionalise an illiberal definition of Islamophobia so unpalatable, is the fact that it resembles a form of blasphemy law, protecting Islam specifically, implemented by the back door".
In conclusion, the Policy Exchange report states:
"Taken as a whole, the IPSO guidance document seems to mark a decisive shift in the purpose of the regulator – which takes it beyond considerations of accuracy or discrimination, as per the Editor's Code. Instead, it is moving into the realm of 'insensitivities' and 'unbalanced coverage' – elastic and subjective terms".
Policy Exchange's description of the leaked guidance is hardly shocking if one recalls the campaigns and guidelines made by European journalists' own organizations in recent years. As previously reported by Gatestone, the largest organization of journalists in Europe, the European Federation of Journalists (EJF) -- which represents more than 320,000 journalists in 72 journalists' organizations across 45 countries and claims that it "promotes and defends the rights to freedom of expression and information as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European convention on human rights" -- ran a Europe-wide campaign, sponsored by the EU, called "Media against Hate" in 2016-2018. The purpose of it was to, "improve media coverage related to migration, refugees, religion and marginalised groups... counter hate speech, intolerance, racism and discrimination... improve implementation of legal frameworks regulating hate speech and freedom of speech..."
None of the above appears to have had much to do with freedom of expression or journalism. Rather, it was actually a political campaign, spearheaded by one of the largest journalism organizations and supported by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union. The Council of Europe, another international political body constituted by 47 European member states was also listed as a partner. The mix-up of government interests with journalistic principles seemed to bother no one.
Similarly, in September 2017, a project called respectwords.org published guidelines -- the publication of which were financially supported by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union -- on reporting about migration and minorities. According to those guidelines, "more than 150 European radio outlets and 1300 journalists from the eight RESPECT WORDS countries (Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia and Spain) have joined together to strengthen media coverage of migrants and minorities, an indispensable tool in the fight against hate speech".
One of the guidelines in the book, which IPSO's recommendations seem to echo, was to "Remember that sensitive information (eg race and ethnicity, religious or philosophical beliefs, party affiliation or union affiliation, health and sexual information) should only be mentioned when it is necessary for the public's understanding of the news". The key here, again, seems to have been to respect "sensitivities" and avoid causing offense – not the factually correct reporting of newsworthy events. The guidelines also advised:
"Take care not to further stigmatise terms such as 'Muslim' or 'Islam' by associating them with particular acts... Don't allow extremists' claims about acting 'in the name of Islam' to stand unchallenged. Highlight... the diversity of Muslim communities..."
The respectwords.org guidelines, two years old, barely seek to hide that they are a political tool.
This, then, is the highly politicized atmosphere that journalists breathe and that their organizations openly promote. It is hardly surprising, then, that even independent regulators, such as IPSO, choose to take what looks like a similar path. As for the eroding of the freedom of the press, the question seems not so much to be "if" as "to what degree".
 IPSO is, according to its own website, the "independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK. We hold newspapers and magazines to account for their actions, protect individual rights, uphold high standards of journalism and help to maintain freedom of expression for the press". The body ensures that "member newspapers and magazines follow the Editors' Code" and investigates "complaints about printed and online material that may breach the Editors' Code. We can make newspapers and magazines publish corrections or adjudications if they breach the Editors' Code... We monitor press standards and require member newspapers and magazines to submit an annual statement about how they follow the Editors' Code and handle any complaints...".
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.