UK press watchdog urged to act against media slurs on Muslims

Britain’s press standards organization asked to consider complaints of discrimination against religious groups after string of ‘inflammatory’ reports

Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan - Al Arabiya News, London
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The UK press watchdog must start considering cases of discrimination against groups of people, after some “grossly irresponsible” coverage of Muslim issues by some media, influential lawyers and community groups say.

Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) does not currently have the power to pursue complaints of discrimination against groups of people, such as those of Muslim faith, if no individual is specified in an offending article.

But the Muslim Council of Britain and the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation have both called for that to change, amid what some claim is slanted press coverage of Islamic issues.

David Anderson QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said some mainstream media have been “grossly irresponsible” in their coverage of Muslim issues.

And while IPSO can pursue complaints of discrimination against an individual, it cannot act when an entire religious group is attacked, he told a conference in London.

“It’s more difficult if there is a derogatory comment about Islam. And it seems to me that this is one thing that the press standards authority ought to think about,” he said.

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Anderson said some media headlines about Muslims were “inflammatory”.

“It is profoundly damaging to cohesion when journalists misreport stories by attaching the label ‘Muslim’. And I can’t see why Muslims should not be able to complain about that in the name of their faith,” he said.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has previously criticized media coverage of scandals such as the so-called ‘Muslim grooming gangs’, in which groups of men in areas such as Rotherham, Derby, Bristol and Oxfordshire were accused of raping thousands of children. Representatives of the MCB have said that linking the story to the Muslim faith was not fair.

Miqdaad Versi, Assistant Secretary General of the MCB, said that there is currently “no recourse” under the press standards code when a particular group is attacked by the media.

“There’s been many examples in the media, where we’ve tried to go to the code but we’ve not been able to,” he said. “If there is a way that a representative group can launch a complaint on that issue, that would be valuable.”

One of the most high-profile cases in which IPSO rejected a claim of discrimination came last spring, and involved a column in the Sun newspaper about the migration crisis.

Controversial columnist Katie Hopkins suggested that Europe should use gunboats to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and compared those fleeing their home countries to “cockroaches.” But IPSO rejected complaints over her column, because it did not refer to specific individuals.

A spokesperson for IPSO confirmed to Al Arabiya News that the body would not consider complaints of discrimination against an entire group of people.

But they said that IPSO is able to consider complaints of discrimination against an individual brought by groups, where the individual in question has not complained personally. And groups may make a complaint over a press article under clause one of the IPSO code on the grounds of accuracy, the spokesperson said.

A MCB conference held in London on Wednesday, entitled ‘Terrorism and Extremism – how should British Muslims respond’, also heard debate over potential blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom.

Britain’s ancient laws of blasphemy were abolished in 2008, although had largely fallen into disuse by then, given that the last successful prosecution was in 1977.

But the issue has resurfaced in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, and the magazine’s depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, which many Muslims deem offensive.

Keith Vaz MP, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya News that he would have “no problem” with blasphemy laws being reintroduced, under certain conditions.

“It should apply to all religions. If we have laws, they should apply to everybody. Religions are very special to people. And therefore I have no objection to them… but it must apply equally to everybody.”

Asked whether he thought there should be a blasphemy laws he said “no”, but added: “If somebody brings it forward in parliament I’ll vote for it… Obviously it depends what’s in the bill. But I have no objection to it being brought before parliament and having a debate about it.”

David Anderson QC said he would not object to a public debate over the issue, although had doubts over whether such laws should be reintroduced.

“Personally I’m not sure whether I would welcome a blasphemy law, because I think we have to be free to make fun of each other. We even have to be free to offend each other,” he said. “[But] I would have no problem with the idea of a democratic debate on whether there is room for some kind of blasphemy law.”

Miqdaad Versi said it was difficult to determine where the “red line” should be when it comes to free speech.

“Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way,” he said. “Whether there should be legislation is something that really is a more complicated question.”

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