'Was it appropriate for [Fatima Manji] to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim?' asked Kelvin MacKenzie, a columnist and former editor of The Sun, shortly after the Nice terror attack in July.
His comments related to Channel 4 News' decision to field a 'a young lady wearing a hijab' − as MacKenzie described her − to anchor its evening news bulletin the night after the attack.
In MacKenzie opinion, this decision was 'massively provocative'. An alternative opinion is that it was a socially responsible attempt to challenge negative stereotypes of Muslims at a time of heightened fears. Yet another is that it was simply a decision to field the best news presenter that Channel 4 News had available on the day.
But did MacKenzie's column violate the Editors' Code of Practice? The Code is a set of rules that newspapers and magazines can voluntarily pledge to accept. It is written by the Editors' Code of Practice Committee, made up of ten editors from the national, regional and magazine industry, as well as three lay members and the Chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the organisation which handles complaints under the Code.
In July Manji lodged a complaint with IPSO about Mackenzie's column, claiming that it breached Clause 12. Discrimination: 'i) The press must 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. ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.'
On Wednesday IPSO published its ruling on Manji v The Sun (No. 05935-16, September 29, 2016): that Mackenzie 'was entitled to express his view that, in the context of a terrorist act which had been carried out ostensibly in the name of Islam, it was inappropriate for a person wearing Islamic dress to present coverage of the story.'
This ruling is perverse and incomprehensible: one is left wondering what IPSO thinks it would take to qualify as a violation of Clause 12.
Mackenzie's column was clearly a reference to Fatima Manji's religion, implied by the reference to her wearing a hijab, the fact that Mackenzie was questioning whether Manji should have been reporting on 'another shocking slaughter by a Muslim', and his follow up question, 'Would the C4 editor have used a Hindu to report on the carnage at the Golden Temple of Amritsar?'
It was also prejudicial and pejorative: it implied that Manji was not fit to do her job as an objective and unbiased news presenter in this case because of her religion.
In my view the Editors' Code and IPSO are doubly toothless, it is both a voluntary code and it is being applied with a breathtakingly narrow interpretation of its own clauses.
What is more, the Code itself leaves untouched many other harmful forms of discriminatory language. Clause 12 defines discriminatory material in terms of whether it makes reference to 'an individual's' protected status identity. The problem is that many forms of hate speech and, indeed, many of the evils of hate speech, including a climate of hatred, feelings of insecurity, damage to people's sense of civic dignity or equal status, and the silencing effect, operate at the group level.
Previous IPSO cases show that it is unlikely to find in favour of a complainant if the speech in question makes no reference to an individual or individuals. Thus, in Greer v. The Sun (No. 02741-15, July 20, 2015) involving a complaint against Katie Hopkins' infamous article in The Sun (April 17, 2015) in which she compared refugees to 'cockroaches' and advocated the use of gunships to prevent their entering Europe, IPSO ruled that the article did not breach clause 12 because it mentioned an entire group or category of people.
I have written to the Editors' Code of Practice Committee suggesting a better alternative. That they immediately bolster Clause 12 with the following additional sub-Clause: 'iii) The press must also avoid publishing material that is comprised entirely and overwhelmingly of negative stereotypes or stigmatisation of a group identified on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability."
I believe that the new sub-Clause would both provide greater protection for groups against hate speech material that does not name specific individuals, but would at the same time be drawn narrowly enough to prevent excessive restriction of free speech on issues of public interest relating to groups. It would also bring the Code into line with similar regulations adopted by media organisations in other parts of the developed world.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.