What’s wrong with censuring journalists?

A contributor to Ken Livingstone's report on Islamophobia in the press responds to spiked editor Brendan O'Neill's criticisms.

Julian Petley

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Topics Free Speech

As someone who recently defended media freedom in spiked and is co-chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, I was somewhat taken aback to find Brendan O’Neill last week including me (albeit implicitly) amongst the ranks of those mounting ‘an intolerable attack on media freedom’, wanting to ‘turn the press into an offshoot of Ken Livingstone’s political fiefdom’ and making ‘explicit demands for increased government intervention in the press’ (1).

Blimey! What on earth have I done? The rather prosaic answer is that I acted as a consultant and contributor to The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK Media, a report commissioned and recently published by the Greater London Authority (GLA) which, to put it briefly, accuses the media, and especially the press, of painting an extremely one-sided and monochrome picture of Muslims and Islam.

Unlike the rest of its critics, O’Neill has actually read the report, but although it pains me to disagree with someone who still has the guts to quote Marx approvingly, I really must take issue with him when he suggests that the report recommends curtailing media freedom. This, most certainly, is not how I read it.

According to O’Neill: ‘The report argues that Islamophobia is rampant in the British press and that new attitudes amongst journalists and codes of ethics will be required to deal with it’. Leaving aside the rather inconvenient fact that Chapter Six of the report spends several pages arguing that ‘Islamophobia’ is a far from unproblematic term, the report as a whole simply does not suggest that journalists are in need of some kind of Stalinist re-education. Rather more prosaically, what it does suggest is that, in the interests of accurate and informed reporting, news organisations should consider making their workforces rather more representative than they currently are of the society, and indeed of the world, on which they report.

Nor is it obvious to me that journalistic codes represent any major threat to press freedom – all that they do, as in the case of the codes already operated by the National Union of Journalists, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the BBC and Ofcom – is lay down certain guidelines and point journalists towards what is generally recognised in their trade as best practice. The fact that, in the press, the PCC’s recommendations on, for example, accuracy and discrimination, are breached daily, clearly shows that such codes are by no means instruments of censorship. But just because they’re currently ineffective doesn’t mean that they should be abolished, but, rather, that they should be employed rather more energetically in order to raise journalistic standards.

An excellent example of debased standards is provided by press stories, analysed in the report at some length by two practising journalists, which allege that Christmas, Easter, piggy banks and other apparently typically British institutions have been banned because they are thought to be offensive to Muslims. Now, the important fact about these stories is not that they’re a bit exaggerated or somewhat inaccurate but that they’re just not true. O’Neill is incredulous that the report takes seriously a paper where many of these stories have first appeared, namely the Express, and whilst I would be the first to agree that this is a totally crap and utterly vile paper (indeed, so awful is the journalism that its journalists are required to produce that a number of them actually complained about one particularly unpleasant article to the PCC), this doesn’t mean that these stories are insignificant.

If only. Firstly, the stories were picked up and recycled entirely uncritically by other papers, nationally, locally and indeed internationally (and not simply in tabloid papers, either, as O’Neill suggests). And second, such stories, whilst not directly ‘causing’ the noxious views about Muslims and Islam rightly castigated by O’Neill, most certainly help to feed them and to give them a spurious legitimacy.

And if you don’t believe me, just wait until one of these stories appears on the front pages, hang around anywhere where newspapers are being sold, and count the number of comments to the effect that: ‘I don’t mind them coming over here but I don’t want them imposing their attitudes on us’. Or, rather more usefully, read Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism (Sage 1995) and Martin Conboy’s Tabloid Britain (Routledge 2005), both of which show how, in the British press, the maintenance of a sense of British (and, increasingly, English) national identity has long been crucially dependent on creating the sensation that a host of threatening and usually foreign Others are bent on diluting and destroying this ‘island race’.

Personally, I do find it disturbing that entirely untrue stories, about Muslims or anyone or anything else, routinely circulate in the British press. And I find it even more disturbing if such stories in any way help to contribute to setting members of the majority community against members of minority communities (a process which is then all too often reversed). O’Neill asserts that ‘there has been no public groundswell in anti-Muslim prejudice, or in anti-Muslim violence’, but in Monday’s Guardian, Ronan Bennett, in a powerful and richly deserved attack on Martin Amis, stated that: ‘By every official index, violence and discrimination against Muslims have increased since 2001’. (2) They can’t both be right (and I happen to agree with the latter view), but this is not the place to bandy about conflicting figures.

There is a larger question here, and it is quite simply this: do we want to discourage (no, not ban) journalism which threatens to set people at each other’s throats and to encourage journalism which tries to make it easier for members of an increasingly, heterogeneous and heterodox society to live together in these islands as harmoniously as possible? O’Neill seems rather to sneer at the report’s idea of ‘working together to maintain and develop Britain as a multicultural, multifaith democracy’, but, in the immortal words of Nick Lowe, ‘what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’

Nowhere, however, does the report demand that even untrue and potentially inflammatory stories should be banned, although it’s fairly clear that its authors wished that they didn’t exist. But such stories would indeed disappear rapidly if, firstly, journalists had conscience clauses, which would allow them to refuse to write such nonsense in the first place; and, secondly, there was a statutory right of reply, which would discourage editors from running stories which they knew to be shaky or just plain untrue. Neither of these measures can be described as a form of censorship.

But censure is something else; this the report does indeed recommend, and in large doses. And why not, indeed, as long as the criticism is merited, accurate, well-informed and constructive? What on earth is wrong with criticising journalism that falls below the high standards to which journalists themselves are always professing to adhere and which are enshrined in documents such as the PCC’s Code of Practice?

O’Neill himself admits that there are ‘vast problems with the British press’ and then provides an excellent quotation from Marx to the effect that: ‘The free press remains good even when its products are bad, because these products are deviations from the nature of a free press, [while] the censored press remains bad, even when its products are good, because these products are only good insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press’. Absolutely. But implicit in Marx’s statement is that there are indeed distinctions to be made between good and bad journalism, and that a free press has a particular nature.

Our report not only makes just such distinctions (indeed praising good journalism where it finds it), but it also suggests, albeit implicitly, that a free press does not equate to a press whose owners are free to do what the hell they want with it in the interests of propagating their own views or those of the party which they support, or publishing sensationalist rubbish in order to swell their coffers. I think Marx would have agreed.

Julian Petley is professor of Film and Television at Brunel University. His next book, Censoring the Moving Image, co-authored with Philip French, will shortly be published by Seagull Books/Index on Censorship.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called Ken Livingstone London’s PC despot. Josie Appleton defended Livingstone against the quangocracy that sought to remove him from office. Tessa Mayes argued that a controversial documentary about the role of the paparazzi in the death of Princess Diana showed the importance of the free press and examined the relationship between privacy and the press. Helene Guldberg argued that an ‘historic’ House of Lords ruling still left press freedom subject to bad law. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) London’s PC despot, Brendan O’Neill, 15 November 2007

(2) Shame on us, Ronan Bennett, Guardian, 19 November 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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