The press regulator must not turn into a religious thought police

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Next year I will begin my fifth decade as a working journalist. As a writer, as an executive — and now as the chair of Index on Censorship — I have always tried to encourage honest, thorough and professional reporting and analysis of the UK’s ethnic and religious minority communities. Unless all our citizens share in a common understanding of our nation, the prospect of an integrated society will remain a distant dream.

The key words here are ‘honest’ and ‘thorough’. The tradition of British journalism eschews propaganda and partisanship. In my early days reporting on minority communities in London, many urged our teams to avoid topics that might lead others to stigmatise those communities; but had we done so, the principal losers would have been those very minorities. Had we avoided tackling the over-representation of young black men in prison, on the grounds that the story would ‘criminalise’ the community, many of the reforms that kept some out of jail might never even have been considered. Failing to investigate the corrupt practices of politicians in some parts of the city would have left Muslim-majority neighbourhoods to languish under the dead hand of municipal corruption.

Most British Muslims believe in and uphold the common values of our nation: the rule of law, the freedom to speak as they wish and to practise their faith as they see fit. It is a desperate shame that those who claim to act in their interests are now devoting such enormous amounts of energy to suppressing thorough and honest journalism about the one British community which most needs its story
to be told to a wider public.

‘Sensitive’ and ‘contextualised’ reporting about Muslims may sound like a cause that any right-minded individual would support. But as Policy Exchange’s meticulous research shows, what is being demanded by, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain is instead a kind of media apartheid, under which Muslim communities are reported on according to rules and conventions not applied to others; where work by non-Muslim professionals is judged by different standards from those who claim to follow the faith; and where those standards would be policed by self-appointed community leaders such as the MCB, sitting in judgment like a modern-day Lord Chamberlain.

Take the proposition that reporters should be required to consider ‘tensions between communities’. Two years before the death of Stephen Lawrence, I commissioned and presented a TV investigation into a spate of murders of young black people in south-east London. Local authority bosses complained that we had overnight set black against white, increased tension locally and driven house prices through the floor. They were undoubtedly correct; so should we have thought about these ‘impacts’ before broadcasting? In my view, not for a single second, and I would say the same if making that decision today.

Would-be censors also advance the seemingly innocuous requirement to publish more than one opinion in any given story. This is an iniquitous imposition. When covering racial attacks on Muslim retailers, it would have had me asking ‘how many opinions, exactly?’ — and whether I would seriously be expected to interview any members of the English Defence League who would seek to justify those attacks.

What is exceptionally disappointing is the surrender of those who should know better — including Ipso, the press regulator — to some of these regressive trends. Of course, it is vital for writers to hear the views of everyone involved in a story, if they are willing to share them. However, this has never meant assuming that all members of an ethnic or religious group share the same perspective. And still less should it lead to editors 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.

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