(Kelvin MacKenzie, left with former Sun editor Stuart Higgins. Mr Higgins does not feature in this article)
The media storm over Kelvin MacKenzie’s piece on Fatima Manji presenting the Channel 4 news wearing a hijab on the day of the Nice terrorist attacks has been predictable, justified and important. It should be read. It raises issues of freedom of speech, Islamophobia, intolerance and editorial standards.
The day after the press’s self-regulatory body IPSO publishing their ruling, the Guardian’s “panel of experts” deftly showed the spectrum of the debate. The ruling “puts out the bunting for any old racist with a laptop” said Giles Fraser. “IPSO defends journalism that panders to bigotry” was Homa Khaleeli’s view. But Dominic Ponsford asserted MacKenzie’s right to free speech, and doyen Roy Greenslade thought IPSO was correct.
But given UK press regulation judges complaints against Code of Conduct (drawn up by editors with some input from lay members), did IPSO’s Complaints Committee get it right? As I’ve said before on these pages, there is a world of difference between feeling offended and being threatened. And there is a world of difference between a pejorative, personal and misleading attack on someone’s faith and making a passing reference to a person to facilitate an opinionated debate or polemic.
Essentially, IPSO noted the offence caused by MacKenzie’s article, but determined it came down on the latter side of this line. There were no “personalised terms” in what he wrote. His condemnation of Islam was “clearly comment” and his reference to the complainant (Ms Manji) “triggered a discussion”.
This is difficult, tricky and emotive territory. The IPSO’s predecessor, the PCC, dealt with similar issues. The consideration of cases was incredibly detailed. Sometimes, as in the case of Jan Moir’s report of Stephen Gately’s death, we could not find a breach of the Code. But on other occasions – AA Gill’s attack on Clare Balding, Rod Liddle’s character assassination of young black men – we did, and did so on a firm basis.
So do I think my successors have got this one right in terms of the Code, never mind morals or ethics? The short but cautious answer is No.
I say this with careful and due respect, but the “wood” seems to have been missed for the “trees” here. The article clearly suggests that any and all Muslims would have been inappropriate to appear in that role on that day – simply by virtue of their faith. Do we say the same about Christians ? – well, actually, if it is Christians visibly wearing a crucifix, then yes, we have done as MacKenzie rightly pointed out in the original and subsequent column. So the argument isn’t straight forward although I bet you will see many more women wearing headscarves than crosses. But a numerical argument doesn’t necessarily make something right or wrong in terms of ethics.
No, my concern with the IPSO ruling is that in my view, MacKenzie’s remarks were inevitably personal, inevitably pejorative and fundamentally misleading .
Take Ms Manji out of the article and what have you got? Not very much. The whole structure is unnecessarily built around her appearance, and what she was wearing. And the argument is vicious, xenophobic, generalised. You can’t have people – and in this case “people” means Ms Manji – who identify as Muslims reading the news because “Islam is a violent religion”. That’s your lot!
I get the point about intolerance and racism in society. These are real issues and strong and enforced anti-discrimination legislation is part of our response to that. But this ruling does not mean “bigotry is now officially sanctioned.” It is already and sadly well embedded. This is just embroidery.
There is a real debate to be continued about displaying religious affiliation in public life. I used to think this was always problematic. Now I’m not so sure. But given the way our society is, to use one young Muslim woman as a battering ram for an argument that is as much about privatising Channel 4 as anything else is crass, unhelpful and in terms of the Editor’s Code should be actionable.
But irrespective of debates about regulation, the way MacKenzie makes his point represents something very unpleasant and corrosive in our society. I was reassured to see Manji teaming up with Gary Lineker (who also had a busy day on Thursday) under the umbrella of the admirable Hope Not Hate campaign group. I hope you will visit their pages and support their work.
Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014