MacKenzie hijab row: Does Regulator’s Ruling Miss Wood for Trees?

(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


London and the Railways – Time to Change Direction?


I’m a Londoner and I love my home city. But I very much fear that we are at the point of losing the plot with HS2 and CR2. These are not postcodes for the Isle of Lewis and Croydon but rail projects to link London and the North (HS2), and the north-eastern Home Counties with their counterparts in the south-east via central London (CR2).

The arguments in support of the two schemes are quite distinct. HighSpeed2, initially to Birmingham and then out and up to Leeds maybe and Manchester certainly and Sheffield possibly would move people between all points along the route at a faster rate than currently.  50% off of the journey time to Brum, 40 minutes from Brum to Manc. Inter-city double –quick.  Linked to the development are attractive economic growth figures – an increase in output in the West Midlands of up to £3.1bn by 2037 according to KPMG. This will “heal the north-south divide” and be “the engine for growth in the North and Midlands”.

CrossRail2 has blossomed following the progress and near completion of the east-west CrossRail1, and is championed by the government’s Treasury Infra-structure Team. This will link currently ill served population areas much more directly with London – particularly the Lea Valley in the north-north-east, and commuter Surrey and north-west Sussex. And all via Victoria to relieve the full-to-capacity Waterloo (which clearly has met its own, in terms of operational reliability).

But are the improvements in journey times posted by HS2 really needed? Current service levels are hardly pedestrian. The overall cost is uncertain and (on the basis of past large –spend, large–scale exercises) almost certain to increase significantly. Is the disruption – in demolished and blighted homes and spoilt countryside –  justified?

And CR2 may work for at the north-east end (for some it perhaps can’t come quickly enough),  could suppress  traffic growth at  Waterloo, and has parts of south and south-west London  spoiling for a fight (Balham and Tooting,  I’m  talking  about you), but resistance is strong in Wimbledon mostly, one suspects,  because the  published plans see the town centre turned into a building site for  10 years.

All piffle you might say. You can’t make these two omelettes without breaking eggs.  And look at the benefits of HS1 and The Elizabeth Line (as CR1 is to be known).

Yes, yes, alright. These projects have acquired the allure of success. And every large project probably always has generated resistance from those displaced, from slum clearances  to tranquil villages .  I am neither unconcerned nor dismissive of this, but my beef is that the stated aims of both projects will simply just not be realised.

I know that I am not alone in fearing that the net result will be to drag people and resources into the already bloated super-conurbation of London. I don’t think that is good for London, the south-east or the rest of the country.

If you cut journey times to Birmingham to under an hour, it becomes absorbed into the south-east labour market, and whilst CR2 is presented as being necessary  to cope with  pre-existing economic growth,  the reality  is that  it will be used as springboard for even further growth that could smother any extra capacity. It seems to me that whichever way you cut it, the fundamental problem of both the HS2 and CR2 projects is that the orientation is wrong. It’s stuck on “suck” instead of “blow”. I do not buy the argument that endless infinite growth is either possible or desirable for London and the south-east: The obese diner at Table UK, sitting opposite lean, hungry or even malnourished other regions.

The imbalance between London and the south-east and the rest of the UK is already arguably problematic.   Within London there are pressures on housing, education and services that will not be aided by increasing the intensity of commuter traffic and already-projected increases in population. And from a national perspective, if there is finance available and these schemes bring  benefits, , should not HS3 (aka High Speed North) get a priority call? How can it still take so long to get from  York to Liverpool? A hour from Leeds to Manchester looks decidedly slow.

The well being of us all is improved by turning the rhetoric of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality. There is enough wealth and resource to go round in this country of ours – if only we decided to distribute it right.

And in that very real sense, HS2 and CR2 are reflective of our politics as a whole.

This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


A picture is worth a thousand words? No – this one is worth far more. This is the CWU’s newly elected National Youth Committee. As most readers know, my day job is working for the Communications Workers’ Union, so I say this with feeling: No pressure ladies and gents, but the future of the union lies with you.

This is not hyperbole. The average age of a CWU branch secretary is 53-and-a-half.  The average age of all CWU reps is 50.  “Young” for us is 29 and under.  They are the  leadership  of not just 18,000 of their fellow young members,  but  also  the  agents of  change,  the next generation,  the key ingredient  that  will take us forward.

We represent people in posts, telecoms financial and business services sectors.  And we are good at what we do.  Our membership density in the larger employers we work with is touching or over 90%.  For the private sector, with membership levels across the whole economy of around 16%, this is astonishing.

If you look at our core sectors,   we  surpass the  national average across private and public employers of  26%  trade union  density – we represent  around 30%  of all telecoms  workers and 50% of  all postal and courier sector employees1.

And we recruit. 12,000 new members in a year – 5,500 of them young workers.

So the future is not only in good hands but looking secure – right?


CWU membership has fallen from a peak of nearly 300,000 in 1998 to just over 190,000 now.  One employer, the GPO,   has now become dozens.  There are over 7 thousand telcos in the UK1.  The sectors in which we organise are increasingly and intensely competitive.  Theresa May  may talk  “one nation”  politics  but  the party which she leads rammed through the  ultra-hostile Trade Union Act – this is a government that can fairly  be described as hating who we are and what we do.

And recruitment? It is a fantastic achievement to   bring in so many new members each year.  But we lose still more.  And many new members are part-timers and those who leave are full timers. So money is tight. But incoming young members did exceed young leavers by nearly 3,000 last year.

So to hear a room full of young members (and those pictured necessarily exclude colleagues who  just couldn’t make the meeting) talk  about  their  experiences  at work and of the union,  about  how and why  they became more involved,  about the personal  struggles and  bad management   they already  have had to  deal with,  about their  abiding  commitment to workplace respect and democracy, decent  jobs,   wanting  to  make change  happen at work and in society,  is just the best  thing.

And of course they are not alone. Despite everything, there are still 6 million trade unionists in the UK, the country’s largest social movement by far. And the “union premium” is shown in higher pay and better conditions.

The media attitude to Trade Unions is downright contradictory: derided as irrelevant, unnecessary and marginalised generally, but purveyors of destructive power when we are driven to take strike action. That’s the narrative perpetuated in spite of days lost to industrial action being historically low, the likes of Sports Direct and Philip Green, Citylink and Hermes showing why capitalism can’t be trusted, and trade union campaigns on working time, health and safety, equality  and employment protection being adopted and accepted as the norm.

One thing is for sure: If unions didn’t exist, we would miss them in all sorts of ways we don’t even realise.

And one more thing for sure is that these young reps show we have a bright, hopeful future.

1 “Mapping the Future” (CWU, 2010 and 2015)

This piece also appears on the website of CWUYouth. To Join the CWU, click here



We Must Fight This Retreat From Britain’s Liberal And Open-minded Traditions (or Who Will Save Us?)


WE MUST FIGHT THIS RETREAT FROM BRITAIN’S LIBERAL AND OPEN-MINDED TRADITIONS.  There, I’ve said it. In fact, by using capitals, I’ve SHOUTED it. Just like the UK’s Sunday Observer did – heralding a virtually full-page editorial under this headline by quoting large chunks of it all over their front page. It. Is. Clearly. A . Big. Deal.

And it truly is. The Observer opines that there is “a gross whiff of xenophobia” and “an inescapable undertone of racism and intolerance.”

The cause?  Brexit. Of course.

In the newspaper’s habitually excellent writing, the government are characterised as “wreckers. They are reckless. They are irresponsible. They know only what they do not like.” “There is a clear tendency……to interpret the referendum results as an unambiguous support for a divisive, right-wing agenda.

The newspaper is, if course, absolutely right.  But, to coin a modern idiom, “No Sh*t Sherlock”. Of course Brexit has been crucial in all this – part catalyst, part catharsis, part turbo-charged accelerator. Of course we  – surely including  some  who  voted Leave – knew in our gut,  what forces had been waited in the wings –  swivel-eyed lunacy legitimised, bedlam being brought  home. That’s why as we struggled to comprehend what we collectively had done on that June morning, a sense of disgust, incomprehension and fear gripped so many.

So yes, Brexit is bad, but Brexit is real and in that sense nothing has changed these past three months.  So just what is the Observer going on about?

Might it be the slew of announcements from the Tory Party conference?  It certainly was a busy week for them in Birmingham.  I reckon Jeremy Hunt  owes Home Secretary Amber Rudd a massive “thank you”  as  her musings on  how businesses should name  all their foreign workers   eclipsed his lambasted  proposals that we would end the “reliance”  of the NHS on foreign  doctors post-Brexit.

But as Ms Rudd’s ideas were discussed, dissected and disposed of, evidence of one of those post-referendum changes was apparent on social media.  Ok, social  media is  notoriously irrational, but comments in discussion threads about the echoes of pre–war Nazi Germany were certainly disturbing, although perhaps the comments themselves  recalled for me haunting texts like The Secret Purposes or Dominion .

But over the last couple of days, discussions with EU-born UK-resident friends has validated the on-line gloom (or is it vice-versa?). These are people whose roots here are established over decades, whose children were born here, whose contribution to our communities is objectively considerable. But they struggle to remain physically upright in the teeth of a gale of media-driven hostility, under a cloud of deliberately cultured uncertainty, clearly distressed and possibly depressed by the feelings of abandonment.

But this is not the target or destination for the Observer’s epic editorial.  Yes, Brexit is bad, the Tories are worse, and the third part is that Corbyn needs to lead.  He needs to lead because, goodness knows, we must have an effective opposition.

The Labour leader’s position on and contribution to the Brexit debate has been subject to many, many debates.  One thing I think we can safely assert is that his stance on this is not going to be changed by a newspaper editorial (however impassioned and erudite).

So has the Observer’s grand eloquence been to no avail?

I think not, and here’s why.

Despite my wry “nothing new here” assessment, the Observer raises two really important points.  This first, positively, is to link our struggles and debates today with those of over two hundred years ago when Thomas Paine wrote “The Rights of Man”. The connection is valid and timely and reminds us that these are not trivial matters and we are not the first generation to have had to deal with them.

The second, less positively, is that the Observer editorial could have been subtitled, as is this piece, with “Who Will Save Us?

Well, we have a right to expect good governance, and some laws to encourage that.  We have a legitimate expectation of strong leadership, and there can be no doubting the support for the leaders of both main parties from their peers. I believe too in an empowering state (along with, it seems, the Prime Minister). But ultimately, we cannot rely or expect anyone to do more to rescue us – if indeed we need rescuing – then we ourselves.

It is the behaviours we model, the way we act, the choices we make, the interactions we have with each other. We have (usually) direct personal control over these things. No-one can take that responsibility away. But it is also a huge opportunity and power for good.

How ironic that the most potent defence of collective ideals and values lies in individuals’ acts of affirmation, resistance, solidarity and common humanity. There still has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


Unpaid Interns – Still with Us, Still an Issue


“Be an intern for us!” opened the email that had plonked into my in-box.  That made me pause – interns had been almost eclipsed in my mind by zero- hour contracts, Sports Direct and other precarious and/or unsavoury employment models .

But you do remember interns?  Or rather remember all the fuss about unpaid internships?  Ringing a bell?  We used to think this was scandalous and shouted loudly about it.  We still do think it’s a scandal, but somehow don’t seem to be so bothered – or are we just fatigued?  Have enough employers woken up smelt the coffee, and paid their interns to blunt to edge of our argument and anger?

Interns are still a big issue in the UK. The Sutton Trust reckons one-third of all internships are still unpaid, yet according to YouGov only 4% of us can afford to do that.  Is the sad truth that  the concept  of  doing unpaid work  to  get  your foot half on the ladder is firmly  embedded in many sectors – and with  so many  other battles to fight and injustices  to right,  it has  fallen off our campaigning agenda.

This is understandable but it is a debate that must not die. Unpaid work was and is and will always be problematic. All most of us have to sell is our labour.  And we need to generate income to live. So a set up that makes unpaid work the unavoidable entry point pulls the rug out from anyone who can’t afford to work for free.

Somehow this has become a “good thing” – look at what your interns can do for you purrs Business Insider.  Getting paid?  Well, it’s just a choice you make, swaggers Forbes Magazine.

But look again at the excellent briefing material produced by campaign group Intern Aware, the TUC and National Union of Students.  Employers still are prone to not pay interns but treat them as workers (a definite no-no to be exposed), and the reasons to pay interns are overwhelming, including the notional cost to graduates.

The current legal position  leans more towards the Forbes’ view of the world, than mine.  Yes, there are paid internships  across a range of sectors, but there is still no standard template.  Size of employer does not seems to be the determining factor – small London based charities such as the Point of Care Foundation  (POCF) seemed to decide that if  there were to be internships, then they would darn well be paid. However, creative outfits like Bombus – whose email grabbed my attention – didn’t. So I did a little digging.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that size does matter. POCF have 12 employees – Bombus only 6.  It is arguable that the affordability of paid internships is determined in the space between them – but therefore inarguable that larger employers could and should pay their interns.

But given just how small Bombus is – net assets of scarcely more than £100k, – surely their unpaid internships would prove to be nothing more than a ruse to increase resource for free? “ In terms of studio production time and administration it’s actually quite a costly exercise for a small company such as ours. Our interns do not arrive in the first week equipped with the level of quality in their hand-making skills to be able to offer ‘labour’ to us,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We advertise the intern scheme locally only for obvious, practical reasons. Yes, we post it on our social media and our blog but effectively, the intention of that is to give our customers and users an insight into our company and how we operate. Our studio is in a rural location, not served by any public transport. All transport costs are reimbursed in full to our interns.

Our intern scheme is there to support especially local design students and graduates who are often required to fulfil a curriculum module of workplace experience. We offer a hands-on, highly practical and fully-mentored 2 week internship, involving all aspects of our design and production methods, potentially giving them valuable skills to include on their CV for their future career paths.

And yes, often we do ask some interns to join us on a fully-paid position on either a part-time, full-time or temporary basis, depending on the company’s requirements at that time.”

It seems to me that Bombus make an important point well.  It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. A good quality internship consists much more than money, and the cost employers are prepared to bear is found not just in pay rates.

But this is an extremely limited illustration. And the candid nature of their response to my enquiries shows a self-confidence that I often find lacking in business.  There is a clear agenda for government here  – to provide a platform of employment standards that all employers are expected and supported to meet, to ensure young adults leave school with the right skills and knowledge, to ensure that there are enough routes into the labour market so that local internships don’t become a Hobson’s Choice with their quality  being a matter of  discretion not obligation.

That’s surely all common sense isn’t it?