MacKenzie and Sun Equally Culpable For Horrendous Barkley Own-Goal

Ross Barkley celebrates Everton’s second goal against Burnley on Saturday

In my six years of adjudicating on complaints against the press,1 I am struggling to think of a case as bad as Kelvin MacKenzie’s assault on footballer Ross Barkley last Friday.

This has nothing to do with the ability of journalists to be offensive or controversial. Both are the price of our relatively free press. But from a regulatory point of view, MacKenzie’s article scrapped well below the bottom of the barrel.

I’m not going to reprise his rant – why recirculate and give fresh impetus to such bile?  But the piece was inaccurate, and so misleading.  It failed to differentiate opinion from fact.  And it used a “protected characteristic” in way that was pejorative and gratuitous.  All these things cross the red lines of the self-regulatory Editors’ Code.

But there are two things in addition  that take us to a new level. First,  the timing.  The article was published on the eve of the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 supporters from Liverpool lost their lives at the afore-mentioned stadum.  Either MacKenzie was aware of the date and ploughed on regardless.  Or he wasn’t which given his own personal involvement in mis-reporting the event in question is a profound act of self-serving amnesia.  Irrespective of the explanation, it is spectacularly insensitive.

And second, how did the article get from MacKenzie’s keyboard into the Sun?  Who proofed it? Who subbed it?  Who found the images and who laid out the page?  Again, two possible explanations:  Either MacKenzie, as a former editor and long-established figure, was given “carte blanche” to do as he pleased.  Or the editorial control was utterly lacking.  Either way, the failure of effective editorial oversight is truly shocking.  That is surely a question of standards that must be addressed.

The failure of editorial oversight is not just about the specific article, it is about the Sun’s standing and sales.  Other commentators have already speculated that commercially this episode could prove counter-productive in an almost existential sense. I am not so sure, but I do know that writing-off a whole region of the UK is a curious way to try to increase influence and revenue.

What was going on in the editor’s office of the Sun last Thursday night?  Was it some inexperienced southerner who has no idea of what this means on Merseyside and the North West generally? Was it someone who had the experience and knowledge but thought the notoriety would be somehow worth it?

I was at Goodison Park on Saturday and I have to say how wrong you can be. You could feel the resilience and unity of the capacity crowd over Hillsborough and Barkley. (And just by the way, referee Clattenberg was also wrong to book Barkley for his post-goal celebrations.  After the week he had been through, greater humanity should have been shown.)

However, there are two positives than we can take from this sorry mess.  The first is that People Power can and does work.  The public and business boycott of the Sun on Merseyside, now more widespread than ever, hits the company harder than can be quantified.  And second, that the ‘paper themselves suspended McKenzie shows that the reconfiguration of   how press complaints are investigated –so that they have a primary hard-wired responsibility to own and act on complaints – is having some effect.

But what we surely need is a proactive culture rather than a reactive remedy.  This was serious error of both judgement and procedure by the Sun.  With freedom comes responsibility. They need to stop up the bottle and leave the last-chance saloon, dispense with Kelvin MacKenzie – and to programme their IT systems to delete any copy containing the words “Football” and “Merseyside”

 

 

1 I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014

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