Did Press Get It Right Over Westminster Terror Attack Coverage?


As the immediacy of the Westminster terrorist attack starts to fade, and before we get entirely preoccupied with the forthcoming election, I wonder if an opportunity has been taken to reflect on how the fast-moving and deeply disturbing events of 23 March were covered by the media, and the press in particular.

I am clearly not alone in this.  The Guardian’s Vicky Frost wrote round to all of that newspaper’s “members” to solicit views.  As she rightly  wrote:  “Lots of things have to happen very quickly: we need to understand what’s happening and blog it live; monitor sources, competitors and social media to see what new facts are emerging; get reporters on the ground … begin assessing pictures and video as they come in; and of course decide what we should include in our coverage.”

Asking your readers if they thought your editorial decision making was correct is a welcome dollop of humility in a world of amour-propre.  It is also an explicit recognition of the power, still, in newspapers to set the news agenda rather than simply report on it.

The Guardian was following its own Simon Jenkins, who wrote on the morning after the attack that media hype had exaggerated the event to such an extent that they had become “an accomplice after the fact” and in effect constituted “an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.”

There is a historical resonance to this starving of the oxygen of publicity, as a former PM said about the IRA leadership.  The apartheid regime in South Arica used to simply ban references to/by people they didn’t like.

To be clear, Jenkins was not advocating state censorship, but he was calling for much greater self-restraint and a higher calibre of editorial control than currently exits. So was he right?  How should Guardian readers reply to Vicky Frost’s invitation?

I think that there are four areas of debate.

First, the exaggerated over-exposure.

I simply don’t agree.  There was no glamorisation.  This was a major news story.  It was a shock but surely not a surprise. And the shock-waves rippled far and wide. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen or it was somehow routine.

And in  this age of instant digital, multi-platform news,  in a physical space where these is a huge concentration of  journalists and  individuals  who are intensely media-savvy,  you have  perfect, potent combination  of  an arresting news story,  lots of news space to fill,  and lots of people who are adept at filling it.

Second, publishing pictures of people in distress

The decision to publish was proportionate.  We should be slow to hide the grief, destruction and violence of terrorism and the response (sometimes heroic) to it.

Third, publishing a picture of the attacker either dead or near-death

This is the trickiest one.  It is an exciting image which was widely circulated.  I suppose one argument is whether or not he had any legitimate expectation of privacy.  This generally disappears when one starts murdering passers-by and police officers.

Another argument would be the clear ethic identity of the attacker.  But was revealing this pejorative or discriminatory?  I don’t think so.

Fourth, why so much overage of what happened in Westminster, when events in the UK or abroad of equal or greater gravity are marginalised.  I refer you back to my first point.   And newspapers are almost universally preoccupied with what is happening closest to home.

So in a nutshell, I think the Guardian got it right, and Simon Jenkins’ argument is well and sincerely made but has no traction in this specific situation.

But there is no doubt that our self-regulated newspaper industry needs to raise its game. Desperately. To deliberately mislead or allow a partisan editorial stance to infuse news coverage is one thing – and partly actionable under the Editor’s Code – but entrenched xenophobia, racism and sexism is profoundly unhelpful was well as ethically wrong and potentially illegal.  We are scarily not so far from the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headline and article, and the more recent “remoaners and sabboteurs” splash looks disturbingly like an invitation to lynch-mobbery.

We all need to be very careful indeed what we wish for.

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

IPSO’s Rebuke And The Sun’s Setting Standards

The so-called “Hijab-gate” row regarding the on-screen appearance of C4 newsreader Fatima Manji at the time of the Nice truck terror incident continues.

As Press Gazette has reported, press regulator IPSO has upheld a complaint that an article in The Sun (a member of IPSO) had inaccurately reported the numbers of refugees in Calais lying about their ages as part of an application to enter the UK. The newspaper was obliged to print a correction in print and on-line versions, and had failed to do the latter. Careless would be one, kind, description of this, er, oversight.

But twinned with this was a public criticism for IPSO Board Member Trevor Kavanagh – a senior Sun journalist – for criticising Ms Manji whilst she was pursuing a complaint against the Sun.

It’s worth citing the ruling on this from IPSO in full. After noting that Mr Kavanagh has no role in considering individual complaints, it said:

“IPSO is committed to ensuring that individuals who believe that they have been wronged by the press are able to seek proper redress without fear of retribution or victimisation. In this instance, public comments by an IPSO board member brought the strength of this commitment into question. This should not have happened.”

Mr Kavanagh has apologised and IPSO-sceptics Hacked Off has demanded his removal.  No surprises anywhere there.

But the Sun has form for being somewhat cavalier when it comes to the standards IPSO promote and that, through their membership, they have signed up to.  The ‘paper seemed to “declare war” on IPSO in a row over reports of the Queen’s position on Brexit. Its mealy-mouthed apology to Jeremy Corbyn  also attracted criticism.

So the question is fairly asked: How many “strikes” before you are “out” – out in this case meaning the involvement of IPSO’s still evolving Standards arm.

Hacked Off and others traduced the PCC and, I think, unfairly berate and under-rate IPSO.  On the plus side, there is now at least an acknowledgement and some focus on Standards issues. Last week saw new work on an arbitration scheme, a form of alternative dispute resolution that many thought would not be possible.  And IPSO Chairman Alan Moses has done wonders in securing finance from tight-pursed newspaper groups on a more ambitious scale than the PCC could achieve.

And yet it would be foolish and complacent to believe that this is sufficient. The phobic and often contradictory stance of many IPSO-supporting newspapers is frightening and cannot be conducive to a healthy, inclusive, confident, politics and society.  The New York Times “truth” campaign  in response to President Trump’s attitude to news media also talks to our experience in the UK.

That Mr Kavanagh was rebuked and called out for it  is right and important. The fact it happened on a Friday afternoon is unfortunate. The fact he can still sit on IPSO’s board rightly raises eyebrows.  But the real problem is that he and his Sun colleagues thought what they did was entirely ok.

Self-regulation depends on high levels of buy-in, self-awareness and self-restraint from those regulated. I need say no more.


Full disclosure: I was a Press Complaints Commissioner from 2008 to 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


Has The Sun Declared War on IPSO?


It sounds extra-ordinary, but it looks like the Sun has declared war on IPSO – the self –regulatory body for the press.  And in doing so has possibly cast doubt on the future of self-regulation itself.

Firstly, though, let’s note a significant moment. For the first time IPSO have exercised their new powers to deal with misleading headlines.  The Sun claimed, in a front page splash, that Her Majesty was in favour of a Brexit from the EU.  Buckingham Palace complained.  The newspaper refused to apologise so IPSO’s Complaints Committee ruled. The ‘paper had to print their adjudication in full and publicise that on their front page.

Being able to act on misleading headlines is long overdue. The willingness of IPSO to do so is positive. And the organisation’s work on building high standards into the everyday culture of newspapers is welcome. But it is only two cheers because IPSO also has the power to direct how its decisions are presented.  A banner at the bottom of the front page is  a clear improvement on the miniscule content  the last time  The Sun  got “done”  for a  front page  error.  But it still has nothing like the impact of the original story.  My view is clear:  If something was so important to warrant a front page splash and it turns out to be wrong – then the correction should have just as much prominence.

In fairness to IPSO, the decision was leading on most broadcast media this morning ahead of the eclipse caused by the Queen’s Speech (and perhaps the timing of the announcement could have been better for that reason). But take it from me, nothing and I mean nothing, acts as a reality- check for newspaper editors than having their front page taken away from them. That is why for the most serious breaches of the Editor’s Code, it is an absolutely appropriate sanction.

But the Sun’s response may come to be regarded as near-suicidal. I think it is possibly unprecedented – certainly in the post-Leveson era – for an editorial attacking the sanction to be published in the same edition! “We respect IPSO…but they got it wrong” is a reasonable paraphrasing.  This reassertion of faith in a headline that has been found to be unsupported by the story that follows it is surely the journalistic equivalent of sticking two fingers up. (Incidentally, in the same editorial they also claim to know what the Queen thinks)

“We don’t care what you say..ain’t no regulator gonna shut us up” seems to be the line.  But decry IPSO in this particular way and you invite attacks on the self-regulatory system.  For those that value a free presses, that is a very dangerous road to go down.

Full disclosure: I was a member of The Press Complaints Commission 2008-2014

Whittingdale Saga Proves Nothing About Press Self-regulation



Have you ever seen such a tawdry display?  The outpouring of indignation, vilification, justification, obfuscation that the now open story of the personal life of  John Whittingdale (above)  life has generated.

Let’s look at the arguments.

“This shows self-regulation works” say sections of the newspaper industry.  “There was no story here so we didn’t print it.”

Really?  So how come it feels like we have no end of stories exposing things that are private (private mind, not secret) on what seem too many very flimsy pretexts.   You would expect this story to make it into print 99 times out of a hundred. There may be nothing more newsworthy about it than the fact that sex sells papers. So why no coverage?

“There was no possible justification for intrusion into his private life” said a former senior editor of the News of the World. And we can ask “Really?”  a second time.  Because even though Mr Whittingdale was not a cabinet minister at the time, he was still a mighty influential figure as the chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Culture Media and Sport. Could this relationship cause his judgement to be questioned?

Morality seems often close to the lips (or letters) of this government’s members (of which Mr Whittingdale is of course one), from tax havens to welfare reforms. So might this matter raise ethical issues that could be considered newsworthy?

Is not the most likely reality  of the situation  that  this story was spiked when usually  it  would have gone to  press because  John Whittingdale, in political and  philosophical terms,  was perceived as a kindred spirit of  some newspaper proprietors or editors?  Whether it was an act of solidarity or because they feared the prospect of losing him, this issue was cursed with silence.

But even if certain newspapers have done the possibly right thing for almost certainly wrong reasons, critics of self-regulation need to be wary.

In timing that could  not have been more perfect,  self-regulatory body IPSO  hosted a “Reality Regulation”  review of their progress over the last two years  the evening  before  the Whittingdale story finally broke cover.  Many of the things critics said would not be possible have come to pass.  IPSO boss Alan Moses has had a notable success in ensuring reliable funding for the next three years.  The Editors’ Code – supervised by the Code Committee (which is distinct form IPSO)   has toughened the rules which newspapers have to live by in some important respects – especially relating to the role of headlines.  IPSOs standards work is, in my view, under-developed, but newspapers are now building compliance into their structures and having to have that scrutinised. If you  measure the progress  against  Martin Moore’s checklist, drawn  up  two years ago,  you  can  see why  the title IPSO picked for their lecture  was apposite.

We are a long way from perfection, or even satisfaction on press standards and press regulation. What distinguishes the non-appearance of the Whittingdale story is that many feel it is the exception and not the rule. That is the challenge for IPSO and the industry. Whether the current Secretary of State will be around to pass judgement on them is another matter.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the  Press Complaints Commission, IPSO’s predecessor, from 2008-2014

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post (UK) at http://huff.to/1WtTQ9k