Immigrants, Asylum Seekers, and Ethnic and Religious Minorities in the Leveson Report

Published 4 December 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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Leveson! Over two thousand pages spanning four volumes, eagerly awaited by the press corps and political class, and finally revealed last Thursday afternoon. The “Leveson Report”—officially, “An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices, and Ethics of the Press”—summarized the results of a large-scale investigation of journalism, sparked by revelations of phone-hacking and other dubious practices alleged of the British press.

A prime recommendation of the report was for a new self-regulatory body for the press, backed by statute. Not surprisingly, in the few days since its release, much of the debate has focused on prospective policy issues, and whether the press should self-regulate (to higher standards) at the risk of continuing misconduct, or whether there should be legislation to enforce standards, at the risk of jeopardising free speech. Others have taken a look back at some of the egregious episodes of misconduct, such as phone-tapping of celebrities and even ordinary people who suddenly found themselves in the news due to tragic circumstances.

Coverage: discrimination and falsehoods
But for all of the high-profile issues in the media that led to the inquiry and the report, there were also many questions about more day-to-day media activities that had also raised concerns. Tucked away in section 8, volume II, is a section entitled “Representation of Women and Minorities” that should hold special interest for many COMPAS followers. Here, Leveson reviews submitted evidence from numerous advocacy groups who criticize elements of the press for the way they represent and discuss women and minorities, including immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims. The report also reviews newspapers’ evidence in their own defense.

Leveson’s verdict will probably please those who submitted evidence about negative and unfair portrayals. Leveson concludes that “there has been a significant tendency within the press to publish “prejudicial or pejorative references to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental illness or disability” (section 8.52 of the report). The report is careful to avoid blanket condemnation, noting that “the evidence was not all bad” (8.50) and that the offending coverage is confined to certain segments of the press. Nonetheless, the report sees inaccurate and discriminatory coverage as enough of a problem to speak clearly of the need for a revision to the Editors’ Code of Practice to handle discrimination complaints better: “A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints” (8.52).

This recommendation stems from a combination of problematic coverage and an existing Code that makes it difficult to raise complaints about discrimination. First, the coverage: one thing that comes to light in the report is a series of outright false stories, featuring headlines with the ring of absurdist parody about them – “Asylum seekers eat our donkeys” (Star), “Poppies banned in terror hotspots” (Star), “Muslim plot to kill the pope” (Express), and, of course, “Swan Bake (Sun),” which claimed that Eastern European asylum seekers were dining on swans they poached from London lakes and ponds. Each of these tabloid stories turned out to be not only sensationalistic and hostile to minority groups, but also entirely inaccurate (8.37, 8.47).

Individual victim or group discrimination
Academic literature is cited to make more systematic points. A study by Paul Baker of Lancaster University concluded that “implicitly negative representations” of Muslims were more common than blatant derogation, while a Cardiff group’s study showed that “references to radical Muslims outnumber references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one” (8.42, quoting from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.) This is useful example of how even limited, hand-coded quantitative data can shine a light on press coverage, although Leveson was at pains to note that violations of good practice cannot be cancelled out if outnumbered by good stories.

But people and groups wishing to stop this sort of coverage face an important obstacle in the existing Code, which is why Leveson suggests re-examination of the Code under a new regulator. Complaints against discriminatory coverage (on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other category as well) are difficult to sustain in the existing code unless there is an individual who is subject to discrimination or derogation. For an “attack” that is “directed at [a] religious group in general,” it is not clear that the Code’s anti-discrimination provisions have been violated.

This does not mean that the egregious coverage cited above is protected within the present Code. In fact, the Code’s first provision proscribes “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.” False stories such as “Swan Bake” represent clear violations of the Code. But what becomes more difficult to address is coverage that is not demonstrably false, and lacks an individual victim, but which creates a negative and distorted picture of a group nonetheless. Leveson takes a strong line that this sort of coverage should be tackled somehow in a new regulatory regime: “...issues arise in relation to the interpretation and application of clause 12 of the Editors’ Code, and the arguable need to identify an individual target of discrimination, but the key point which falls to be made in the present context is the need for regulator with the ability and power to grapple with these issues and set appropriate standards” (8.45).

Beyond the practical dimensions of the Code and the challenges for any new regulator, it is fascinating to note the individualistic way of diagnosing discrimination, which is fundamentally group-based. The group-based nature of discrimination may seem obvious, but clearly it can be difficult to account for in a legal and political system that is centered on the rights and obligations of individuals. Thus, we have a system where prejudicial reporting violates the Code only if it is clearly inaccurate (in which case prejudice does not constitute the offense at all) or if it picks out an individual. Ironically, then, it is the association of an individual with a derogated group, and not the derogation of the group itself, that the Code is designed to prevent.

Racism and sexism
Finally, two interesting juxtapositions caught my eye. First, while Leveson saw considerable evidence of negative depictions of immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims, there was apparently little sign of prejudice against Black Britons or British Asians (except to the extent that they are also Muslim). The only time that anti-black racism arises in this section of the report is when Leveson praises the Daily Mail for its relentless, anti-racist coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder (8.50). This may be suggestive for thinking about the changing nature of inter-group relations in Britain, with lines of contestation perhaps shifting from race to nationality, immigration status, and religion.

Second, Leveson also catalogues and takes seriously considerable evidence of demeaning coverage of women, also recommending that a new regulator find a way to take complaints from representative women’s groups. Yet there is an interesting differentiation between racism and sexism in the introduction to the section of the report. On one hand, “material which is pornographic and demeaning to women” is described as “offensive to many” but raising questions about whether a free press is permitted to be “tasteless.” In direct opposition, Leveson notes that “most people would argue that obviously racially offensive material…should be capable of being the subject of regulatory comment notwithstanding the absence of an obvious first party complainant.”

I wondered about the reference to a hypothetical “most people” as a reference point for this distinction, and, more than that, whether “most people” reading this blog would agree that racism demands regulation but demeaning women may be merely “tasteless.”