Archive for Press Complaints Commission

The Balding Version

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from a period of rest and recuperation I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things by posting a few short items about things I found interesting in the papers. One item today caught my eye as it touches on a theme I’ve addressed before: Freedom of speech, and its limits.

This story concerns sports presenter Clare Balding who is apparently presenting a new TV series called Britain by Bike. I don’t know much about her or the new series, but it was reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by a person by the name of AA Gill who referred to her as

…the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation

Not very nice at all. I’m not linking to the original article (a) because it’s behind a paywall and (b) because I don’t want to send the Evil  Empire  of Murdoch any traffic. You can find the gist of it in a story at the Guardian.

I didn’t know that Clare Balding is a lesbian, but then there’s no reason why I should have thought about her sexuality as it’s not at all relevant to her job.  Apparently she is quite open about and comfortable with her orientation, but the obviously pejorative reference to the word “dyke” got her understandably riled. She complained to the Sunday Times editor, a nasty piece of work called John Witherow, who replied

In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.

Clare Balding was unhappy with the response, saying

This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me..

She has now made the matter to the Press Complaints Commission under article 12 of its Editor’s Code of Practice, which states

The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

There’s no denying that the word “dyke” is a pejorative term for a lesbian so one would imagine that this will be an open-and-shut case. Note also that the response from John Witherow explicitly refuses to accept the terms of article 12. Whether he likes it or not, sexual orientation is specifically protected in the Editor’s Code of Practice to which he is a signatory. John Witherow probably thinks so little of this code that he hasn’t even read it. If he is exonerated it will prove beyond any doubt that the Editor’s Code of Practice is simply a sham.

Whether the right to free speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is right that this matter should be dealt with outside the law courts. Gill’s comment may be nasty but I don’t think such things should be regarded as criminal, unless they are clearly intended to harrass. If, for example, he’d screamed the word dyke through her letterbox, I think that would be a criminal matter.

However, the problem with voluntary “codes of conduct” such as this – including those that form part of certain employment contracts – is that they usually amount to nothing other than window-dressing, at least when it comes to sexual orientation. The word “dyke” is as offensive to a lesbian as the word “faggot” is to a gay man, but cases involving these words are rarely taken as seriously as those involving racial or gender-based terms. Can you imagine the outcry if AA Gill had used the word “nigger” or “paki” in a review?

Mentioning “sexual orientation” in a list isn’t the same as taking the related prejudice seriously or trying to something about it. The fact of the matter is that lesbians and gay men may be more accepted in society now than they were twenty years ago, but there are still many walks of life in which this is not the case.  In fact, I think the depressing reality is that the vast majority of heterosexual people simply don’t like homosexual people and resent their apparent “acceptance”.  You can argue about the rights and wrongs of “politically correct language”, but the problem it is trying to address in this case is very real and it is often the only thing that prevents overt abuse, as indeed it is with racist abuse.

Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sunday Times gets away with this clear violation of the PCC code. It would just be another example of gross hypocrisy to add to the many that already demonstrate that political correctness is  a very thin veneer. Far better, in my view, to dispense with the code of practice altogether if this happens than keep it there and openly flout it. At least then we’d all know where we really stand.

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PC and the PCC (by PC)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 21, 2010 by telescoper

Another bit of news to emerge last week was the decision by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) not to censure the Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir for the truly odious article she wrote after the death of Stephen Gately. Even by the standards of the Daily Mail, this piece was so horrendous that it led to a Twitter storm and provoked no less than 25,000 complaints from the public in addition to a direct complaint from Stephen’s partner, Andrew Cowles. I even blogged about it here.

The PCC, however, decided not to uphold these complaints. I can’t say that I’m at all surprised at their decision and not surprised either that it has also led to many expressions of outrage via Twitter and elsewhere. In among all the noise there have also been some thoughtful blog posts giving more reasoned discussions of the outcome. If you’re interested, I recommend Unspeak,  The Free Speech Blog and Enemies of Reason for a range of different takes on the affair. I’m sure you will all have your own views on whether the PCC was right or wrong to let Jan Moir off the hook. My own opinion – for what it’s worth – is that they were partly right and partly wrong.

If you read the PCC announcement you will see that the complaints were made under three clauses of their code: 1 (which stipulates that articles must distinguish fact from conjecture), 5 (that reporting should be handled sensitively at a time of grief) and 12 (that articles must avoid pejorative references to an individual’s sexual orientation).

The overriding issue is, of course,  the freedom of the press. I quote

The price of freedom of expression is that often commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.

In other words, the price we have to pay for freedom of speech is that we have to allow people to say things we don’t like. I agree.

However, the PCC is a body formed by the press in order to regulate the press. This is tacit acceptance that freedom of speech has its limits. We  all know that there are things we shouldn’t say even though we have the right to say them. In private life our outbursts are controlled by social conventions or by guidelines issued by our employers governing conduct in the workplace. Political Correctness is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes, but its primary aim is, in my opinion, laudable – to be aware of the possibly pejorative interpretation of certain words and avoid using them in a way that could cause offence. The PCC plays a similar role for the press.  Conscious of the harm that can be caused by extremely prejudicial articles, the press has subjected itself to voluntary regulation.

I think that’s a good thing, in principle. The alternative would be official censorship and the further intrusion of the criminal law into matters of individual expression. However, self-regulation must not be mere window-dressing. Any organization can publish codes of conduct and the like, but unless they are applied rigorously and in good faith they are nothing other than exercises in hypocrisy.

It’s clear that the PCC found much of Moir’s article extremely distasteful but did not feel that she had offended sufficiently in respect of any of the clauses to warrant censure. I think they were right on Clause 1 – the piece was clearly identifiable as comment rather than fact – and I’m not sure about Clause 5. I’m convinced, however, that they got it wrong with respect to Clause 12. You can make your own mind up, of course, but if that is their decision in this case I’d like to know what sort of article they would censure.

In particular, the adjudication on Clause 12 states

While many complainants considered that there was an underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay, it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article. The columnist had not used pejorative synonyms for the word “homosexual” at any point.

The Commission made clear that this part of the Code was not designed to prevent discussion of certain lifestyles or broad issues relating to race, religion or sexuality. There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals, and the Code was designed to constrain the latter rather than the former.

Jan Moir’s article mocked Stephen Gately’s relationship with his partner as “unnatural”, implied that all gay relationships are tainted with sleaze, and suggested that gay people are all promiscuous drug-users. However, a panel of (presumably heterosexual) press pundits decided that it was not sufficiently homophobic to warrant censure, since they didn’t actually call Stephen Gately a faggot. I wonder what might have happened if a young black pop singer had died suddenly and Jan Moir had written an article suggesting that all black people were promiscuous drug-users living unnatural and debauched lives?

This is why I’m not surprised at the PCC conclusion. Guidelines and codes of conduct are just words. They only actually mean anything if they are enforced, and when it’s a matter of sexual orientation they rarely are. The PCC has given carte blanche to Jan Moir’s bigotry but since 99% of what’s in the Daily Mail is horrendous anyway, nothing much has changed.

What is more interesting, I think, is that this episode contains fascinating glimpses of the future. This morning I bought my regular Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Like all print media, newspapers are struggling to survive in a period of rapid technological change. The Observer has this week been re-launched, in a condensed form, because it is losing money hand-over-fist. Digital media, social networking and blogs are taking over from traditional formats as ways of communicating news and opinion about current events. Newspapers are dying, and the PCC will die with them. I doubt if it will be mourned.

The point is that although the press regularly make noises about freedom of speech, the freedoms most newspapers really care about are the freedom to make money and the freedom to promote the political views of the barons that control them. There are exceptions of course. I’m sure some journalists are motivated by democratics ideals and a desire for public good, atlhough I doubt if many of them work for the Daily Mail.  But the traditional press is in any case losing its grip. News websites may continue to exist, but the ability of large media conglomerates to control what we can read about is vanishing. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The New Media  sector has only minimal regulation and is consequently more diverse than the popular press. It’s anarchistic, I suppose, but is accessible and  democratic as a result. I don’t see any way that the blogosphere will ever be policed, voluntarily or otherwise. Nor do I think that’s desirable. There are dark corners where horrible creatures lurk. Nasty stuff will emerge. However, if somebody publishes something obnoxious it will be greeted with the same sort of reaction as Jan Moir’s article. There’ll be no PCC to hide behind. As the PCC itself made clear

Indeed, the reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard.

Twitter mobs aren’t always pretty, and they don’t always get it right,  but they’re the future. Get used to them.