Bigotry in the press – is generic hate acceptable?

Your average Parochial Church Council has more impact than the similarly acronymed Press Complaints Commission. The latter, which is little more than a luncheon club for newspaper owners and senior editors, is in the post-Leveson age a dead regulator walking, yet for now it continues to live, breath and dine on unreality.

On the matter of freelance gob Julie Burchill, whose hate-filled rant about transgender women I discussed within the Equality Council of the National Union of Journalists, the PCC has now seen fit to rule. More than 800 complaints were made by Observer readers and others who felt that Burchill’s article, since pulled by editor John Mulholland along with several thousand critical comments in an act of self-censorship, transgressed a moral boundary.

I was not among those who complained to the PCC against Burchill, as it was clear to me that her Observer piece, gut churningly vile though it was, did not breach the code. Morality, yes, and possibly also criminal law, but not the PCC code of practice.

Clause 12 of the PCC code reads as follows…

“(i) 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.

(ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.”

According to the above imperative Burchill did nothing wrong in attacking transgender women as a whole. Had she gone instead for a named individual, as Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn did recently in an article on Lucy Meadows, a transsexual primary school teacher who killed herself after being hounded by the press, the PCC might have been forced to act. The case against Littlejohn is still open, and a petition with two hundred thousand signatures calling for his defenestration is currently doing the rounds.

Many of the complainants against Burchill were aware of the distinction between generic and specific hate, and so appealed to Clause 1 of the PCC code, which refers to the publishing of inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. This covers news reporting, not opinion pieces, and so the PCC rejected the complaints against Burchill, stating that the writer had an inalienable right to offend. Indeed she does, but this misses a number of points that must be addressed in any discussion of press ethics and regulation.

The distinction between generic and specific hate is woefully inadequate, as the maligning of vulnerable social groups in the abstract can directly and indirectly provoke attacks on individuals in the real world. While it is difficult in practice to prosecute those who preach hatred against groups rather than unnamed persons, it is in principle possible. Opinions on this matter are divided both within and without our trade, but the issues surrounding hate speech and journalistic responsibility must be addressed, whatever one’s views on free speech and the role of criminal law.

For me as a journalist the examples of Burchill and Littlejohn are deeply shameful. Journalists and their union representatives have long been critical of the PCC. The NUJ calls for a regulator that serves all those affected by our work, and does not interfere with the operation of a free press. At present, however, we are so bound up with largely ideological arguments around the principle of statutory regulation that we neglect the need for an ethical framework that deals with real-world issues in practical ways.

As an individual journalist and media consumer I have a major problem with Brian Leveson’s proposals, and I also have doubts about the Royal Charter proposed by the UK government and official opposition. But when it comes to press ethics the devil is in the detail of the kind raised by Burchill and Littlejohn’s bigotry, not the staffing arrangements of a proposed press council.