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Press regulator has no minimum standards on racism

See no evil: The Press Complaints Commission don't believe whole nations or communities have a case against racial stereotyping

The Daily Mail was entitled to label Haiti a “voodoo island of the damned” because they were not insulting any individual, according to the newspaper regulator.

As we highlighted last month, in the wake of the devastating earthquake that claimed over 150,000 lives and left millions injured or homeless the Mail ran a two-page feature which claimed Haiti was “cursed” because of cannibalism and witchcraft in its’ history.

But today the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) ruled that the article was not racist or discriminatory.

The PCC’s code of practice committee is chaired by the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre. Members of the PCC board include Peter Wright, the Mail on Sunday’s editor, and a number of other editors.

The PCC, which is the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body, has previously cleared The Sun after a piece insulting Muslims was deemed not to have been directed at any one person. That ruling was branded a “green light” for newspapers to stereotype communities and faiths.

The latest decision will also raise further question marks over the effectiveness of the PPC in discouraging newspapers from printing racist opinions.

Last month the Labour MP Dawn Butler expressed disgust at the Mail’s piece on Haiti, writing: “one cannot help but feel that the writer is nearly salivating at the prospect of describing some of the country’s recent bloody and painful incidents in lurid detail. No one would deny the evil of those years, but why has the Mail chosen this inappropriate time to raise the horrors from Haiti’s past?”

The Mail’s article appeared at the height of media coverage about the disaster, when the world was alarmed at the suffering of the Haitian people and the humanitarian appeal was in full swing.

The feature, written by Andrew Malone, appeared timed to lessen sympathy for the plight of Haitians at this crucial time and implied that the island was paying the price for its’ past spiritual practices.

Under the headline “Haiti: Rape, murder and voodoo on the Island of the Damned”, Malone went on to describe in detail accounts of cannibalism, and the gouging out of eyes, lungs and hearts.

In a complaint to the PPC, OBV Blog’s editor Lester Holloway argued that the article’s focus on cannibalism and voodoo encouraged a stereotype of Haitians, and “betrayed a clear and strong undercurrent of racism”.

But the PPC ruled that the paper had done nothing wrong because “Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code [of Practice] prohibits newspapers from making pejorative or prejudicial reference to an individual’s race. In this instance, the complainant had expressed concern that the article was discriminatory towards Haitians in general. Given that the article had not referred to a particular individual, the Commission could not find a breach of Clause 12 of the Code.”

Commenting on the ruling, Holloway said: ‘The Press Complaints Commission has once again been shown to be less than useless when it comes to protecting us against racial stereotyping, no matter how explicit or vile.

‘The complete absence of any standards on racial stereotyping means that, on this question alone, we have no more regulation in Britain today than existed in pre-war Germany when it came to the stereotyping of Jews in newspapers at that time.

‘As a journalist, I’ve always believed in a free press, but with freedom comes responsibility. That means when the press abuse that responsibility, as I believe the Daily Mail did in the case of Haiti, they should be held to account.

‘The PCC should be about setting standards but when it comes to racism, the PCC clearly has no standards at all. In that respect they are out of step with society. Many people who believe in press freedom also believe that where newspapers overstep the mark they should at least be told off.

‘The fact that the PPC thinks it’s acceptable that whole communities, nations and faiths can be portrayed as vicious, and almost sub-human, is nothing short of a disgrace and it casts a huge question mark over the self-regulation watchdog itself. This is a long-running problem that needs to be addressed by serious reform.

‘The Mail’s article was particularly nasty coming at the height of the Haitian disaster when we were witnessing heartbreaking scenes with so many bodies on those streets and so much suffering.’

By Staff Writer

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4 Responses

  1. What precisely were the grounds of complaint? Are there any appeal provisions or is the decision final?

    • Thank you for the response. If it is believed that the Code is potentially inadequate in places and lacks the protection for some that it ought to, may be now might be the time to start a debate on that point.

  2. @Ryan, I complained under Clause 5 (Discrimination) which prohibits newspapers from making pejorative or prejudicial reference to an individual’s race.

    The key word here is “individual”. I was aware of the PCC’s blindspot towards racism against a whole community, but when this horrible article appeared I thought it was worth revisiting the lack of moral standards when it comes to whole communities in their Code.

    As far as I know, there is no appeal outside the law. The PCC invited me to challenge any factual inaccuracies in their decision, but to be honest I can’t see any. It’s a problem with the Code itself.

    The PCC’s blindspot towards racism against a community or faith group as a whole fails to recognise that exceptionally awful articles do indeed amount to an attack on each and every individual within that community.

    Some people want the PCC abolished, in fact there were calls for this after they backed the bugging News of the World over the Guardian’s expose of NoW practices of accessing the voicemail messages of the rich and famous.

    But personally I’m not in favour of abolition; the notion of a free press is self-regulation with the outer limits of free speech clearly defined, where it incites hatred or potentially violence. I don’t trust the State to get the balance right on such a delicate issue as regulating press freedom! We can so easily turn into a dictatorship with a nutered media.

    But everyone has different views on this matter.

    Lester

  3. Given the narrow remit of the code under discrimination, would the article not come under the accuracy part of the code?

    i.e. “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures; or A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

    That said, I wouldn’t bet on it.

    I also think that you are being kind by referring to it as a ‘blindspot’, that infers a lack of awareness. I’d’ve suggested ‘blinkers’.

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