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Coded Language: How the UK Newspaper Industry Enables Institutional Racism

The UK’s press is governed by an editors’ code that permits discrimination against groups of people – it’s time we demand better says Richard Wilson

Tabloid front pages the day after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Lorna Roberts/Alamy

Coded Language How the UK Newspaper Industry Enables Institutional Racism

As the Society of Editors finally admits that the UK press may have a racism problem, it’s time to demand better says Richard Wilson of Stop Funding Hate

Does the UK media have a racism problem? According to one poll, almost half the country thinks it does, amid ongoing controversy over press hostility towards Meghan Markle and other prominent black public figures.

This perception of the press is perhaps unsurprising. For years, experts have warned that hateful coverage in our media fuels hate crime on our streets. 

As far back as 2011, the Leveson Inquiry found that “discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting… is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration”.

Four years later the situation became so extreme that the United Nations condemned “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion”. The statement followed a notorious Sun columnist writing an article that likened African migrants to “cockroaches.”

Since Stop Funding Hate supporters began campaigning in 2016, we’ve begun to see some changes. An advertiser exodus from the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express has been followed by a marked reduction in overt anti-migrant front pages in all three of those newspapers.

Yet there is ongoing concern about other and sometimes less over forms of hate and discrimination across the UK media. Toxic narratives about migrants, Muslims and Travellers continue to be published, while a surge in inflammatory stories targeting trans people is causing growing disquiet

Is it any surprise that the recent declaration by the official body representing newspapers, the Society of Editors, that “the UK media is not bigoted” was met with widespread disbelief? After months of engagement by journalists of colour from across the industry, the Society recently retracted that claim – but there are many other issues still to be addressed.

A Licence to Hate?

A big part of the UK newspaper industry’s problem seems to be its bizarre attempt to redefine the word “discrimination”. 

Outside of the media bubble, making sweeping generalisations about an entire minority group would be seen as a textbook example of discrimination. 

Discrimination that is dehumanising – for example likening African migrants to “cockroaches” – is widely seen as problematic due to the link between such language and extreme violence.

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spelled out in his response to The Sun: “The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches. This type of language is clearly inflammatory and unacceptable, especially in a national newspaper”.

Yet astoundingly, the UK newspaper industry’s Editors’ Code committee devotes a whole section of its guidelines to explaining how likening migrants to cockroaches is acceptable under their rules.

This is because the Editors’ Code only recognises an article as discriminatory if it refers to a specific named individual. Aggressively targeting an entire group of people is therefore permitted under the Code, so long as no individual is named.    

In a blog reiterating this position, the industry-run complaints body IPSO flatly states that “groups of people are not currently protected” under discrimination rules. The UK newspaper industry has thus gone out of its way to ensure that articles which are “discriminatory against gay people in general, autistic people in general or transgender people in general” remain permitted under its code. 

IPSO even tries to claim that discriminatory statements attacking an entire group are less harmful than statements targeting an individual because “the effect… is diluted”.

Codifying Discrimination

There’s a term for what’s going on when an institution formally codifies its acceptance of racist practices. 

In deliberately allowing articles that discriminate against entire groups of people, the UK newspaper industry has put itself directly at odds with international standards for ethical journalism. This calls into question its claim to be a force for good.

By contrast with the UK Editors’ Code, the ethics charter of the International Federation of Journalists requires media professionals should “ensure that the dissemination of information or opinion does not contribute to hatred or prejudice” and “do their utmost to avoid facilitating the spread of discrimination”.

This gulf between international standards and the norms of our domestic newspaper industry may go some way towards explaining why the UK press has consistently been found to be the least trusted in Europe

It’s difficult to see how the industry can hope to win back public trust while it reserves the right to discriminate “in general” against whole swathes of our society. 

Demanding Better

The crisis in our media is partly a crisis of professional norms and standards. Individual journalists can help tackle this by speaking out against the discriminatory provisions of the UK Editors’ Code and demanding better from their own industry. 

Big advertisers can also play a role. They can ensure they only support news outlets that align with credible best practice codes, such as the Reporters Without Borders Journalism Trust Initiative.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can take action by using our power as consumers, and urging the companies we shop with to switch their advertising away from media that fuel hatred. 

Britain needs a press that tells the truth and treats everyone fairly. Amid rising division and polarisation within our society, the stakes could scarcely be higher. 

Richard Wilson is the director and co-founder of Stop Funding Hate

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