PCC fails to condemn misleading Mail article

Edited version of the Press Complaints Commission's logo, "Fast, Free and Fair", with the latter word partially rubbed outBuilding for the Future Blog: The Daily Mail and the “Strict Muslim” - Part 2

The above article reproduces the response of the Press Complaints Commission, a deliberately toothless “self-regulation” body for the British media, to complaints about an article about a man who was jailed for a series of rapes in east London. Sunny Islam, aged 23, was jailed in January for a minimum of 11 years for seven charges of rape, one of sexual assault and one of kidnap in mid-late 2010; the youngest of his victims was 15 (and claimed to be 11). Supposedly, he did this to punish them for being out at night.

The complaint made by the author of the BFTF blog (which was not the only one about this article) used three categories: inaccuracy (section 1(i), in reference to the “strict Muslim” reference in the headline that was not borne out by the contents of the headline), prejudicial or pejorative references to people’s race, religion etc. (section 12(i)), and irrelevant references to the same (section 12(ii)). The first complaint was rejected on the grounds that the words objected to were in quote marks, which can, they say, represent quotes, or a summary; the second was rejected on the grounds that prejudice against groups is not covered by their code, only prejudice against individuals; and the third on the grounds that irrelevant references to someone’s religion can only be complained about by that person, i.e. Sunny Islam himself, not by third parties who might be affected by prejudice.

As usual, the judgement is an endorsement of journalists’ tricks: inverted commas can be used to peddle misinformation without taking responsibility for the impression one’s words give. As for his being a “strict Muslim”, Muslims in that part of London would not consider a man without a fairly substantial beard to be a strict Muslim — it is an area where the “salafis” and Tablighi Jama’at hold great sway and where real strict Muslims come to live among other strict Muslims. The average Daily Mail reader does not know that, and perhaps even the writers don’t, but they could have asked any local Muslim. Strict Muslims also do not have girlfriends, as Sunny Islam had. The fact is that it was his family who were strict Muslims, not him, and there is no evidence that they had anything to do with his crimes.

The commission also refuses to consider complaints from third parties affected by the prejudice the article or headline might foment. The idea that Sunny Islam might complain that the papers give credence to his claim that his violence was justified by religion is laughable; the people it reflects badly on are other Muslims, and it is they who might be affected when the EDL march through a Muslim neighbourhood or “demonstrate” outside a mosque, or when some lunatic decides to walk into a mosque and poke someone’s eyes out. It is ridiculous that a code which forbids personal insults to people, even convicted sex offenders, on the grounds of race, religion and various other protected categories does not forbid giving the impression that the religion is somehow associated with it.

The judgement underlines the pointless and toothless nature of the PCC: journalists know not to explicitly make untrue statements of generalisation against entire communities, but they can give subliminal signals to the same effect and the PCC’s code is set up to allow that. It should be reformed such that the potential harmful consequences to third parties can be taken into account, signals interpreted as they would be by the readers, and the organisations sending them punished accordingly.

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