It’s not news, and it’s not fit to print

This was originally going to be a BADD post and I was writing it in my head on Tuesday intending to type and post it that evening after work, but work dragged on longer than expected, Lisa Egan posted my article on Katie Hopkins at Where’s the Benefit? and I had another idea for a post for that, and it’s not really focussed enough on disability to justify a BADD inclusion anyway. It just so happens that it was triggered by an attack by a rent-a-gob guest on a radio show who was talking about disability benefits (among other kinds of state benefits), but this issue affects other marginalised communities besides those with disabilities.

Readers in the UK will have heard of the Leveson inquiry, but for those outside, it’s a public inquiry being held into the standards of the British media, which was triggered by revelations about the Murdoch press (principally) illegally accessing people’s voice mails, including those of crime victims and other non-celebrities. This caused such outrage when it was revealed that investigators working for the News of the World, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, had accessed the voice mail belonging to Milly Dowler, a teenager murdered in Surrey in 2002, that News Corporation closed the paper almost immediately, but the fall-out has led to the resignations and arrests of several senior journalists and some senior London police officers. This past week, a Parliamentary committee reported that in their view, Rupert Murdoch was not fit to lead a major media corporation.

With all the talk of Murdoch’s fitness to own a company and his dealings with politicians and so on, little regard has been paid to what the papers actually print, and what goes on at the other media corporations which do not have a high-profile foreign owner, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Furthermore, it should not be the print media or the commercial media that is under scrutiny: the BBC, particularly in its local radio stations and 5 Live, should have some answering to do as well; its hosts are often jabbering bullies who cut off or insult callers, or sensationalists who give undue prominence to people spouting off about things they know nothing about (like Katie Hopkins), or who recycle inflammatory stories from the tabloids (as Vanessa Feltz has done on more than one occasion on BBC London). Finally, not enough attention is being paid to what is actually printed.

This last point would not be quite so relevant if there weren’t so many restrictions on freedom of speech in this country, and libel laws that are not quite so stringent in protecting the reputations of the wealthy but do nothing for ordinary people, or whole groups of them. Over the last few years there have been laws passed which criminalise the “glorification” of acts of terrorism and groups have been banned which carry out nuisance behaviour and loudly express views that most people find offensive — but others haven’t, even when their demonstrations lead to violence. Newspapers in the UK are allowed to print false information that damages the interests of whole sections of the population — in recent years the favourite targets have been people with disabilities (particularly hidden ones that do not require full-time wheelchair use) who are depicted as scroungers, but in the past the papers routintely accused Muslims, in general, of supporting terrorism, or the introduction of Shari’ah law, and local government and business of giving them special treatment, such as by removing piggy banks from bank windows, holding modest single-sex swimming sessions in local pools (actually private bookings), and renaming Christmas “Winterval”, a myth which has been repeated again and again despite always having been untrue.

On Tuesday the Huffington Post carried an article by Katharine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat, a book about hate crimes against people with disabilities, which revealed that the inquiry, although it received written testimony from groups representing people with disabilities including Inclusion London, and individuals including herself and John Pring of the Disability News Service, the inquiry had decided not to hear oral testimony on the issue as it was not important enough, despite evidence that the biased and inflammatory reporting about “scroungers” was leading to the harassment of people with disabilities. The same was true when jaundiced reporting about Muslims appeared in the media, whether local or national: those involved were branded “Paki lovers” and similar things by ignorant readers when the “Muslim element” in the story was over-stated (as with the “extractor fan” case in October 2010, in which a man complained about an extractor fan from a neighbouring café pumping the smell of bacon into his house, which among other things put off Muslim friends from visiting; the case was reported in the media as being mainly about Muslim complaints). There were various violent incidents including an imam being blinded at Regent’s Park Mosque by a man who walked in off the street and attacked him, and a number of women being abused or having their hijabs ripped off, and while some might argue that the terrorist attacks in September 2001 and July 2005 might have contributed, the fact remains that there were far more inflammatory front-page stories about Muslims than successful terrorist attacks during that period.

There need to be laws governing the balance of the media. The BBC has a duty to be impartial, but the same does not apply to commercial newspapers, even when one title or one company has a monopoly over the newspaper market in a particular area. There should be a law to remedy this. There should also be a law governing the prominent display of untruths or distortions that are harmful to the interests of a large number of people, rather than to the reputation of named individuals; the yardstick for such offences must not be whether a story or public statements threatens or insults but whether it is true, or not, or only partly. While I accept that free expression of opinion must be maintained, a small group of wealthy media owners and their henchmen must not be free to sell poison to the public just because they will buy it, to present propaganda as fact, or to use the media they control to propagandise for their preferred politicians or attack those they despise. They have an immense power, are elected by nobody, and they must be required to face up to their responsiblities.

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