UK: Reporter faces threats as regulator fails to protect her from hijab criticism

By Ingrida Milkaite

TV reporter Fatima Manji, a speaker at the ECPMF's 2016 conference in Leipzig, fears further threats after Britain’s press regulator threw out her complaint against The Sun newspaper. Manji, a Muslim woman, reported for Channel 4 News on the deadly terror attacks in Nice, which led to criticism by a commentator in the British newspaper this summer.

Fatima Manji Fatima Manji at the ECPMF Media freedom conference 2016 (photo: ECPMF/Lamm)

The Sun article by Kelvin MacKenzie called out Manji and her employer Channel 4 News, expressing that someone in a hijab (headscarf) should not present news of a terrorist atrocity that was allegedly committed by an Islamic terrorist. Her face was shown on the front page of The Sun, next to a large headline including the words: "Muslim terror attack". She told participants at the ECPMF conference that it made her feel afraid.

Manji complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that The Sun had breached the Editors’ Code of Practice (the Code). On 19 October, the IPSO ruled that her complaints were not upheld; therefore, no breach by The Sun was found.

IPSO is the self-regulation body for the British press that is staffed by newspaper owners and chaired by a former judge. The new independent regulator, IMPRESS, is still not recognised by The Sun.

The BBC quoted Fatima Manji as saying that "it was upsetting enough to find myself the latest victim to Kelvin Mackenzie's tirade. But now to know that has been given the green light by the press regulator and that effectively it is open season on minorities, and Muslims in particular, is frightening."

Manji has the full backing of Channel 4 News, which released a statement deploring the IPSO's decision.

Channel 4 News statement

Responding to the IPSO ruling, the editor of Channel 4 News Ben de Pear issued a statement which was shared with the ECPMF:

"We are dismayed by today's IPSO ruling which has cleared Kelvin MacKenzie of any wrongdoing, on all grounds. Whilst we agree that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, we do not believe that it should be used as a licence to incite or discriminate. His inflammatory comments on Ms Manji's professional status, which were widely condemned, and his attempts to equate the wearing of a hijab with support for terrorism, have no place in a properly informed and tolerant society."

"At Channel 4 News, we employ reporters based on their journalistic skills, not their ethnicity. We see no reason why a Muslim journalist should be prevented from covering any story and Fatima will continue to report and present the news on the issues of the day with impartiality and depth.”

Fatima Manji's case

The Sun article questioned whether it was appropriate that Channel 4 News had permitted the terror attack in Nice to be covered by a journalist wearing the outward manifestation of the religion which the columnist associated with that attack.

In her complaint, Manji stated that "the Sun article discriminated against her on the basis of her religion. (...) It suggested that her appearance on screen wearing a hijab was as distressing as witnessing a terrorist attack, that her sympathies would lie with the terrorists because she is Muslim, that Muslims in general are terrorist sympathisers, and that she should be prevented from enjoying a career as a television news presenter on the basis of her adoption of a religious item of dress."

According to the Editors' Code of Practice, the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images; journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit; and the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative references to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

The Code does not prevent criticism of religion, or of religious conduct or choices, as this would represent an extraordinary limitation upon free speech.

In replying to Manji's complaint, The Sun claimed that the columnist had sought to avoid criticising Manji personally – "this was not about the propriety of a journalist having religious faith, but about the propriety of public figures wearing outwardly religious garments, in the context of a story with an unavoidable religious angle. (...) The column formed part of a public debate about presenters wearing symbolic items on screen, which had previously been seen in discussions about a Channel 4 presenter’s decision not to wear a poppy, and the wearing of a crucifix by a presenter on BBC News."

The Complaints Committee decided that the article set out Kelvin MacKenzie’s opinion on the hijab, Islam in general and Channel 4 News's choice of reporter. The Committee admitted that the article was deeply offensive to Manji and caused widespread concern and distress to others. It agreed that the article was highly critical of Channel 4 for permitting a newsreader to wear the hijab as it contained pejorative references to Islam.

However, the essential question for the Committee was whether those references were directed at Fatima Manji personally.

The Committee stressed that the Code prohibits prejudicial or pejorative references to an individual on account of his or her religion. But it "does not prohibit prejudicial or pejorative references to a particular religion, even though such criticism may cause distress and offence." Accordingly, the freedom of the press to engage in discussion, criticism and debate about religious ideas and practices, including the wearing of religious symbols while reading the news, should not be restricted.

According to Kelvin MacKenzie, "whatever your perspective, it is an important debate and we should not be banned from discussing it".

In the Committee’s opinion, MacKenzie "was entitled to express his view that, in the context of a terrorist act which had been carried out ostensibly in the name of Islam, it was inappropriate for a person wearing Islamic dress to cover the story." MacKenzie’s article did refer to Fatima Manji, but it did so to explain what triggered the discussion about a subject of legitimate debate – whether newsreaders should be allowed to wear religious symbols.

The Committee concluded that MacKenzie’s opinions were offensive to Manji and others, but that MacKenzie had been entitled to express them.

The article did not include a prejudicial or pejorative reference to Manji on the grounds of her religion, according to the Committee's conclusion; therefore, the publication of the article did not amount to harassment because it concerned a matter of legitimate public debate.

Finally, the claim that Islam is "clearly a violent religion" was a statement of MacKenzie’s opinion. Irrespective of how extreme or offensive this view is, the IPSO decided that it did not breach the Code (the accuracy clause).

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