Decision of the Complaints Committee 02363-19 Kerr v The National
Summary of Complaint
1. Stephen Kerr MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The National breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Could divine intervention help break the Brexit impasse?”, published on 25 January 2019.
2. The article, a comment piece, began by asking whether “we could just ask God” for a solution to Brexit “bickering”, since “people make mistakes…so perhaps we shouldn’t be trusted with important decisions”. It said that, in doing so, “we could seek the assistance” of the complainant – a Member of Parliament – who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article reported the complainant’s comments at Prime Minister’s Questions, when he “bellowed that Scotland should be denied a second independence referendum”, and said that “it would appear the good people of Stirling elected, by a thumping majority of 148, a man who does not believe Scotland could be a successful independent state but does believe in angels”.
3. The article went on to state that Mormons “believe in ‘continuing revelation’ – which only a cynical heathen would translate as ‘making it up as you go along’”. It listed a number of Mormon beliefs, including claims relating to the one of their holy books, the Book of Mormon, and to Joseph Smith, who it said “was visited by an angel who led him to some engraved gold tablets. Luckily for humanity, Smith was gifted with the power to translate the strange text into English…as the angel was a bit possessive about the gold plates and said no-one else was allowed to look at them. Which is understandable.” The article compared the angel’s actions to the government’s actions in relation to allegedly withholding Brexit legal advice. It went on to state that “the Brexiteers have their own holy text, but it’s written in red pen rather than engraved on gold, and reflects the will of the people rather than the word of God”.
4. The article also appeared in the same format online on the same day, under the headline “Heaven help us with these Scottish Tory MPs and their Unionism”.
5. The complainant said that the article had breached Clause 12 (Discrimination). He said that while it was acceptable for the publication to attack his viewpoints on any issue, it was not appropriate for it to demean and ridicule him on the basis of his religious beliefs. He said that the article treated tenets of his faith in a pejorative way, by suggesting that the doctrine of ‘continuing revelation’ could be translated as “’making it up as you go along’”, and said that the comparison made between his belief in angels and his opposition to Scottish independence was a pejorative reference to his own faith. He also said that the article suggested, prejudicially, that his faith made his political views irrelevant. He said that his religious views were irrelevant to the political questions raised by the article.
6. The publication denied any breach of Clause 12. It said that freedom of expression dictated that no individual be entitled to practice religion free from criticism, and that it had the right to hold any belief system to account. It said that the column in question was a satirical, humorous piece, and that columnists were entitled to explore and question the personal views of politicians, and to highlight potential conflicts between their religious views and their responsibilities in office. The publication considered that the possibility of such conflicts made the complainant’s faith relevant to a report of his political views, particularly where he had formerly been a senior figure within the church, and where the article was a discussion of the relevance of politicians’ beliefs to their actions. It noted that the complainant had previously spoken about his faith, and its interaction with his political beliefs. The publication denied that the reference to the complainant believing in angels but not in Scottish independence was a pejorative reference to his religion; it said that this claim accurately reflected the complainant’s beliefs.
7. The publication offered to publish a letter from the complainant setting out his views in relation to the matter.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Preamble to the Editors’ Code makes clear that the Code itself should not be interpreted in such a way as to restrict the right to freedom of expression, including the right to be partisan, to shock and to challenge; the Code also does not address issues of taste and offence.
10. Clause 12 (Discrimination) does not prohibit criticism or mockery of religions or religious groups; rather, it affords protection to individuals from pejorative, prejudicial or irrelevant references to their own religion. In this case, the article made satirical or mocking references to the Book of Mormon, to the notion of “’continuing revelation’”, and to other aspects of the Mormon faith. However, these references to the teachings of the Church were not directed at the complainant personally, and were not framed in reference to him as an individual, but to the organisation as a whole, and its beliefs. The complainant’s concerns on this point did not therefore engage the terms of Clause 12.
11. The article had sought to compare and contrast the nature of Mormon beliefs with the views espoused by ‘Brexiteers’ and considered the relevance of the complainant’s religious beliefs to his political views. These were legitimate subjects of debate, and the Code does not seek to prohibit critical comment as to how the religious beliefs of an elected politician may affect that individual’s actions in the political sphere. Doing so in the article was not pejorative in such a way as to represent a breach of Clause 12.
12. The article had made one explicit reference to the complainant’s own religious views, by stating that his constituents had elected “a man who does not believe Scotland could be a successful independent state but does believe in angels”. The Committee did not consider that presenting a contrast between the religious beliefs and political views of the complainant represented a pejorative claim about the complainant on the basis of his religion. There was no breach of Clause 12 on this point.
13. The article was a comment piece which sought to contrast the complainant’s religious and political beliefs. The complainant’s religion was relevant to this discussion, and the Committee noted that it formed part of his public profile. Referring to the complainant’s religion in this context was not irrelevant, and there was no breach of Clause 12(ii) on this point.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 13/03/2019
Date decision issued: 10/07/2019
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