Decision of the Complaints Committee 02594-15 Blake v Watford Observer
Summary of complaint
1. Daniel Blake complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Watford Observer had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a reader’s letter headlined “Bushey synagogue will regret eruv”, published on 3 April 2015.
2. The letter was from a member of a residents’ association in Bushey, London, and concerned plans to build a new eruv (a defined area in which Jewish people may carry or push objects on the Sabbath). The letter writer opposed the establishment of the eruv, and expressed concern that Bushey was going to become a Jewish area, whereas previously people of all religions had ”happily co-existed.” She claimed that “Jewish law can discriminate against a disabled wheelchair user,” and asked, ”why are Jews exempt from the law?”
3. The complainant had led the eruv project at Bushey Synagogue, and said that the letter was clearly anti-Semitic. In his view, the suggestion that Jews would come to regret the establishment of the eruv was threatening, and the letter’s references to a “powerful Jewish lobby” and local Jews’ attempts to “socially engineer” the area were discriminatory and breached Clause 12. The complainant also said that the letter was inaccurate and misleading: Bushey Synagogue had not sought to mislead the public in relation to the eruv, and it was not seeking to increase the Jewish population in the area. Jewish law is always secondary to state law, and does not discriminate against disabled wheelchair users. The complainant had submitted his own letter to the newspaper in response, which was published the following week. The letter mentioned that “Jewish law is respectful of English law and certainly does not discriminate against wheelchair users.”
4. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code by publishing the reader’s letter. It said that it was the writer’s honestly-held interpretation of events surrounding the eruv application. Publication of the letter did not indicate that the newspaper shared the views of the author, and the following week the newspaper had published a number of letters in favour of the eruv. Regarding the claim within the letter that Jewish law discriminates against wheelchair users, the newspaper said that it had investigated this point upon receiving the complaint, and was satisfied that the rules surrounding pushing and carrying on the Sabbath do make travel more difficult for wheelchair users; for example, the use of electronic wheelchairs should be avoided on that day. As such, the newspaper did not believe that a correction on this point was necessary.
5. The newspaper said that the letter did not contain a discriminatory reference towards a particular individual; it did not believe that the terms of Clause 12 were engaged.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)
A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
7. The Committee understood why members of the Jewish community in Bushey had found the letter concerning, and acknowledged the complainant’s position that the letter contained references to Jewish people which many would find offensive. However, the Committee’s role was to determine whether or not publication of the letter had breached the terms of the Editors’ Code.
8. Newspapers are entitled to publish readers’ letters which robustly argue controversial opinions, including where it is likely that those opinions will offend. The letter under complaint had plainly been the writer’s opinion. In light of the newspaper’s explanation of the claim about the effect of Jewish law on wheelchair users, the Committee did not identify a significant inaccuracy in this regard, which would require correction under the Code.
9. Jewish people are not “exempt from the law”. It was appropriate for the newspaper to publish the complainant’s reply promptly – the following week – setting out the correct position, in line with the newspaper’s obligations under Clause 2 of the Code, which provides an opportunity to reply to inaccuracies when reasonably called for.
10. The claim about Jewish people being “exempt from the law” had been presented by a reader in the context of a clearly provocative letter; it was not a legal opinion, and it did not constitute a point of significance in the context of the letter as a whole. In these circumstances, the Committee was satisfied that the claim in the letter was not likely to significantly mislead readers; the newspaper was not required to publish a correction on this point, in addition to the letter it had already published. There was no failure to distinguish comment from fact. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The letter had not made a prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to any individual’s religion. There was no breach of Clause 12.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 05/04/2015
Date complaint concluded: 20/07/2015