· Decision of the Complaints Committee 02741-15 Greer v The Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Jonathan Greer complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, published on 17 April 2015.
2. The article was a comment piece, in which the columnist expressed her lack of sympathy for migrants using boats to cross the Mediterranean. She said that “the migrants harassing Brit truckers at the port [Calais] are the same as the vagrants making the perilous trip across the Med”, and compared migrants to “cockroaches” and the “norovirus”. The columnist argued that Britain’s approach to immigration should be similar to that of the Australian government, which she characterised as “threaten[ing] them with violence until they bugger off, throwing cans of Castlemaine in an Aussie version of sharia stoning”. The columnist also said that some British towns were like “festering sores”, “shelling out benefits [to asylum seekers] like Monopoly money”.
3. The complainant said that the article gave an inaccurate impression of the migratory patterns of North African refugees, of Australian immigration policy and of British asylum support policy. He noted that fewer than 20% of North African refugees go on to seek asylum in the UK, with the majority claiming asylum in Germany. He denied that the Australian state threatened migrants in the manner suggested in the article. Furthermore, he noted that the standard rate of support for a single asylum seeker in the UK was £36.95 per week, which was below the income support level of at least £57.90 per week. It was therefore not accurate to suggest that benefits were being distributed “like Monopoly money”.
4. While the complainant accepted that the Committee would not be able to consider the complaint under the terms of Clause 12, he expressed strong objections to the language used in the article. He said that the piece included numerous prejudicial references to people of North African origin, those who seek asylum in Europe and migrants in general. He considered that it dehumanised such migrants, and advocated violence towards them.
5. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It noted that the article was an opinion piece and that, under the terms of the Code, columnists were free to be partisan and to use rhetorical devices, including exaggeration, to illustrate a point.
6. The newspaper did not consider that the article had stated that the majority of North African refugees who crossed the Mediterranean by boat went on to seek asylum in the UK. It noted figures from 2014, which indicated that the UK was the final destination for around one in five such migrants. It said that Australian immigration policy was known to be very tough, and involved turning back boats forcefully, forcing asylum seekers into detention centres and guaranteeing that refugees would not be resettled in Australia. The columnist had used exaggeration to characterise the Australian policy, and the newspaper maintained that she was entitled to interpret the firmness of this policy as violence. The newspaper noted that the question of whether £36.95 was a large sum of money was subjective. Regardless, when this was added to the cost of other benefits such as accommodation, healthcare, and food, as well as administrative costs, and multiplied by the number of asylum seekers in the UK, it was a considerable sum of money.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The article under complaint was a polemic, which expressed strong and, to many people, abhorrent views of asylum seekers and migrants generally. The complainant, and many others, had sought to complain to IPSO that the manner in which the columnist had expressed herself breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
9. The Committee acknowledged the strength of feeling the column had aroused. It took this opportunity to note publicly that the terms of Clause 12 specifically prohibit prejudicial or pejorative reference to individuals; they do not restrict publications’ commentary on groups or categories of people. In this instance, the references under complaint were not to any identifiable individuals. As such, Clause 12 was not engaged. The Committee made clear that it does not have jurisdiction to deal with potential breaches of the law, but understood that the police were currently investigating the matter. The complaint was therefore considered solely under Clause 1 (Accuracy).
10. The article did not suggest that all North African refugees who crossed the Mediterranean by boat went on to seek asylum in the UK, but expressed the columnist’s objections to those that do. This reference was not significantly misleading such that a correction was required.
11. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the Australian government did not respond violently to those seeking asylum. However, the Committee was satisfied that the suggestion that Australian policy entailed assaulting asylum seekers with containers of alcohol would clearly be understood by readers as a satirical comment, rather than a genuine explanation of the policy. This did not breach Clause 1.
12. The question of whether £36.95 per week constituted a large sum of money was a matter of opinion. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that this amount was below the income support level of at least £57.90 per week, the columnist was entitled to present her view that the level of support paid to asylum seekers by the British government was too high.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 18/04/2015
Date decision issued: 20/07/2015Back to ruling listing