Decision of the Complaints Committee 05935-16 Manji v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Fatima Manji complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “KELVIN MACKENZIE: why did Channel 4 have a presenter in a hijab fronting coverage of Muslim terror in Nice”, published on 18 July 2016.
2. The article appeared as part of a regular column. In it, the columnist described his reaction to seeing the complainant presenting Channel 4 News’ coverage of a terrorist attack in Nice. He said that he “could hardly believe his eyes” that the presenter, the complainant, “was not one of the regulars…but a young lady in a hijab”. He questioned whether it was “appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim”.
3. The article was published in print and online, in substantively the same form. The online article included additional photographs of the complainant, and video from the Nice attack.
4. The complainant said that the 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.
5. In particular, the complainant was concerned by the words: “With all the major terrorist outrages in the world currently being carried out by Muslims, I think the rest of us are reasonably entitled to have concerns about what is beating in their religious hearts. Who was in the studio representing our fears?” She considered this suggested she was a terrorist sympathiser.
6. The complainant was also concerned that the article had inaccurately claimed that Islam was “a violent religion” and had given the misleading impression that she had been chosen to present the news that evening as part of a “TV news game”. In fact, she had already been rostered to present that evening, ten days prior to the attack. The complainant said that the article had targeted her deliberately, causing her intimidation and distress, and whipping up hatred against her, and Muslims generally. She considered this breached Clause 3 of the Code.
7. The newspaper said that the columnist had sought to avoid criticism of the complainant 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. Clause 12 does not prevent criticism of religion, or of religious conduct or choices: the newspaper said this would represent an “extraordinary limitation upon free speech”.
8. The newspaper argued that there was no prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant’s faith. It said that the column contained no description of her religion or beliefs using inflammatory language. Instead, 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.
9. The newspaper did not accept that the column suggested the complainant was a terrorist sympathiser. The question “who was in the studio representing our fears?” was not a reference to the complainant: it was immediately preceded by criticism of Channel 4’s decision to have as the sole studio guest a “French guy who was worried about Islamophobia”, and referred only to the lack of balance in choice of guest.
10. The newspaper did not accept that there was any breach of Clause 1 in the description of Islam as a “violent religion”, which was clearly comment. Neither did it accept that publication of the article breached Clause 3.
11. The complainant did not accept the newspaper’s attempt to characterise the column as a broader debate about religious dress. The columnist had equated her wearing of a hijab with support for acts of terrorism. This was not comment, but prejudice; it was highly discriminatory and likely to make her the subject of hatred and abuse.
Relevant Code Provisions
12. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the Regulator.
Clause 3 (Harassment)
i. Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii. They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them.
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
13. The column, read as a whole, questioned whether it was appropriate that Channel 4 had permitted news of the atrocity in Nice to be read by a newsreader wearing the outward manifestation of the religion which the columnist associated with that attack. It set out the columnist’s opinion on the hijab, Islam in general and Channel 4’s choice of interviewee.
14. There can be no doubt that this was deeply offensive to the complainant and caused widespread concern and distress to others. This was demonstrated by the number of complaints IPSO received. The Committee understood the complainant’s position that she was doing no more than fulfilling her duties as a newsreader, while observing those tenets of the religion to which she adheres.
15. The article was highly critical of Channel 4 for permitting a newsreader to wear the hijab. It also contained pejorative references to Islam. But the essential question for the Committee was whether those references were directed at the complainant.
16. Clause 12 seeks to protect individuals while respecting the fundamental right to freedom of expression enshrined in the preamble to the Code. It prohibits prejudicial or pejorative references to an individual on account of, amongst other things, that individual’s religion. It does not, on the other hand, prohibit prejudicial or pejorative references to a particular religion, even though such disparaging criticisms may cause distress and offence. It should not be interpreted as preventing such criticism merely because, as is inescapable, many individuals subscribe to that particular faith. Were it otherwise, 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, would be restricted.
17. The article did refer to the complainant. 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. In the Committee’s view, the columnist was permitted to identify what prompted his discussion, rather than merely raising it in the abstract. Furthermore, he 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 present coverage of the story.
18. The Committee did not accept the complainant’s contention that the article suggested that, by reason of her faith, she sympathised with the terrorist. The question “who was in the studio representing our fears?” did not, in the Committee’s view, carry that implication. It was asked as part of criticism of what the columnist described as “further editorial stupidity” by Channel 4: the presence of a studio guest to express fears about Islamophobia without a guest to express fears and concerns about Islam. These were the fears and concerns of those he asserted were “the rest of us”.
19. While the columnist’s opinions were undoubtedly offensive to the complainant, and to others, these were views he had been entitled to express. The article did not include a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant on the grounds of her religion. Accordingly, it was not a breach of Clause 12.
20. Clause 3 seeks to protect individuals from harassment. In the light of its findings under Clause 12, and given that the course of conduct complained of was the publication of a single article on a matter which, while sensitive, was the subject of legitimate public debate, the Committee took the view that it did not amount to harassment under Clause 3.
21. The columnist’s view that Islam is “clearly a violent religion” was a statement of his opinion. This view, however extreme or offensive to many, did not raise a breach of Clause 1. The suggestion that the complainant was a “pawn in this tv news game” was clearly conjecture, and underlined that the author’s criticism was directed at Channel 4 and not at the individual newsreader. There was no breach of Clause 1.
22. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 21/07/2016
Date decision issued: 29/09/2016Back to ruling listing