Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07858-18 The Labour Party v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. The Labour Party complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour family’s shame”, published on 6 December 2018. The complaint under Clause 12 (Discrimination) was made on behalf of Kate Osamor MP.
2. The article, which was a comment piece by a columnist, reported on events relating to Kate Osamor, a Labour MP who it said had continued to employ her son as a researcher after his conviction for drug offences. It said that she had misled the public in relation to her knowledge of this matter. It also detailed her reaction to a journalist who approached her, and commented on her mother’s position in the House of Lords. The column concluded by asking “And do you suppose that either [the MP or her mother] would be in the positions they are now were it not for the colour of their skin?”
3. This article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the same headline.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because it suggested that the Ms Osamor had been placed in her current position due to her race; the complainant said that she had been selected, and elected, on the basis of her suitability for her position, not the colour of her skin. The complainant also stated, acting on behalf of the MP, that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination), part (i), because it prejudicially suggested that she was only in her position as a result of her race. The complainant also argued that the article’s reference to the MP’s race was irrelevant, in breach of Clause 12 (ii), because it was not the case that she had only achieved her position because of her race, and her race should not therefore have been mentioned.
5. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the article reported the columnist’s view that Ms Osamor had achieved her position not on merit, but due to some form of positive discrimination. This had been presented clearly as the columnist’s view, in the form of a rhetorical question. As the basis for this view, the columnist had explained that the Labour MP had apparently misled the public in relation to the facts of her son’s drug conviction; had continued to employ her son following his conviction; and had acted inappropriately in response to contacts from journalists in relation to these matters. The publication said that it was in the context of these actions that the columnist had questioned how the MP had reached her position, and questioned whether it had been due to the colour of her skin. This was not a pejorative or prejudicial reference to Mr Osamor’s race: the columnist was criticising the MP based on her behaviour, not because of her race, and had only referenced her race to question how she achieved her position in spite of her professional failings. The publication denied that this reference could be considered irrelevant: the complainant was merely disagreeing with the view expressed by the columnist that the MP’s race might have contributed to her success.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
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
7. 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; it should also be noted that the Code does not address issues of taste and offence. In exercising their freedom of expression, publications are obliged to comply with the terms of the Code; the question for the Committee in relation to Clause 12 (Discrimination) was, therefore, whether the article had contained a pejorative, prejudicial or irrelevant reference to the Ms Osamor’s race or colour.
8. Publications are entitled to draw attention to the perceived failings of public figures, and to question how individuals have reached their positions. Clause 12 should not be interpreted in such a way as to prevent debate as to whether possessing a particular characteristic has conferred privilege on an individual; if this were the case, the ability of the press to draw attention to advantages and disadvantages deriving from membership of particular groups would be compromised. In this instance, the columnist was critical of Ms Osamor’s behaviour, which he considered rendered her unsuitable for her office. The article did not attribute the perceived failings to the MP’s race; instead, it suggested that her race may have given her an advantage in the selection process in circumstances where she may not have been a suitable candidate. This was ultimately a criticism of her rise to the position she held — facilitated by those responsible for this — despite the columnist’s view, as explained in the article, that her recent behaviour evidenced her unsuitability for holding the position. In these circumstances, questioning whether she had benefitted from her race in reaching her position did not constitute a pejorative or prejudicial reference. There was no breach of Clause 12 (i) on this point.
9. The columnist had speculated that the MP’s race may have been a factor in her reaching the position she held. The MP’s race was, by definition, relevant to this discussion. As noted above, Clause 12 does not seek to prohibit discussion as to whether an individual may benefit from his or her race. The reference to the MP’s race was, therefore, not irrelevant to the discussion, and there was no breach of Clause 12 (ii).
10. The article did not state that Ms Osamor had received any formal affirmative action in relation to her race, or suggest that that the political party of which she was a member had a policy to this effect. In relation to any preferential treatment the MP may have received, the complainant was not in a position to dispute that the relevant individuals may have considered the MP’s race in coming to a choice of which candidate to select, or elect. The fact that the alleged poor conduct had occurred after the MP’s selection as a candidate did not undermine the columnist’s point that this conduct evidenced her broader unsuitability for her role. In the light of this, the complaint did not provide grounds for the Committee to consider that it was misleading for the article to speculate, in the form of a rhetorical question, that Ms Osamor may have benefitted from such informal preferential treatment. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 13/12/2018
Date decision issued: 04/04/2019Back to ruling listing