Ruling

04588-21 Various v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      26th August 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04588-21 Various v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The Independent Press Standards Organisation received various complaints that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment), and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “It's time we stopped pandering to travellers”, published on 15 May 2021.

2. The article was an opinion piece, written by a regular columnist for the newspaper. It appeared in the Comment section of the newspaper, accompanied by a prominent writer by-line and photograph. The column began with the writer referring to “[a] group of Travellers [who have] taken over much of the central car park in my nearest town, Matlock”; it went on to include responses from his district council explaining why the settlement had appeared in that particular area, stating that they were a “’family [with] severe and complex welfare needs . . . joined by a related family who are in a similar position’”. The columnist stated that the Council had “a statutory duty to provide a site for Travellers”.

3. The article proceeded to explore what the columnist considered to be issues raised by the British government policy of “indulging those who claim to be nomads”, and what the columnist believed government policy should be on the matter moving forward, including that “we should […] phase out the ’ethnic minority‘ rights of people who are not a race but a doomed mindset”. The article noted that, currently, “[m]ost [Travellers] are designated in law as an ‘ethnic grouping’”, while also setting out the various subsets of the Traveller community: “There are Gypsies and Travellers and Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers and boat-dwellers and Roma and New Age [T]ravellers, and much overlapping.”

4. The column also included the paraphrased perspective of the writer’s nephew, who was described within the article as a “bargee” – a person who “lives on a canal boat” – who “explain[ed] that though travellers on water are linked by some sense of community and communion with Britain’s canal network, nomads of any kind do not feel the connection with one patch of land that most of us do, because in their minds they are always ready to move on.” The article closed with the following statement: “Travellers are just people, just human souls like you or me; good, bad or indifferent, like you or me; and victims of their circumstances perhaps more than you or me. There is a place for them but no longer for their way of living.”

5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form.

6. IPSO received 707 complaints about the article. Complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. First, they said that the headline was inaccurate, as there is a long history of discrimination and persecution aimed at the Traveller community. It was, therefore, complainants argued, inaccurate to state that “we” are “pandering to Travellers”. They further said that the article was inaccurate in its portrayal of the Traveller settlement in the town of Matlock, as it did not give the full context behind the settlement and the reasons why Travellers had chosen to settle in that particular location.

7. Complainants also said that they considered it was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 to state that Travellers are “not a race but a doomed mindset.” Complainants argued that this was inaccurate as it denied the existence of an ethnic identity which, they said, is recognised in both international law and scientific literature.

8. Complainants then said that the article was inaccurate in its inclusion of anecdotal evidence and the opinions of the writer’s nephew to support the writer’s position. Complainants then expressed concerns that the article portrayed members of the Traveller community as criminal and disruptive and was also biased against them, in breach of Clause 1.

9. Complainants also said that the article breached Clause 3, where they considered that it perpetuated harmful stereotypes about the Traveller community and may, therefore, lead to harassment against the community.

10. Finally, complainants said that the article breached Clause 12, as they considered: that it was racist towards those part of the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities; that the article was calling for the erasure of protected ethnic groups; and that the article utilised racist tropes.

11. The publication said it did not accept that the article had breached the Code. It first noted that the complaints appeared to be based on highly selective quotations and legalistic over-interpretation of the article, which expressed an opinion differing from their own.

12. The publication turned next to the specific breaches of the Code alleged by complainants. It said that the headline statement that “[i]t’s time we stopped pandering to travellers” was clearly distinguished as the columnist’s opinion. The basis for his opinion was expanded on further in the article, which was also clearly distinguished as the columnist’s view on a difficult and delicate topic. It noted that the article did include a response from the district council setting out why the settlement had been established in the area. The publication, while maintaining that there was no need for the article to provide the full contextual background to the Traveller settlement, said that the article did include such information, which the writer had gone to significant lengths to obtain. It provided copies of emails to relevant organisations and the District Council, sent by and on behalf of the writer, asking questions about both the specific settlement and the wider context of the Traveller experience, demonstrating that the writer had researched the reasons behind the settlement’s establishment.

13. The publication then addressed the alleged inaccuracy arising from the article’s statement that Travellers are “not a race but a doomed mindset”. It said that, while this statement formed a central basis to the writer’s opinion as expressed in the column, it was no more than a statement of fact. It noted that, while Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies are protected in British law as ethnic minorities, no other Travellers are. It said that what linked the Traveller communities together was not race; rather, it was the “nomadic mindset”, which the writer considered incompatible with modern life – this was the central thrust of his column. This was the argument advanced by the writer in his claim that Travellers are “not a race but a doomed mindset”.

14. Regarding the use of anecdotal evidence to support the writer’s claim, including the experiences of his nephew, the publication noted that the anecdotes in the article were clearly framed as such and not as fact. It said that the writer’s nephew, quoted in the article, made no claim to speak for or about land-based Travellers or anyone else, but offered personal reflections on the nomadic mindset based on his own experience of living on a canal boat. As such, it said that the complainants’ concerns on this point did not engage the terms of Clause 1, where anecdotes and the use of personal experiences to support an argument is not prohibited under the terms of the Clause – provided such anecdotes and personal experiences and opinions are distinguished from fact, which they were in this article.

15. The publication also said that concerns that the article was biased against Travellers and portrayed them in a negative light did not engage the terms of the Clause 1, where newspapers are not prohibited under the Code from expressing bias. Nonetheless, while it accepted that the article may have caused offence, it did not accept that it was biased or portrayed the Traveller community in negative or biased manner, noting that the writer stated within the article that members of the Traveller community “are just people, just human souls like you or me; good, bad or indifferent, like you or me; and victims of their circumstances perhaps more than you or me”.

16. The publication next addressed the alleged breach of Clause 3, noting that the Clause relates to the conduct of journalists and not to concerns that article may lead to harassment – concerns, it regardless maintained, were unfounded. As such, it said that the terms of the Clause were not engaged.

17. Turning next to the alleged breach of Clause 12, the publication again said that it did not consider this Clause was engaged by the complainant’s concerns. It said this was the case as Clause 12 relates to prejudicial, pejorative, and/or irrelevant references to an individual’s characteristics, and the article contained no such references.

Relevant Clause Provisions

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 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. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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 

18. The Committee first noted that, while it accepted that the article had offended many complainants, the Editors’ Code does not address issues of taste or offence. The Code is designed to deal with any possible conflicts between the Press’ rights to freedom of expression and the rights of individuals. This meant that, while the Committee acknowledged the strength of feeling of many complainants, it wished to be clear at the outset that no breach of the Code would be found on the grounds that the article had offended or disgusted many readers. Instead, it was the role of the Committee to find whether the article had breached the terms of the Editors’ Code.

19. The Committee began its consideration with the complaints regarding accuracy. It noted that the article was a comment piece written by a regular columnist, and that it appeared in both the print edition and the website in the clearly defined “Comment” sections, with the columnist’s prominent by-line and photograph. It was written from a first-person perspective, and included repeated references to the writer’s own opinions and experiences. Therefore, the headline of the article was, the Committee considered, clearly distinguished as comment; it was not a claim of fact that “we […] pander[…] to Travellers”. Rather, it was the writer’s opinion of the nation’s collective approach to the Traveller community. While it was clear that complainants did not agree with the columnist’s opinion, the publication was entitled to publish it, provided it distinguished between his opinion and fact. The Committee was satisfied that the headline did so, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. Complainants said that the article was inaccurate because it did not explain the full circumstances that led to the Traveller settlement in Matlock. The Committee noted that the article did include some context regarding the settlement: the families had complex welfare needs, and the council was caught between a requirement to provide a site for the families and local opposition.  The absence of further background information was not misleading. The article was an opinion-piece based on the writer’s own responses to and exploration of the topic of Traveller culture in the UK; it was not an exploration of the reasons behind the specific settlement at Matlock. Rather, the Matlock settlement was referred to as a case study to launch a general commentary on the Traveller community in Britain, and complainants had not indicated that the information in the article about the settlement at Matlock was inaccurate. The absence of additional specific contextual information about the Matlock settlement did not render the article inaccurate, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The Committee turned next to address the alleged inaccuracy regarding the columnist’s comment that “we should […] phase out the ‘ethnic minority’ rights of people who are not a race but a doomed mindset”. Complainants had interpreted the mention of the word “race” as a denial that Travellers are recognised in law as having a distinct ethnic identity, while the publication argued that this was a narrow and overly legalistic interpretation of a few words taken out of context. It said that the columnist was expressing a view about the broader travelling community, not all of whom enjoy the protection in law as an ethnic minority, and the columnist was expressing the view that what links them all is not race, but a shared “mindset”.

22. The Committee noted the context in which the reference to race had appeared.  Earlier in the article the columnist had noted that “[e]ven the vocabulary stumps us” and that “There are Gypsies and Travellers and Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers and boat-dwellers and Roma and New Age [T]ravellers, and much overlapping”.  The article then acknowledged that “[m]ost are designated in law as an ‘ethnic grouping’”. The Committee was satisfied that, having previously made clear that the law recognises the “ethnic grouping” of many Travellers, the columnist’s comment was referring to travellers more generally and was making the point that the shared characteristic amongst this broader group was not race but a desire to lead a “nomad[ic]” lifestyle, which, in the columnist’s view, was “doomed” for the reasons which he had set out. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The terms of Clause 1 do not prohibit the use of anecdotes to support an argument, provided that such anecdotes are distinguished from fact – in line with the terms of Clause 1. The views of the writer’s nephew were clearly attributed to him and, while the Committee understood that many complainants disagreed with their inclusion within the column and disputed the nephew’s suitability to speak on matters pertaining to the Traveller community, publications are allowed to include the views of individuals where fact is distinguished from comment. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. Complainants had expressed concern that the article was biased against the Traveller community and had portrayed them as criminal and disruptive. The Editors’ Code does not address matters of bias; the Press is entitled to express a view and to publish the views of individuals. The Committee also noted that the article did not include any references to Travellers as a whole being criminals or disruptive; it concluded that “Travellers are just people, just human souls like you or me; good, bad or indifferent, like you or me.” Where the Editors’ Code does not address issues of bias, and where the article did not state that Travellers were criminals or disruptive, there was no breach of Clause 1.

25. Concerns that the article may lead to harassment from members of the public did not engage the terms of Clause 3, which relate only to the behaviour of journalists and not to wider concerns about any potentially adverse reactions from members of the public. There was no breach of Clause 3.

26. Clause 12 relates only to pejorative, prejudicial, or irrelevant references to an individual’s protected characteristic. Where the article did not include any such refence to an individual’s protected characteristic, there was no breach of the Clause.

Conclusions

27. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 27/05/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/08/2021