[BLOG] Discrimination in the news

By Andrea Wills, IMPRESS Board Member.

This is my first ever blog and its written as I mark my first six months on the IMPRESS board. I am a broadcast journalist.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my transition from a working relationship with radio and television journalism to one with print and online news is to remember that impartiality is not a core editorial value required by the IMPRESS Standards Code. But that’s the only value I’ve had to sidestep. Otherwise the 10-clause Code is very familiar territory to me.

This year negotiating the boundary between upholding freedom of speech and opposing hate speech is very much in the news. This includes the on-going discussion about free speech in our universities and the examination of hate crime and specifically how the media treats minority groups. We’ve had Sir Elton John calling for a boycott of social media giants to force them to tackle homophobic hate speech and the BBC being criticised for its decision to broadcast Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full 50 years on.

In my view freedom of speech does not give me the right to say anything about anybody at any time or in any space. And that applies to journalists too. They must be able to reflect the prejudice and disadvantage that exists in the world around us, whilst avoiding prejudicial or pejorative references about an individual or group of people on the basis of a range of identifying characteristics including, disability, mental health, gender, race and, religion, all of which make them vulnerable to discrimination. 

The IMPRESS Standards Code balances freedom of expression with the public interest, journalistic interests and the rights of individuals. It also reflects the spirit of the Equalities legislation. The Code is broadly defined and takes account of both positive and negative societal changes in attitudes towards protected characteristics as well as legal changes in the way institutions and the courts understand and define them.

Code Clause 4, specifically, tackles ‘Discrimination’. It aims to protect individuals and groups attacked in the media based on their personal characteristics. It also aims to prevent incitement to hatred of a group based on that group’s characteristics. By doing so, Clause 4 recognises the potential for the use of discriminatory language in news stories to fuel existing public debate on the matter – debate that can often be very negative.

The boundary between upholding freedom of speech and opposing hate speech will continue to feature in the news. And IMPRESS will continue to monitor and participate in the conversation about it. You could join us.  We plan to hold open workshops and debates on this and other subjects later in the year, which will complement the webinars we already run for our regulated publishers.

Andrea Wills is an experienced broadcast journalist, and former Independent Editorial Adviser to the BBC Trust. She is currently a member of the IMPRESS Board.