The outgoing chairman of Britain’s major press regulator has said he suspects Muslims are written about in a different way to Jews or Roman Catholics.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Sir Alan Moses, who is standing down as chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), said the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the British press has been “the most difficult issue” facing the press watchdog in the past five years.
“I speak for myself, but I have a suspicion that [Muslims] are from time to time written about in a way that [newspapers] would simply not write about Jews or Roman Catholics,” said Moses.
His comments come two months ahead of Ipso’s plans to publish voluntary guidance for journalists when writing about Muslims.
Ipso was founded in 2014 after calls for a tougher system of press self-regulation following the phone hacking scandal. It regulates more than 1,000 British newspapers and can force members in breach of its editors’ code to publish a correction, or pay a fine if there has been a serious and systemic breach.
Sir Alan said Ipso faced “constant” requests to make its editors’ code stricter on discrimination, which states that the press “must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual based on a range of categories, including religion. “I think producing guidance is the best, sensible and decent way forward,” he said, adding that Ipso’s powers to “tell an editor what to write” were unprecedented and had to be administered “proportionally.”
But he argued that more stringent rules on what newspapers were allowed to write would lead British media down a dangerous path of authoritarianism. “That is not a price worth paying, but it is wretched if you are part of the group that is under attack.”
One of the first jobs for Sir Alan’s successor as chairman, Edward Faulks, will be to defend its guidance on writing about Muslims. It has already been branded a threat to free speech by newspapers such as The Telegraph.
The regulator has said the claims are “groundless” but added that “comment pieces, while free to be partisan, challenge, shock and offend, nonetheless must be accurate.”
Some critics have argued that Ipso is too close to the newspapers it seeks to regulate. The organisation is paid for by its members, which also foot the £150,000-a-year salary for the part-time role of the chair.
“We never have [issued a fine] because we have not had a newspaper that had a systemic failure,” Sir Alan said, adding that one outlet had been “close to it” because of “a stream of misleading statistics about immigration.”