When journalists have to be their newsroom’s conscience

I thought my contempt for Kelvin MacKenzie couldn’t get any stronger.

But he’s proved me wrong in the last few weeks. Twice.

First of all, he admitted he had ‘buyer’s regret’ after voting Leave in the EU referendum.

This in the paper that probably did the most to swell the ranks of the Brexiteers.

The paper which the Liverpool Echo understandably refuses to name in full, calling it The S*n.

And then, this week, he used his column in that same paper to question whether Channel 4 News presenter Fatima Manji should have worn a hijab while reporting on the Nice terror attacks.

The regulator IPSO is now investigating 800 complaints about his column, and Fatima has written an exclusive piece for the Echo, delivering a hard-hitting attack on what she calls ‘smears’ against Muslims everywhere.

MacKenzie has been roundly condemned by Channel 4 News, the NUJ, and by media commentator Roy Greenslade, although he argues that the former Sun editor had every right to express his opinion.

There’s a huge freedom of expression vs incitement/offence debate to be had here, and I’ve already added this case study to dozens of others to be poked and prodded in a new ethics module with my students next year.

But what interested me was the fact that a few hours later, the Sun published a piece by one of its own journalists, Muslim writer Anila Baig, which took a contrary view to MacKenzie.

She wrote of Manji: “She’s a professional who has been working for the programme for four years, not someone dragged in off the street just because she’s wearing a scarf on her head. And to accuse her of being representative of ALL Muslims – including mentally ill ones who commit abhorrent heinous acts – is ridiculous.”

Former Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi – who has conducted an impassioned campaign to get Sun editor Tony Gallagher to delete the column from the paper’s website – was still less than impressed, however.

 

 

 

 

The reason the second opinion piece interested me was that it came more at more or less the same time as I saw a tweet announcing the results of a huge research project looking at the referendum.

As a politics geek, the prospect of 80 different pieces of analysis of the most important vote in at least a generation was a mouth-watering one.

There are two groups of articles on the media, with each piece interesting enough.

But I looked in vain for any mention of the fact – okay, of my very, very deep suspicion – that the vast majority of news journalists in this country backed the Remain side.

For many local and regional reporters, working for politically-neutral publications, this wasn’t necessarily a problem – although perhaps it led them to be dangerously insulated from the realities of life until that fateful Friday morning.

But I know that many national news journalists would have been writing pieces taking angles with which they bitterly disagreed.

Clearly, no one is holding a gun to the heads of these highly-paid folk.

But I wonder where the red lines lie for them – and I use the word lie deliberately there.

Fifteen years ago, the NUJ membership at the Express complained to the old Press Complaints Commission about their own paper’s relentlessly negative coverage of asylum-seekers.

And there is form for MacKenzie’s journalistic colleagues to rise up in protest against him, after he lost two jobs as a columnist within a year.

As with many an internal rebellion, it’s often the sports desk that makes a difference.

They can be the oldest and wisest hands, and the ones most reliant on contacts and relationships which can be broken by poor judgement elsewhere in the office.

It was – so the story goes – the sports desk at The Times which persuaded the paper’s powers-that-be to put the result of the Hillsborough inquest on the front page for its second edition.

I was reminded of that by the departure this week of its Merseyside football writer Tony Barrett, who apologised for his paper’s arrogant treatment of the story in its earlier edition.

There’s no doubt that The Sun scored a massive own goal with its so-called story about FA senior communications manager Andy Walker.

There was fury from the rest of the football journalism community, with this piece in the Birmingham Mail venting the anger of soccer writers frustrated at the unfair targeting of one of the most helpful sporting PRs in the business.

I’m all for journalists keeping to the straight and narrow road of impartiality, and I know more compromises have to be made on more fronts than ever before these days.

But sometimes a line in the sand has to be drawn. And sometimes that line is in your own office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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