by Tom Law
In 2015 hate-speech became a mainstream concern for news media. Violent propaganda from media-savvy terrorists, loose language from populist politicians and bigoted journalism from the likes of Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins over the migration and refugee crisis have all put journalists and editors on their guard.
In today’s digital environment everyone can have their say but very often the discourse is poisoned by hate and intolerance.
An example of how easy it is for unwary journalists to be caught out came on 22 December 2015 during the Simon Lederman show on BBC Radio London. Get the Trolls Out, a Media Diversity Institute project to counter antisemitic hate speech in Europe, reports that a caller, “Andy from St Margaret’s”, was allowed 13 minutes on air to rant about Jewish world domination.
The caller, Get The Trolls Out says, received insufficient condemnation by the presenter for his statements, such as “We keep going on about the Jews… mainstream media, they keep banging on about the Jews and the Holocaust… we keep going on about six million Jews.” Several Jewish organisations have published articles condemning the incident, promising to file complaints to BBC and to Ofcom and asking readers to do the same.
This case raises serious ethical questions: How do people working on the edge of live news protect themselves – and their audience – from people with a hateful agenda? How can journalists ensure that they allow free speech, but maintain their ethical duty to do no harm? And what more should be done to help journalists to counter bigoted speech?
According to chair of the Ethical Journalism Network Dorothy Byrne, many of the answers are found by applying the regulations imposed by Ofcom, Britain’s independent state regulator of broadcasting, but much depends she warns on how “hate speech” is defined.
A good broadcaster, she says, would cut the person off and apologise to the listeners, depending on the content, while some programmes would challenge the speaker. She quotes a recent example when a young Muslim woman attacking gay people on the radio. “Instead of cutting her off, the presenter argued with her vociferously and you could say that was the best way to deal with that,” says Byrne.
David Jordan, Director of Editorial Policy and Standards at the BBC told us that for live radio shows where members of the public phone in, presenters and producers are obliged to follow the ‘Harm and Offence’ provision of the OFCOM code, which states they must:
“…provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion in such services of harmful and/or offensive material.”
The code goes on to say that offensive material must only be used where it can be justified by journalistic context.
In addition, the BBC has its own editorial guidelines on live output. People spouting offensive views are normally dealt with directly, says Jordan. The decision to challenge offensive speech is left to presenters and journalists. The BBC also pre-screens telephone calls into phone-in shows.
“It is not the case that people who may express views that some people may find offensive should be excluded from having their voice heard,” he says. “Famously, years ago the BBC included the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, on an edition of Question Time, the BBC’s most high profile current affairs and debate programme.”
Many people found the prospect of the leader of the BNP participating in a mainstream debate organised by the BBC offensive, but the level of support the BNP had received at recent European elections justified hearing their voice.
“Whilst the views that were being expressed were undoubtedly controversial,” says Jordan, “the way in which they were being expressed didn’t fall foul of any harm and offence guidelines.”
The issue, says Jordan is not about people saying things that some people may find offensive whether it is in relation to immigration or race or the Holocaust. “It is about how those views are expressed. If they are expressed in clearly racist ways using racist phrases or words then you might cut the debate off,” he says.
Jordan uses the example of the recent media controversy in Germany over the New Year assaults in Cologne where some people discussing the issue blamed immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
“Some people may find that offensive but that is no reason to not to deal with it and challenge it in the course of the phone-in,” he says. ”The phone-ins are designed to ensure that presenters do challenge the views that are put them, but not in intemperate ways, but by putting the other side of the story.”
Jordan is not convinced by the argument that the worst offenders are media-savvy groups or individuals trying to exploit media. “I think that there are times when people just get carried away and they use language and say things that are not appropriate.”
Jordan says he is unaware of a general sense of manipulation or even a large measure of that in people getting on programmes, but he admits that the BBC does not keep data in this area, which underlines the importance of monitoring on a regular basis such as that being organised by MDI and others.
Jordan does not comment on the BBC Radio London case, which is going to through the complaints system, but he highlights a problem with phone-ins where anything can be discussed. “Sometimes phone-ins are not dealing with any particular issue” he says, “there is a danger that calls will be made that the presenter might not be well informed enough to challenge adequately.”
Jordan added that even in situations where complaints are not filed, in circumstances where extreme views were not met with enough challenge then the production team would be told.
“We are constantly talking to programme makers and programme teams about the editorial guidelines as they apply to the content, “he says. “In some areas that advice changes over time due to rulings made by OFCOM and the rulings made by the BBC Trust about complaints.”
Whether or not the current complaint triggers any official changes in the advice given to presenters remains to be seen. But one thing is clear, some listeners felt that the caller concerned was not put on the spot over opinions that were not just offensive, but were hateful. Many will expect the BBC to act to ensure journalists or presenters in touch with their audience are better able to answer back when hate speech is in the air.
This article was orginally published by the Ethical Journalism Network
Tom Law is the Communications Officer of the Ethical Journalism Network.