Combatting Hate Speech in Print and Broadcasting Media
Seminar Organised by Community Radio Forum/Near FM
Paper by Peter Feeney, Press Ombudsman
Combatting Hate Speech in Print and Broadcasting Media
Tuesday 11 April 2017, Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin
We have to start from recognising that there is always a tension between the rights of freedom of expression and the abuse of that right. We have the freedom to express our own views and thoughts, this is central to democracy. But we also must protect society from actions which damage the public good and impinge upon the well-being of individual citizens.
So, what should you do if you find something printed in a newspaper or magazine that in your view is hate speech? If what is published is on the margins of what is acceptable my advice is to try and engage with the publication. If there is any chance that a reasoned debate might be possible join that debate. But if either what has been printed is beyond the acceptable or if it is clear that either the individual or the publication responsible for the hate speech are not interested in reasoned debate what are your options?
Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland states
The press shall not publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability or age.
The editors and journalists of every national newspaper in Ireland have signed up to the Code of Practice. This means that editors should not publish “material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred”. If in your opinion something has been published which causes grave offence or stirs up hatred you can make a complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. If your complaint is upheld the newspaper is obliged to publish in full the Press Ombudsman’s decision with due prominence. No editor wants to publish a decision which goes against his or her newspaper, the reputational damage is considerable. So, the possibility of having to publish focusses the minds of editors on ways to avoid this outcome. Before any formal decision of the Press Ombudsman the Case Officer in the Office of the Press Ombudsman tries to see if a conciliated resolution is possible. Would the complainant be satisfied with a right-of-reply? This could be a letter published in the letters’ page, it might even be an opportunity to publish your own article in response to the original article.
My experience is that most editors are open to engaging with their readers, that they will seek where possible to address readers’ concerns. So, my advice is to engage, don’t be passive, don’t assume that your voice won’t be heard. Journalists need to hear alternative viewpoints, they need to be informed of the concerns of those sections of society likely to be exposed to hate speech.
Now of course the editor may defend the original article and claim that it was only an opinion piece and that it contributed to public debate on an important topic. An editor may also argue that his or her newspaper is entitled to write robustly and without fear or favour and say that if the Press Ombudsman upholds the complaint it will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. There is undoubtedly more licence in opinion pieces than in straight forward news after all, opinions are just that, the views and thoughts of individuals. But, there are two other Principles of the Code of Practice worth considering.
If you believe there is something inaccurate in an article the editor may be in breach of Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy). This states:
In reporting news and information, the press shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy.
So, if an article that in your view contains inaccurate information make a complaint that Principle 1 has been breached.
You might also consider Principle 2. This states:
Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as fact
Newspapers should differentiate between news and commentary. If newspapers obscure the distinction there may well be a breach of Principle 2.
Principles 1, 2 and 8 are all worth considering in your efforts to combat hate speech. But I recognise that the Press Ombudsman only deals with complaints about newspapers, magazines and some online news services. We don’t deal with broadcasting (that is the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) and most importantly we don’t deal with social media.
There’s another consideration that needs to be taken into account about what the Press Ombudsman’s Office. We cannot consider complaints about comments posted online in the digital versions of newspapers. For legal reasons newspapers currently do not accept responsibility for these, arguing that there are hosting rather than publishing these comments. The same applies to comments posted in The Journal.ie (which is a member of the Press Council). Only its journalists’ articles are subject to the Press Ombudsman’s complaints process and not the comments posted under their articles.
We are all aware that most hate speech is to be found on Twitter and Facebook, the possibility of anonymous posting of hate speech on line is a huge factor in the growth of publication of hate speech. Online social media providers have largely ignored their responsibility to regulate what is posted. This is beginning to change. The German government has just last week proposed swingeing fines for social media providers if they do not take down offending material, Facebook is beginning to recognise its responsibility to respond to “fake news” and has a new initiative to warn its users that posted information is disputed by fact-checkers. These are welcome developments and indicate that the initial enthusiasm for the access to a wider audience for ordinary citizens (“citizen journalists”) has to be tempered by recognising that social media can be manipulated and exploited. There is no doubt that social media has opened up access to information and provided a means of distributing information that is in the public interest (think of the Arab spring and the role mobile phones played in challenging autocratic governments). Of course, any governmental or international efforts to curb the excesses of publication of hate speech has to be carefully monitored to ensure that freedom of expression is not curtailed. We need only look at the way the internet is controlled in China to see that enthusiasts for regulation need to be cautious in what they wish for.