Newspapers should be forced to apologise, print corrections, or even face heavy fines if they print misleading or offensive articles about disabled people and other minority groups, according to Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards.
Leveson’s long-awaited report could give disabled people’s organisations a way to fight back against newspapers that stir up hostility with inaccurate and disablist stories.
The report calls for a new independent regulatory body for the press, backed by legislation, with the power to impose fines of up to £1 million, and force printed corrections and apologies, although it is not yet clear how much of his report will secure government backing.
In the second volume of his 2,000-page report, Leveson also concludes that there has been “a significant tendency” within the newspaper industry which has led to the publication of “prejudicial or pejorative” references to disabled people and other minorities.
He says a new regulator would need to “address these issues as a matter of priority”, with the first step being to allow groups representing minorities such as disabled people to lodge “third party complaints”, with the possibility of fines, corrections and apologies if the newspaper was found to have breached the relevant standards.
He adds, in volume four of his report: “I see no reason why representative organisations should not be entitled to raise a complaint in relation both to accuracy and prejudice where articles are discriminatory in respect of a group.”
The “editor’s code” of the current, much-criticised press watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), says newspapers “must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability”, but provides no protection for minority groups if no individual has been identified in a story.
This has given newspapers freedom to run articles portraying disabled benefits claimants as “scroungers”, “spongers” and “fakers”, with the PCC powerless to act.
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) told the Leveson inquiry there was strong evidence that disabled people were facing an increase in targeted hostility and hate crime as a result of stories published in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, particularly on the subject of disability benefits.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London – which last year commissioned its own report into the media portrayal of disabled people – said she would welcome a way for DPOs to lodge complaints with a new watchdog, and the possibility of “redress”.
She said: “From what I understand so far the measure around third party reporting would be welcome. But we obviously need to look at this in more detail.”
And she said the success of any measures would depend on the effectiveness of a new regulator.
She also welcomed Leveson’s decision to include in his report three examples of “misleading articles” on incapacity benefit reform, which he says are examples of the “harmful” practice in parts of the media of “prioritising the worldview of a title over the accuracy of a story”.
One of the articles appeared in the Daily Mail (“400,000 ‘were trying it on’ to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity benefits can work”), another in The Sun (“Fit as a Fiddler: ‘Sick’ spongers could start work right now”), and the third in the Daily Telegraph (“Nine out of 10 sickness benefit claimants are judged fit to work”).
Earlier this year, disabled activists accused Leveson of sidelining them from the inquiry because he refused to allow any DPOs to give evidence in person about newspapers that had stirred up hostility.
In the report, Leveson says he is “very anxious to emphasise” that none of the written evidence that was accepted instead should be considered “second class”.
29 November 2012