Friday, 17 February 2012

"Notorious" article on Charedi men cleared by Press Complaints Commission

This blog has more than once referred to an article written by Jewish Chronicle columnist and historian Geoffrey Alderman - mainly as an example of how heated the debate between different sections of the Jewish community can become.

Yesterday he emailed me the findings of the Press Complaints Commission which provides an 'establishment' version of how to interpret this remark which caused great offence in Stamford Hill.

This statement is not available on the PCC website but I called its press office which confirmed that this decision had recently been made.

Commission’s decision in the case of
Schwab v Jewish Chronicle

The complainant considered that the reference to Charedi men being notorious harassers of the opposite sex could not be substantiated. He stated that there were people who harassed women in every country but to suggest that a particular subsection of World Jewry was particularly guilty of such behaviour was inaccurate.

The Commission firstly considered the complaint under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code which states that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information and whilst free to be partisan must clearly distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.

The column was written in the first person and the Commission was satisfied that readers would understand that it reflected the personal views and experiences of the columnist. It acknowledged that the complainant strongly objected to the suggestion that Charedi men were notorious harassers of the opposite sex; however, it was satisfied that readers would be aware that this comment reflected the columnist’s own opinion. It was accepted that there had been media coverage of Charedi men harassing women and it was the newspaper’s position that this coverage demonstrated that they had an aversion to women. The complainant did not accept that a few isolated acts of harassment could substantiate a claim of notoriety, especially in this context. While the Commission acknowledged the complainant’s position, and understood that readers could find the comment objectionable, it had to have regard to the fact that there was no obvious or available means of testing a hypothesis of notoriety, it was ultimately the author’s interpretation based on recent media coverage. The newspaper had demonstrated that the columnist’s views were based on the recent media coverage surrounding the topic, and indeed the article itself had stated that “In Israel and the United States there have been numerous instances of inappropriate conduct by Charedi men towards women”. The Commission was satisfied that the claim had been presented as the opinion of the columnist based on recent media coverage, and while some readers would not agree with the comment, this did not render the article a breach of the Code.

In addition, the complainant stated that there was no evidence to support the claim that Charedi men were more likely to harass women than any other section of the general populace. However, the Commission noted that the columnist had not claimed that Charedi men were, as a group, more likely to commit acts of harassment against women, but rather that they were notorious for committing such acts. As such, the Commission did not establish a breach of the Code on this aspect of the complaint. The Commission also considered the complaint under the terms of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code, which states that 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. The clause does not cover references to groups or categories of people. In this instance, the article did not make a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the religion of a particular individual, but rather expressed the columnist’s views on Charedi men in general. While the Commission understood the concerns raised by the complainant, it did not establish that Clause 12 (i) of the Code had been breached. 

The Commission acknowledged that the complainant found the article offensive; however, it made clear that the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence. The Code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the Code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised.  To come to an inevitably subjective judgement as to whether such material is tasteless or offensive would amount to the Commission acting as a moral arbiter, which can lead to censorship. It could not, therefore, comment on this aspect of the complaint further.

Reference No. 115508

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