Hate speech and its pernicious effects

Well before Lord Justice Leveson had begun his lengthy inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press, the soothsayers were predicting it would result in a tougher system of self-regulation for newspaper journalists in the future. The hearing is barely a week old and already that is beginning to look inevitable.

Some readers will no doubt raise a cheer to that advent, but before they do they might pause to consider what life is like for those people who live in countries where readers would appreciate any form of meaningful self-regulation and where the payment of bribes to police officers and other dirty tricks would seem so routine as to be hardly worth mentioning.

We complain in this country about an apparently cosy relationship between politicians and the press but try working as a journalist in some of the emerging democracies in south-east Europe, for instance, and see what that relationship really means. Cosy is not the word. Your job is on the line if you criticise government; your newspaper will close as advertising from friends of an affronted politician is withdrawn overnight.

And yet even in this repressive shadow, journalists are working hard to bring professional standards to their trade, to seek to work to codes of practice, often in the face of opposition from their proprietors.

One such example is an initiative to combat hate speech in the media, run – appropriately, given its bitter history – in Sarajevo. Taking part in debates on this topic in a city where only a few years ago hatred took the lives of 10,000 people in a cruel siege certainly puts perspective on current difficulties in Britain.

The war may be over and the city vibrant again (though still pockmarked by shrapnel and gunfire) yet enmity still lurks in the background, emerging in political statements that masquerade as news. And not just in Bosnia-Herzegovina but right across Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Put simply, hate speech is a language that seeks to legitimise a vindictive attitude towards all those who are not “us”, those who are “other”, often dressed up as crude appeals to patriotism.

When some of the media are in the pockets of those who make these inflammatory statements, it’s nigh on impossible for self-regulation to have much effect but that doesn’t stop journalist associations and press councils doing their best to fight the good fight.

It’s all a question of balancing freedom of expression with responsible reporting.

Hate speech makes news every day. Cases arising directly from it and reported in our newspapers last week included the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, the attempt to ban images of women on the streets of Jerusalem and the revelations about a neo-Nazi gang in Germany. The media can’t ignore it but it requires careful reporting to expose it for the evil that it is.

At the same time, it’s equally important for the media to take steps to ensure that they don’t inadvertently incite hate speech. The editorial code that the Observer follows with the Guardian requires that references to race, ethnic background or religion should be left out of a story unless pertinent to it. The national Editors’ Code has a similar entry. This is ever more important as we host comments from readers on guardian.co.uk. It’s a shortcut to hate speech in these threads to mention, for instance, that the subject of a story is Jewish or a Muslim when that information has no relevance.

Those who post comments are obliged to follow guidelines that warn them that our moderators will ban them from the site if they use hate speech in their arguments.

We still have much to do to make coverage race-neutral in this country. For example, in what I hope was an unthinking gesture, the London Evening Standard ran a story about Lord Taylor, who was jailed for parliamentary fraud.

It described him as “the first black member of the House of Lords”. His race had absolutely nothing to do with his crime, so what was the point of mentioning it?

This column was originally published in The Observer on Nov. 19, 2011.

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