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Daily Mail refer to travellers as a “species”, and the PCC stand by

newspapers, pic by 123rf.comSome weeks ago, I noticed an article on the Daily Mail website which contained some particularly unpleasant language about members of the Traveller communities. The offending line was thus:

A Traveller and his family – that much-protected species in today’s human-rights-obsessed world – are now living in it.

I’m not a Traveller, and I certainly wouldn’t purport to speak for that community. But the idea that anyone can talk about a race of people as a ‘species’ – or somehow subhuman – is deeply worrying. The ability to dehumanise groups of people based on their race or other characteristics is an integral part of many of the most shameful episodes in world history, from allowing Irish people to starve to death during the potato Famine, to capturing and selling African families into slavery, through to gassing Jews at Auschwitz.

While clearly a Daily Mail opinion piece is in a different order of magnitude to these atrocities, it’s important to combat dehumanisation wherever it occurs, in order to stop these views penetrating into the collective psyche. So I reported the piece to the Press Complaints Commission, citing the racial hatred elements of the code. On Friday evening I received the PCC’s decision:

Three complainants considered that the newspaper had breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The newspaper had published an article about a couple who have been unable to recover their stolen caravan. The article said that “a traveller and his family – that much-protected species in today’s human-rights obsessed world – are now living in it [the caravan]”.

The complainants were concerned that the reference to Travellers as a “species” was discriminatory and implied that they were inferior. Clause 12 (Discrimination) states that “the press 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 Commission made clear that Clause 12 protects individuals from discrimination; it does not cover references to groups or categories of people. The complainants’ concerns did not appear to relate to an individual, rather they considered that the article was discriminatory towards Travellers in general.

As such, there was no breach of the Code. The Commission noted that the article had been referring to the individual Travellers who were in possession of the caravan. It took the view, however, that it was not appropriate to pursue a complaint on behalf of one of these individuals without their involvement. Without their involvement the Commission would not be able to establish whether they considered the article to have been discriminatory.

Additionally, it would not be able to know what would be considered as a suitable resolution to the matter. The Commission acknowledged that the complainants had found the reference 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.

I have several concerns about the conclusions of the PCC. Firstly, I don’t accept that the author was specifically referring to an individual when he referred to “a traveller and his family” as “that much-protected species”. It’s equally as fair reading of the piece to infer from it that he’s talking about the man because he is a Traveller and is referring to Travellers as a group.

“Species” is a plural word. You rarely get species with one specimen in them. As such, although I agree that the individuals discussed more widely in the piece should have their views sought, I think it’s entirely appropriate for the PCC to take a wider view of the matter.

Moreover, the PCC’s judgement is self-contradictory. It says its code doesn’t cover groups, only individuals. However, it has decided that the sentence refers to an individual. It’s pretty clear that the pejorative comment about the individual man in question is down to his membership of the Travelling Community. Both Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are considered by British law to be ethnic groups, and as such are covered by the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Human Rights Act 1998. As such, the individual concerned should be protected from discrimination on the grounds of his race under the PCC code, which it conveniently ignores in this ruling.

So it looks like the Daily Mail can continue to publish what it likes about Travellers. I do hope though that individual journalists will take a more responsible view.

This article is an edited syndication from Christine Quigley’s blog

4 Comments

  1. Paul Trembath says:

    This strikes me as not being actual hate speech – I’m sure you could have found some in the Mail, probably on the same page, but this is not it.

    “Protected species” appears to be a metaphor alluding to measures like the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and claims that Travellers are treated as a special, endangered group. Probably untrue and offensive, but not hate speech of the kind suggested.

    The word “species” itself most often refers to a “kind” of living creature, but the first definition at dictionary.com isn’t specific to living creatures at all – “a class of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities”. I’m in agreement with the Mail (!) that Travellers could fairly be called a kind, class or category of something.

    And your objection that “species” implies that Travellers are subhuman – it’s possible that Mail readers have an essentialist view of species, and consider white (cis, het) European males to be the pinnacle of Creation, distinct from all other kinds. Lacking that context, any such meaning (dog) whistled straight through my ears.

  2. Robert says:

    When has the Mail not done this, New Labour use to use the Mail forum and comments section to seek justification of it policies, if labour came out with an attack on scroungers the two papers I guess on Blair and Brown table would be the sun and the mail the two top selling papers.

    So what if they call people names they have done it for years and years, look what they thought of Hitlers black shirts and the SS. says it all really.

  3. Chris says:

    Obviously the Mail hates travellers like crazy, but I don’t really think the “protected species” line is presenting them as subhuman or non-human.

    I think it’s probably a little rhetorical flourish – the sort of use of “species” you might see in “Mime artists are an endangered species on the streets of London these days” or something like that.

    I do think the PCC was probably right to reject your complaint, I must say.

  4. j_777 says:

    “… that much-protected species in today’s human-rights-obsessed world” is a little more than generalized use of the term species. The strike against human-rights’ concerns characterized as “obsessive” provides a context that makes the use of “species” pejorative – a smear. But then this is what the Mail does routinely so really not much of a surprise.

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