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What Is the Point of the Press Complaints Commission?

This is a guest post by Jonathan Hoffman

On 11 August, the Evening Standard published the following article, written by the City Editor, Chris Blackhurst:


“One of the few areas to survive the impact of the global credit crunch is Islamic finance. It has continued to enjoy booming levels of wealth, buoyed up by Middle Eastern oil revenues. You would think, given their growing significance and the opportunities they represent, that the Government would be doing all it can to woo Islamic investors to the UK. You would be right. Ministers are keen for London to become a centre for Islamic funding and have looked at issuing a shariah compliant sukuk – the equivalent of a bond — in sterling.

So it’s disappointing to hear that the Government is being subjected to enormous pressure by those who believe Islamic banking is the thin edge of the wedge, a precursor to the UK becoming a Muslim nation. The pro-Israel lobby especially is very worried and consequently vociferous in opposing it.

It seems mad to me to ignore a potentially rich source of business and therefore income. Madder still if all we did was to drive it to Dubai.”

As David Hirsh over at Engage pointed out at the time, the article casually mirrored the themes of antisemitic conspiracy theory. The term “pro-Israel” is being used here as a synonym for “Islamophobic”; the “pro-Israel lobby” is assumed to be capable of subjecting the British government to “enormous pressure”; and the “pro-Israel lobby” is held to believe that “Islamic banking is the thin end of the wedge, a precursor to the UK becoming a Muslim nation.” Further, Blackhurst offered no evidence to link the “pro-Israel lobby” – whatever it might mean – to those who oppose Islamic finance.

So I wrote a letter for publication in the Standard. I also called the editorial department. But they did not publish my letter — and stuck to the story. Blackhurst insisted that he had spoken to someone ‘close to the Treasury’ who was frustrated at the slow progress of Islamic finance. But he could not reveal his source.

Of course if his source blamed those evil Zionists who dominate the world (at least its media and financial systems), it had to be true, didn’t it? It’s not as if there is anyone out there who ever wrongly blames the Zionist neocon imperialist lackeys. It’s not as if the Zionists have been blamed for the credit crunch, 9/11, SARS, global warming and Hurricane Katrina ….

And no need to question the ramblings of an antisemite, either. Why let the truth get in the way of a good conspiracy story?

Well, we had words and they invited me to write another letter. So I did – but they spiked that one as well – “not appropriate for the page”. They also refused to publish a correction.

So in early October I wrote to the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC code is here.

I argued that the article contravened the Code on two counts: Inaccuracy and Discrimination.  It was inaccurate because there is no single, homogenous “pro-Israel lobby”, in the sense of a single body with single policies. And there are no “pro-Israel” pressure groups which have been campaigning against Sharia-compliant finance.

I argued that if progress on Islamic finance in London was indeed slow, it might have something to do with the following reasons:

a) A Bahrain based group of Islamic scholars decreed in February 2008 that most sukkuk bonds run foul of religious rules. The Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions ruled in February that bonds fail to meet religious requirements if they have not transferred ownership of collateral to holders. The organisation said that 85% of sukkuk bonds failed this test.

b) Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue (26 June 2008) identified significant issues in the tax treatment of sukkuk bonds. They stated legislation would be needed to resolve these issues.

c) In a speech on 8 July 2008, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Kitty Ussher) said:

“As a further sign of our support for developing Islamic finance in the UK, we agreed at the most recent meeting of our Islamic finance experts group in June that we would publish a document by the end of the year, in collaboration with UKTI, outlining both the short and long term barriers and what we want to do about them. That will, we hope, focus all of our attentions on what needs to be done to make further progress towards the objectives we all share for Islamic finance.

And there are five particular issues that I think we need to think about:

– Tax and regulation;

– Standardisation;

– Awareness; and

– Skills.”

I argued that the article was discriminatory because

1. “Pro-Israel” is synonymous in most people’s minds with “Jewish”, given that more than 40% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and that 80% of the population of Israel is Jewish. The article was therefore tantamount to suggesting that Jews are acting against the national interest and in their own interest.

2. On the same basis, the article implied that Jews – acting as an organised “lobby” – both wish to obstruct government policy and have the power to do so. This ludicrous overstatement of Jewish power has been a theme of antisemitic discourse since “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

3. The article implied that Jews are Islamophobic.

It is a common misconception that the PCC’s discrimination provisions extend only to individuals who are the subject of discriminatory remarks in the Press. The Commission can act – and has acted – on behalf of groups. The context for discrimination is always an individual’s membership of a group, in this case Jews who are the object of ‘prejudicial or pejorative’ treatment by reference to their religion.

For an example of a PCC adjudication on a “group” complaint see here. In this adjudication the PCC found in favour of the elderly and those with mental health problems.

I also submitted a “Freedom of Information” request to the Treasury to find out if they had received any objections to the development of London as a centre of Islamic Finance which could possibly be characterised as coming from a “pro-Israel lobby”. Here is their reply (3 December):

We have searched our records and correspondence systems accordingly and I can confirm that we have found no recorded information on any such objections to either legislative changes or public statements in this regard.

I should also point out that in addition to the legislative changes and public statements, HM Treasury, together with the Debt Management Office have conducted a feasibility study into the possibility of the Government issuing a sovereign sterling sukuk. A consultation document was published in November 2007 and a response was published in June 2008. Both consultation and summary of responses can be viewed at:

Of the 41 received responses, nearly all were supportive of the Government sukuk issuance in either ‘bond-like’ or ‘bill-like’ form or in both forms. …..There were no objections on the grounds that Government should not be supporting the development of Islamic finance in London.

I thought I had a very strong case. The PCC may be a self-regulatory body but it stresses that there is a non-industry majority among the Commissioners.

In late October via the PCC I received an offer from The Standard to publish a letter, in order to settle the case. I refused. Having invested the time in preparing the case for the PCC, I wanted the Standard to publish a correction, to establish a precedent. After all, the absence of a pro-Israel lobby which has been ‘vociferous’ in opposing the development of Islamic finance in London is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.

But last week I received the PCC’s adjudication. It rejected my case. Here are some extracts.

“The Commission did not consider that the newspaper’s use of the phrase “pro-Israel lobby” was, in itself, misleading or inaccurate …. the reference was a shorthand – and indeed umbrella – term in which to refer to various pro-Israel groups … the complainant had challenged the accuracy of the information … which the newspaper had taken from a confidential source. … Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the code states that journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information. … the Commission has previously ruled … that [when] the veracity of information supplied by anonymous sources is challenged, newspapers must provide corroborative, on-the-record evidence to substantiate the information or offer a suitable opportunity to comment on the claims.”

In other words they considered that the offer of a letter absolved the Standard from the need to publish a correction, even though that offer only came ten weeks after the article appeared, after the rejection of two letters and under the pressure of a PCC referral.

And notice how they dismissed the argument that there is no single “pro-Israel Lobby”, in the sense of a single body with single policies. In a clumsy attempt at Catch-22 logic, they say that the term is simply a collective noun for lots of pro-Israel groups. But conceding that makes it even less likely that all the groups are going to come together to oppose the development of London as a financial centre. Just imagine the scene: In a bunker deep beneath the Hendon Bagel Bakery sit Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, the heads of the UK branches of Peace Now and Herut, the editor of the JC and representatives of Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel (there is an empty chair for the LibDems). Item 1 on the agenda: how to stop the development of Islamic finance in London.

PCC Commissioners: Is that really the way you see the world?

As regards my allegation of discrimination, the Commission again fell back on the argument that the Code was designed to protect the individual, and the Standard’s article did not name any individual. They seem happy to use this argument despite the precedent cited above (where they found in favour of the elderly and those with mental health problems). To quote again from the adjudication

“The Code does not prohibit discriminatory references to groups of people. To do so would – arguably – interfere with a basic principle of freedom of expression.”

The Standard again offered to publish a letter. I told the PCC I was prepared to accept the wording offered in late October, with the addition of the reference to the Freedom of Information finding. But in the meantime the Standard had changed the wording of the proposed letter. I refused to put my name to the revised wording, since it was neither complete nor clear. But the Standard would not go back to the October wording – and the PCC backed them.

This is the second bizarre adjudication I have had from the PCC in the last month. The first concerned The Guardian’s refusal to publish a correction (as opposed to a clarification) of John Pilger’s statement that “Israel is high in an international league table for its murder of journalists”.

So it may not surprise you that I am wondering what the point is of the Press Complaints Commission.

Does anyone know?

Unless the PCC saw this case as risking setting a precedent for other cases involving religious discrimination. But since their deliberations are not public, we will never know. Unless someone from the PCC would care to explain.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable (and pro bono) advice provided by Anthony Julius and colleagues on this case.