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Press watchdog rejects complaints over Rod Liddle “piano wire” column

IPSO says anti-cyclist column did not breach Editors' Code of Practice...

Press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has rejected complaints regarding Rod Liddle’s recent column in The Sunday Times in which he wrote that he found it “tempting” to “tie piano wire at neck height across the road” to target cyclists, with the regulator saying that the article did not infringe the Editors’ Code of Practice. The column has been published at a time when unprovoked attacks against cyclists, including through the use of booby traps such as wire, appear to be on the rise.

In a detailed response (published in full at the end of this article) to people who complained to it about the column under various provisions of the Editors’ Code, IPSO “noted that many complainants expressed concerns that the article could incite violence against cyclists,” and that others maintained that it “constituted hate speech” due to the reference to piano wire across the road.

“However,” IPSO said, “both hate speech and incitement are potentially criminal matters which are dealt with by the police. If you believe that the article was inciting hatred or violence, or constituted hate speech, then you may wish to contact the police about these concerns as IPSO cannot offer advice on criminal matters.”

Other complaints were rejected because they did not fall within the provisions of the Editors’ Code.

Complaints under Clause 3 (Harassment) that the column “constituted harassment towards cyclists and could potentially encourage further hatred and harassment from members of the public” were rejected because, IPSO said, that clause “generally relates to the way journalists behave when researching a news story and is meant to protect specific individuals from being repeatedly approached by the press against their wishes.”

Similarly, IPSO said that Clause 12 (Dsicrimination) “is designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press from discrimination based on their race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability,” but does not apply to groups or categories of people,” such as “cyclists.”

IPSO also said that it could not pursue complaints alleging that the article “was highly offensive, inappropriate and irresponsible.”

It said: “We should note that the Editors’ Code does not address the issues of taste or offence. It is designed to deal with any possible conflicts between newspapers’ right to freedom of expression and the rights of individuals, such as their right to privacy.

“Newspapers and magazine are free to publish what they think is appropriate as long as the rights of individuals – which are protected under the Code – are not infringed upon. Accordingly, concerns that the article was offensive and inappropriate did not engage of the terms of the Editors’ Code,” IPSO added.

The Sunday Times last week defended the column, published on 24 May, saying that it “was not meant to be taken seriously,” despite receiving complaints from the charity Cycling UK, broadcaster Ned Boulting and barrister James M Turner QC, among others.

> Sunday Times says Rod Liddle “piano wire” column “not intended to be taken seriously”

That, plus the response from IPSO, which does admittedly appear hamstrung by the specific provisions of the Editors’ Code and lack of scope to deviate from that, means disappointment and frustration for those who did complain.

One cyclist who received the response from IPSO was Blythe Storm, who posted the text of the letter on her Girl On A Brompton blog in a post headed, Sunday Times threats to cyclists perfectly acceptable?

She wrote: “I am, to be frank, pretty disgusted with the response. It may not breach their ‘code’ but that doesn’t excuse the language or sentiment that has been expressed and the damage it has done to the relationship between the media and cyclists, and cyclists and the general public.

“It is appalling that this is allowed to continue, and does so even whilst people are in hospital and at home recovering from unprovoked attacks. For the Sunday Times to accept no responsibility for these assaults, when they were clearly prompted and justified by its staff writer is simply appalling and further assaults and attacks will now be seen as ‘justified’ in the eyes of some of their readers.

Cycling UK told road.cc that it did not itself lodge a complaint with IPSO since “our complaint did not fall within the strict rules of the Editor’s Code.”

It did, however, make a formal complaint to The Sunday Times, saying that the column was “inflammatory, in seriously poor taste, and implies that a seriously dangerous and criminal act is somehow an acceptable course of conduct.”

Today, Duncan Dollimore, the charity’s head of campaigns, said: “Although The Sunday Times this Sunday published a letter highlighting Cycling UK’s concerns in response to Rod Liddle’s article, we have yet to receive a response to our more detailed complaint letter. We will comment further as and when that is received.”

 The full text of the letter sent by IPSO to people who complained about the article appears below.

Dear Complainants,

I write further to our earlier email regarding your complaint about an article headlined “Auntie’s doing her job again. All it took was thousands of deaths and a useless cabinet”, published by The Sunday Times on 24 May 2020.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has received a number of complaints about this article. In order to be able to respond in a timely manner, we have prepared a response which deals with the various concerns raised by complaints.

When IPSO receives a complaint, the Executive staff review it first to decide whether the complaint falls within our remit, and whether it raises a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. We have read your complaint carefully, and have decided that it does not raise a possible breach of the Editors’ Code.

First, I should make clear that our response deals only with the concerns raised under the Editors’ Code of Practice. We noted that many complainants expressed concerns that the article could incite violence against cyclists as it stated that “it’s tempting” to “tie piano wire at neck height across the road”.  Other complainants were concerned that this phrase constituted hate speech. However, both hate speech and incitement are potentially criminal matters which are dealt with by the police. If you believe that the article was inciting hatred or violence, or constituted hate speech, then you may wish to contact the police about these concerns as IPSO cannot offer advice on criminal matters.

Many complainants said that the article breached Clause 3 (Harassment) as it constituted harassment towards cyclists and could potentially encourage further hatred and harassment from members of the public. However, Clause 3 generally relates to the way journalists behave when researching a news story and is meant to protect specific individuals from being repeatedly approached by the press against their wishes. As the concerns we received did not relate to this, the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

Many complainants also said that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) because it discriminated against cyclists. Clause 12 is designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press from discrimination based on their race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. It does not apply to groups or categories of people.  The concern that the article discriminated against cyclists in general did not relate to an individual, nor did it relate to a protected characteristic listed under Clause 12. This meant that it did not engage the terms of this Clause. For more information about Clause 12 and how it works, this blog may be of interest.

https://www.ipso.co.uk/news-press-releases/blog/ipso-blog-how-clause-12-...

Some complainants said the article breached Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) because it encouraged members of the public to injure cyclists. Clause 10 relates to the obtaining of information by journalists through clandestine means or by deploying subterfuge – for instance, by using undercover reporters.  As the complaints that we received did not relate to this, and therefore the terms of Clause 10 were not engaged. 

Many complainants expressed concerns that the article was highly offensive, inappropriate and irresponsible. We should note that the Editors’ Code does not address the issues of taste or offence. It is designed to deal with any possible conflicts between newspapers’ right to freedom of expression and the rights of individuals, such as their right to privacy. Newspapers and magazine are free to publish what they think is appropriate as long as the rights of individuals – which are protected under the Code – are not infringed upon. Accordingly, concerns that the article was offensive and inappropriate did not engage of the terms of the Editors’ Code.

We would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider the points you have raised, and have shared this correspondence with the newspaper to make it aware of your concerns.

You are entitled to request that the Executive’s decision to reject your complaint be reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee. To do so you will need to write to us in the next seven days, setting out the reasons why you believe the decision should be reviewed. Please note that we are unable to accept requests for review made seven days after the date of this email.

Best wishes,

Sebastian Harwood

Cc

The Sunday Times

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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