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Journalism – when to apologise? Cathy Newman and Tim Willcox

Earlier today Channel 4 News reporter Cathy Newman  issued an apology to Streatham Mosque and said that she would be taking a break from Twitter. Newman sparked controversy when she tweeted her irritation at being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque during the ‘visit my mosque day’.  The two main objections to her tweets were first that she hadn’t precisely been ‘ushered out’ and – more importantly perhaps – that she had gone to the wrong venue.

There are problems connected to women’s access to mosques, and it’s not surprising that some women responded to Newman’s tweets  in the light of their own experiences. But although genuine problems (large or small) shouldn’t be brushed aside, it does seem to be the case that Newman exaggerated a simple misunderstanding, leading to threats being made against the mosque. She was then subjected to some pretty horrible abuse herself.

Readers will probably remember the criticism Tim Willcox attracted following his inappropriate line of questioning when interviewing a Jewish woman in Paris last month. Now, as BBC Watch reports, Ofcom has responded:

“…in a new statement issued a day later, Ofcom said it had “carefully assessed complaints about alleged antisemitic comments” and “decided not to take the issue forward for further investigation.”

It explained: “While the comments clearly had the potential to cause offence, Ofcom considered a range of factors, including the live nature of this coverage and the need for an appropriate degree of freedom of expression, especially in news coverage of such a significant event.”

We can all make an error under pressure, on the spur of the moment, so it’s reasonable to note the ‘live nature’ of the interview. But invoking ‘freedom of expression’ is a rather different issue.  Ofcom could be said to imply (if only faintly, and not necessarily deliberately) some kind of parity between those who object to Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish, their right to exist, and those who raised concerns about Willcox’s questions in his capacity as a BBC reporter. ‘Freedom of expression’ doesn’t mean that those with professional responsibilities, such as journalists, should be allowed to get away with ill-judged comments.

I completely understand why people were concerned by Cathy Newman’s tweets, but I wish Willcox had been urged to make a similar apology.

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