PCC: Cambridge University newspaper wrong to quote anonymous Nazi jibe against academic

A Cambridge University research associate accused of having “racist and sexist” views by the Cambridge Student newspaper has had a PCC complaint upheld in part.

The story, published online on 21 June 2012, was based on the academic’s website as well as views shared by anonymous students and a source at the Cambridge University Students Union.

Martin Sewell complained to the PCC under clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The regulator did not uphold his complaints against the “racist and sexist” allegations, but said the paper was in breach of the code by quoting a union source as saying he had “explicitly endorsed National Socialism”.

The PCC agreed that a Cambridge Student clarification was a sufficient remedy, but this was then subject to a further complaint from Sewell, who said it was defamatory because it did not state that he had not endorsed National Socialism.

It said: “Our article, ‘Cambridge Economics supervisor criticised for racist and sexist views’ (21 June), reported students’ concerns about the views of Economics supervisor Martin Sewell. We quoted the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) as having commented, in reference to Mr Sewell, that [sic] ‘who explicitly endorses national socialism cannot remain as a supervisor for Cambridge students’. Mr Sewell has asked us to make clear that he does not explicitly endorse National Socialism. CUSU has told TCS that it stands by its original comments, and that it formed its view based on the content of Mr Sewell’s website. CUSU has pointed out that as Mr Sewell’s website is publicly available, anyone is free to examine its content and make up their own mind.”

After being contacted by the research associate – who had also complained about being described as a “researcher” – the PCC ruled that this clarification was not sufficient to remedy the breach.

But it said that publication of its ruling, and a link on the Cambridge Student’s original story, would be sufficient.

Sewell also had another accuracy complaint against the paper, which referenced the original story, rejected by the PCC.


Full adjudication:

Mr Martin Sewell complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Cambridge Economics supervisor criticised for racist and sexist views”, published on the website of The Cambridge Student on 21 June 2012, was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The Commission upheld the complaint, in part, but did not censure the newspaper.

The article reported that students at Cambridge University had raised concerns that material on the complainant’s website was “explicitly racist”, “sexist”, “contentious” and “offensive”. The article reported that the complainant, when writing on the significance of race in conjunction with crime,   had stated – “without reference to academic sources” – that “the most likely reason for the high incidence of black crime is blacks’ lower intelligence and greater impulsivity, which themselves are probably biological in origin”.  The article also reported that the complainant had said that “Hitler gave eugenics a bad name”, noting that the complainant had supported this statement by explaining that “eugenics can help eliminate genetic diseases, reduce personality disorders and increase intelligence”. The article also quoted an unidentified spokesman from the Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) as having said that “obviously an individual….who [had] explicitly endorsed National Socialism” could not remain at the University as a supervisor. The article included the response of the complainant, who attributed the criticism to “political correctness” and defended the material on the basis that “publishing novel material that is largely the result of synthesizing peer-reviewed scientific research is inherently educative”.

The complainant did not accept that students had raised concerns about the material on his website, and he considered that the reported controversy represented a collaborative effort between the newspaper and CUSU to smear him and to damage his career. He emphasised that he had maintained a website since 1999, without any prior complaint, but since the article’s publication he had struggled to find paid work. 

The complainant strenuously denied that he had expressed any racist or sexist views, or that he had endorsed National Socialism.  He explained that his opinions were based on science, not personal prejudice and expressed the view that “describing models of reality (i.e. doing/publishing science) should not be described as ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’” because such terms were “more usefully applied to the unfair treatment of individuals”. The complainant said that there was no credible basis for the claim that he explicitly supported National Socialism, given that the only reference to “National Socialism” on his website appeared in the form of a table ranking various ideologies “in order of preference”, in which National Socialism appeared 6th out of 8 ideologies listed, ahead of Communism and Radical Christianity. With regard to the allegation of racism, the complainant considered that, contrary to the claim in the article, his comments on the biological origins of crime were extensively referenced on his website, notwithstanding the absence of a reference in relation to the statement quoted in the article.

The complainant also said that he had departed the Faculty of Economics six days before the article’s publication and that he should therefore not have been described as an “Economics supervisor”.

The newspaper denied the complainant’s allegations that it had colluded with CUSU against the complainant; it was both constitutionally and functionally independent of CUSU. It explained that the genesis of the story was a meeting attended by a member of its editorial team, in which four past and present undergraduates had expressed concern about the material on the complainant’s website. It also provided a written statement from the CUSU official who had been quoted as asserting that the complainant “explicitly” endorsed National Socialism, who confirmed that he stood by his comments.

The newspaper argued that it had not endorsed or adopted the claims in the article, but rather that it had published the views of others. Nonetheless, it stated that it had extensively reviewed the material on the complainant’s website and regarded the comments published in the article as defensible. With regard to the allegations of racism and sexism, it explained that the complainant had said that men and women were born unequal, and that black people were biologically predisposed to crime. It defended the claim that the complainant had explicitly endorsed National Socialism on the ground that he had referenced the work of several writers who had been accused of National Socialist leanings and, in its view, the complainant had broadly supported the tenets of the ideology. For these reasons, the newspaper did not believe that the article breached the Code. Nonetheless, it offered to publish the following clarification: “Our article, ‘Cambridge Economics supervisor criticised for racist and sexist views’ (21 June), reported students’ concerns about the views of Economics supervisor Martin Sewell. We quoted the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) as having commented, in reference to Mr Sewell, that [sic] ‘who explicitly endorses national socialism cannot remain as a supervisor for Cambridge students’. Mr Sewell has asked us to make clear that he does not explicitly endorse National Socialism. CUSU has told TCS that it stands by its original comments, and that it formed its view based on the content of Mr Sewell’s website. CUSU has pointed out that as Mr Sewell’s website is publicly available, anyone is free to examine its content and make up their own mind”.

The Commission had previously found that the article had breached Clause (i) of the Editors’ Code in relation to the claim that the complainant had explicitly endorsed National Socialism, which the Commission had found to be inaccurate, but that the wording proposed by the newspaper, if published, would provide a sufficient remedy to the initial breach, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The clarification had subsequently been published by the newspaper, but following further correspondence from the complainant, the Commission decided to re-open the matter and to invite further comments from the parties.

The complainant considered that the clarification was inadequate because it carried no acknowledgement that he had not, as a matter of fact, endorsed National Socialism. The complainant believed that, furthermore, the clarification was defamatory because it suggested that material on his website contradicted his stated position; it did not retract the claim that he had “racist and sexist views”; and it inaccurately suggested that he was an “economics supervisor”.

The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and maintained that the National Socialism claim was a matter of interpretation, not a claim of fact. It considered that its clarification was an appropriate response to the complaint.

Adjudication

Clause 1 (Accuracy) (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice sets out that newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information; under Clause 1 (ii), a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence.

The Commission first re-considered the claim that the complainant “explicitly endorsed National Socialism”. This was an extremely serious allegation. Whilst it had been attributed to the CUSU official, the newspaper had an obligation to ensure that it was not misleading readers by publishing the claim. The Commission did not accept that the claim was substantiated by material on the complainant’s website; the reference to sources who had been criticised for their alleged sympathy with National Socialist ideas did not amount to an “explicit endorsement” of the ideology. In contrast to the examples contained in the article of the complainant’s alleged “racist” and “sexist” comments, no such examples had been provided regarding the National Socialism allegation. The Commission found that the publication of the bald claim raised a breach of Clause 1 (i), and the newspaper was therefore obliged to offer a remedy that would be sufficient to comply with Clause 1 (ii).

Before assessing the remedial action taken by the newspaper in this regard, the Commission re-considered the remaining issues of significance raised by the complainant under Clause 1.

While the Commission noted that the complainant remained of the view that the newspaper had failed to substantiate its position that complaints had been made by students about his writing, the newspaper had provided a signed statement from the individual who had been quoted anonymously in the article as a CUSU official, who confirmed that students had “expressed concerns about [the] material”. Further, the Commission noted that the complainant accepted that his views were controversial and that “political correctness” was part of the “climate of the West that we currently live in”. The Commission could identify no substantive reason to doubt that students had raised concerns of the kind outlined in the article and concluded that no breach of Clause 1 was established on this point.

The Commission noted that the newspaper had not, in the article, adopted the claims of “explicit racism” “racism” and “sexism”. The allegations were clearly attributed to CUSU and unnamed students, with the newspaper noting that “some of his statements have been considered as contentious, offensive or explicitly racist”. The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s strong objection to the claims and his position that he was “synthesising peer-reviewed scientific research”. The Commission also, however, noted that he accepted that it was “novel material” – in other words, it represented his interpretation of and commentary on the matters covered by the research that he had referenced. The question as to whether the complainant’s discussion of the significance of racial and sexual differences – ranging from mate selection to aptitude for tennis – was justified as a scientific inquiry , alternatively, that it amounted to “racism” or “sexism” was, to a great extent, a matter of interpretation, on which individuals were likely to disagree. The Commission noted that the complainant accepted that the statement on his website about the allegedly biological origins of “black crime” had not been referenced.  Whilst acknowledging the complainant’s position on this issue, the Commission also took into account that the newspaper had, in the article, quoted accurately from the complainant’s website on topics relating to race and sex; that it had provided further examples in correspondence of material that it considered supported the interpretation of the complainant’s views which had appeared in the article; and that the article had included the complainant’s response to the claims. In light of these considerations, the Commission did not consider that readers would have been misled regarding the nature and the basis of the claims made in the article and did not establish a breach of Clause 1 on these points.

The Commission also remained of the view that it was not significantly misleading to refer to the complainant as an “Economics supervisor” in circumstances where he had held this position shortly before the article’s publication, and the newspaper had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

The issue that had prompted the Commission’s reconsideration of the complaint was the concern raised by the complainant about the sufficiency of the published clarification as a remedy to the breach of Clause 1(i).  The newspaper had been made aware of the complainant’s concern, in this regard, but maintained that its published clarification was an appropriate response to the complaint.

The Commission, therefore, re-considered the wording which had been published by the newspaper by way of a remedy. For the reasons explained above, the Commission remained of the view that it was not necessary for the wording to have addressed the issues raised by the complainant concerning the racism and sexism points. The National Socialism point, however, was more difficult: the Commission considered that this claim would be understood by readers to be an assertion of fact. The published clarification merely set out the complainant’s response to the claim, stated that CUSU “[stood] by its original comments”, and directed readers to the complainant’s website. The clarification did not include an acknowledgment of the inaccuracy, which the Commission accepted was necessary if an adequate remedy was to be provided to the complainant. The Commission, therefore, found that the wording which had been published by the newspaper was insufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii). 

The Commission accepted, however, that the newspaper had published the clarification in good faith, following the Commission’s initial view that its publication would be a sufficient remedy. Accordingly, the Commission considered that it would not be appropriate to censure the newspaper at this stage. Instead, the Commission was satisfied that the complainant’s position with regard to the National Socialism claim would be adequately vindicated by this public ruling and by the publication of a link to this adjudication on the newspaper’s website alongside the original article and clarification. The newspaper should publish such a link as soon as possible on receipt of this ruling.


The complainant also raised concern that a further article published by The Cambridge Student on 25 April 2013, headlined “Liars: International newspaper falsely accuses TCS of being the mouthpiece for a ‘racist’ university”, was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was not upheld.

This article, published during the course of the investigation of the above complaint, set out the newspaper’s rebuttal of claims by a Pakistani newspaper that it was racist. As one example of its anti-racism, the newspaper said that “when Land Economy supervisor Martin Sewell was promoting racist and sexist views on his website, TCS exposed this. The University apparently took note; the Land Economy faculty and Judge Business School declined to renew his contracts”. The article contained no further reference to the complainant.

The complainant vigorously denied that he had promoted “racist and sexist views” and that his contracts had not been renewed because of the newspaper’s coverage. He had left the Land Economy faculty nine months before the 2012 article, and his security of tenure at the Judge Business School had always been precarious because he was on a rolling contract.  Further, he was a “research associate” in the Department of Land Economy, not a supervisor.

The newspaper maintained that it was justified, on the basis of the material cited on the complainant’s website, to refer to his views as “racist” and “sexist”. It stated that in an interview with another newspaper following the June article, the complainant had said that he believed the 2012 article was the reason the University had declined to renew his employment.  The newspaper explained that the inaccuracy regarding the complainant’s role had been a sub-editing error. While it did not believe this was a significant inaccuracy, it was willing to correct it.

Adjudication

In contrast with the 2012 article, the newspaper had clearly adopted the claims of racism and sexism here, and it had not included the complainant’s response in its brief reference to the case. As the Commission had noted above, claims of “racism” and “sexism” are inherently interpretative terms. The newspaper had made clear that these claims were founded upon material which had been published on the complainant’s website and it was, therefore, not necessary for the newspaper to include more detailed information about this material to avoid misleading readers.

While the complainant argued that the terms “racism” and “sexism” should be reserved for actions of discrimination directed at individuals, the Commission considered that it was not misleading for the newspaper to use these terms in a broader sense to refer to ideas that – in the view of the speaker – sought to ascribe observed variation among individuals wrongly to racial or sexual differences.

The complainant’s website contained a very large number of examples – some of which were referenced to peer-reviewed academic journals and some of which were not – of evaluative statements regarding the differences between men and women and among members of various “races”. The Commission noted the following examples. A discussion of creativity: “Whites are the most creative race. For cultural, social and institutional reasons, East Asians, despite having higher intelligence than Europeans, have a ‘creativity problem’.” A section on how sporting prowess can be explained by racial differences: “Bowling. Requires concentration and control, blacks are underrepresented… Golf. Requires concentration and control, blacks are underrepresented…Tennis. Requires concentration and control, blacks are underrepresented”: In a “Men and women FAQ”: “How do men and women get on at work? Male manager with male staff: the most normal situation; Male manager with female staff: the most harmonious combination of all, this situation approximates the normal world, with females in their social network and males in their hierarchy; Female manager with male staff: satisfactory, men simply find female bosses at worst incongruous; Female manager with female staff: the least successful arrangement, the female underlings tend to hate their bosses.” Further, “Of the minority of women who do have an interest in climbing organisations [citation], their motivation to do so is not to compete for the status that organisational positions provide men, but merely to be close to and in the path of high status men. Indeed, universities have for a long time functioned as very effective ‘finishing schools’ or ‘marriage markets’ for women”.

Just as the newspaper was entitled to report that students had formed these views of the material on the complainant’s website, it was entitled to express its own view as to how the material could be interpreted. There was no breach of the Code.

In relation to the final points in issue, the Commission noted that the claim regarding the decision not to renew the complainant’s contract as a result of the 25 June article was clearly distinguished as conjecture and, further, that the complainant did not appear to dispute that he had himself speculated that the 2012 article had affected his employment at the University. The inaccuracy regarding the complainant’s position in the Department of Land Economy was not considered by the Commission to be significant in the context of an article which raised more serious concerns, and which only mentioned the complainant briefly. The Commission welcomed the newspaper’s willingness to publish a correction on this point, but found no breach of Clause 1 on either of these issues.

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