A weekly newspaper has been accused by police of creating a “a platform for racial hatred” over comments posted to an online news story about the vandalism of an Islamic centre.
The Sutton Guardian story, published earlier this month, reported that the centre in Oakhill Road, Sutton, had been sprayed with graffiti that read: “Terrorize your own country,” and: “Go away”.
Andrew Parkes, group managing editor for Newsquest, owners of the weekly title and its website, said in a column today that the paper was under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
He said: “A senior officer has launched an investigation claiming my newspapers have ‘created a platform for racial hatred’”.
But a Met police spokesperson has since told Press Gazette that Newsquest “is not and has not been under investigation”.
There have been 114 comments from readers on the 5 June article, including one that said: “Graffiti versus mass murder? No comparison,” and another that said: “Those lads who showed their feelings are not ‘vandals’ at all, but patriots. And they have expressed the true sentiments of many millions of people in this country.”
Parkes told Press Gazette the publisher’s web policy was to moderate comments only if a complaint is made. He said if a comment was found to have breached its guidelines, including use of racist, homophobic and sexist remarks and/or swearing, it would then be removed.
“We get thousands of comments every day across our entire website, we couldn’t possibly moderate it in advance,” he said. “At this stage I’m still not aware that we have had a complaint [about comments on this story]”
Parkes said the investigation had been launched by the acting borough commander, Mark Lawrence, under the Public Order Act. He said police had initially suggested the comments be taken down “because of the current climate” following recent terror attacks.
He said Cmdr Lawrence had said of the comments in an email: “This has overstepped the mark to the point where it amounts to offences under the Public Order Act or other legislation… The Guardian has provided a platform and an impetus for this to happen which is why we are asking for that particular comment room to be taken down.
“I have asked my detective inspector in my community support unit to review comments and advise what thresholds have been breached.”
Parkes told Press Gazette: “I don’t accept this has overstepped the mark and it’s an important local story that needed to be reported. [Cmdr Lawrence] said he had a duty to protect individuals. I told him I have a duty to make sure individuals and communities are informed.”
He wrote in his column, published across Newsquest’s south London titles, that the story had been “balanced” and included statements from police and organisation TellMAMA, which records instances of anti-Muslim abuse.
He added: “For the police to seek to intimidate publishers to remove lawful, honest opinion from their readers is disgraceful and a direct attack upon free speech.
“They appear to be confusing police work with the enforcement of political correctness. Seeking to control the media in this way and either banning or controlling what people can say would be more at home in Russia or Thailand.
“I understand the police have a duty to protect individuals and communities who feel vulnerable in the current climate but an over-reaction of this kind does more harm than good and ultimately works against the very democracy we must fight to protect.”
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson told Press Gazette in a statement (Met’s emphasis): “The Sutton Guardian newspaper is not and has not been under investigation.
“It is wrong to claim that the Metropolitan Police has warned them that publishing a story could amount to offences under the public order act.
“There was concern from local police that some of the comments under the article ‘could’ constitute a public order offence and asked the editor to ‘consider’ if the platform for comments NOT the story should be removed. He DID NOT order the comments to be closed.
“He made all this clear in a personal email to the editor and also that it was a recommendation only whilst the comments were reviewed by a detective and the review was not one of the Sutton Guardian but rather of the comments by individuals.
“To equate this to state control of the media is a gross misrepresentation and insulting.
“The Metropolitan Police encourages its local officers to have a professional and constructive relationship with its local newspapers so they don’t have to just rely on centrally released statements and can discuss local issues with local officers.
“The local media play a vital role in helping the police to fight crime and hold the police accountable for their actions. We want a professional and constructive relationship and at times there will be tensions. However to misrepresent our actions to such an extent is unhelpful.”
In response, Parkes said: “The borough commander contacted the newsdesk on 7 June and informed the Sutton Guardian it would be investigated in relation to a story it had published about a vandalism attack on a mosque.
“No specific comment on the story was complained of, but a request was made to remove the ability to comment on the story.
“The Sutton Guardian was informed it had overstepped the mark and provided a platform where comments had been made which could amount to offences under the Public Order Act.
“I would welcome the opportunity to have a professional and constructive relationship with local police.”