IPSO lecture review: Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism

The threat of misinformation and fake news: an ‘assault on our sensibilities unrivalled in human history’.

This was the warning given by Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, who delivered the annual Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) lecture, writes Mariella Brown.

The talk responded to last weekend’s devastating attacks in Sri Lanka and felt poignant on the day of Lyra McKee’s funeral: two events which have gained wide coverage in relation to extremism and terror. Khan was well-placed to deliver a message to its audience, including newspaper editors, that journalistic integrity remains of paramount importance and value.

While Khan’s address focused on reporting terror and ‘the threat to journalism from extremism [as] one that cannot be ignored’, she was clear about the scale of the threat to society as a whole. Arguing extremism ultimately leads to the ‘undermining of trust in our democracy’, her lecture captured a range of concerns voiced in the recent media landscape: social media, fake news and the future of quality journalism.

These themes paved a route for Khan to offer to journalists tackling the minefield of reporting on extremism, urging journalists to maintain the values held dear – accuracy, integrity and quality.

She captured the paradox that journalists face, arguing ‘we need to be made aware of the threat’ of radical groups, while remaining acutely conscious of ‘the question is how to do so without playing into the hands of extremists’.

This tussle exposes the need for sensitive reporting, what Khan terms as ‘thinking critically’, to not generalise or ostracise groups of people. One example Khan offered was ensuring that Islamist extremists are labelled as such, not to generalise using sweeping statements to encompass a ‘whole community’. IPSO is currently drafting guidance on reporting Islamist extremism, where language is a crucial tool in averting misrepresentation. Khan spoke positively of how these future guidelines would empower journalists to report sensitively on extremism, which will also aid the fight against fake news.

The subject of social media, however, provides further concern. According to Khan, it offers an opportunity for extremists to ‘amplify their hatred and their activities further and faster than ever before.’ She spoke of the impact of a small hard core having a rippling effect on its readers by ‘challenging our perceptions of “truth” and “fact”’.

The perception of truth is a particularly thorny issue, as picked up by Sir Alan Moses, Chairman of IPSO. He responded to Khan’s speech with a reminder of the dangers of limiting the reporting of extremism, with IPSO’s role described as ‘striking a balance’ – the great question of censorship loomed overhead.

A lively Q&A session ensued with Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, asking whether it is possible to have a balance in a free society, and if so, how we maintain it.

One of the possible beacons may be found through Khan’s earlier thoughts. The conclusion of Khan’s speech positively urged: ‘I believe we need more speech, more debate […] not less’ – where this ‘debate’, based on the principles of free speech, is scrupulous and full of the journalistic integrity that the media world fights hard to uphold.