One of the frustrating things about newspaper journalism is that writers don’t have to back up what they print with any proof. This leaves many of the loud-mouthed columnists in the biggest selling dailies free to pass their opinions off as facts which often go unchallenged.
One recent example of this is an article published in the Daily Express by a writer called Leo McKinstry. Now out of all the daily UK papers, the Express is the one probably least acquainted with the concept of facts (in fact, doing a fact-check on an Express article feels a bit like searching for head lice on a bald head). But this particular article feels worthy of the effort because, whereas most loud-mouthed columnist articles tend to be a spew of ire without too much in the way of specific statements, Mr McKinstry made a number of comments in his article ‘All British people should be equal before the law’ that can be quite easily checked for accuracy.
So here is a fact-check on eight stand-out comments from that article.
There is evidence that the courts are biased in favour of ethnic minorities
This was a comment made amid a general piece in which it was asserted that ‘the state has become obsessed with pandering to minorities’. ‘Too many institutions indulge in special treatment of groups that have been awarded victim status’ McKinstry went on, arguing that this has led to ‘rank injustice against the British public’.
The inspiration for these comments was the recent inquiry headed by Labour MP David Lammy into racial prejudice in the criminal justice system. McKinstry believes that not only are the findings of this report wrong but that the whole reason the inquiry was held in the first place was because the state is ‘desperate to parade its hyper sensitivity towards ethnic minorities and migrant groups’. He disputes Lammy’s findings of judicial racism and asserts that ‘evidence points in the opposite direction’.
McKinstry cites one study of crown court verdicts that found that ethnic minority men were 9% more likely to be acquitted than white men in similar cases. But what does the bigger picture show?
The most recent statistics on race and the criminal justice system published on the government website are from 2014 and it’s a pretty mixed bag in terms of sentencing. While figures show that white offenders had higher conviction rates in terms of percentages than black or Asian offenders overall, black and Asian offenders were more likely to receive immediate custodial sentences than white offenders. This was consistent across males, females and juveniles. Additionally, the average length of custodial sentences for black and Asian offenders was greater than for white offenders. This tallies with evidence presented in the Lammy report.
So hardly a strong argument that the courts are inherently biased towards minority groups. The 2014 report also found that ethnic minorities were more likely to be stopped and searched or arrested by police and more likely to be victims of crime.
Separate judiciary statistics from 2017 show that ethnic minorities are under-represented among the judiciary, with 7% of court judges and 10% of tribunal judges identifying as ethnic minority (compared to around 14% of the UK as a whole). So if the criminal justice system is, as McKinstry seems to believe, over-run with political correctness, it doesn’t appear to have translated very strongly into career opportunities for minority groups.
Add to this the recent research that shows that just 3% of the 1,000 most powerful people in Britain are non-white and the whole argument that society has shifted in favour of minorities looks a little threadbare. It is based on weak anecdotal evidence, misinformation and a misinterpreting of race relations legislation that has sought to reduce historical imbalances between ethnic groups. Despite any real or imagined instances of ‘political correctness’, no institution in this country is biased in favour of ethnic minorities – including the criminal justice system – and there exists no real evidence to back it up.
There is a witch-hunt against British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland
This has been a popular narrative in the right-wing tabloids recently, inspired by ongoing investigations into the behaviour of British soldiers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
Much of this has concerned the forthcoming trial of army veteran Dennis Hutchings over the shooting of a man in 1974. McKinstry refers to this as ‘part of an official witch-hunt against hundreds of ex-Army personnel who served in Ulster. Yet ex-IRA thugs have not only been allowed to walk free but have even been welcomed into Northern Ireland’s government.’
Firstly, let’s deal with the Hutchings trial. Far from being the victim of a witch-hunt, he is standing trial for shooting an innocent unarmed man in the back as he fled Army patrol. Which is the way the law works. If you are accusing of shooting an innocent person dead, you stand trial – whether it happened last week, last year or forty years ago doesn’t matter. McKinstry seems to think that because Hutchings was wearing a British Army uniform and that he is now a 76-year-old man, that the law shouldn’t apply to him.
It’s true that the actions of hundreds of ex-soldiers are being investigated by Northern Ireland’s Legacy Investigation Branch. But these investigations concern 238 fatal incidents in which 302 people died. As the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) states: ‘In the early 70s, an illegal agreement existed between senior army and police officers which meant that soldiers involved in fatal incidents were rarely interviewed by police officers’.
So 302 unarmed people were killed and nobody was ever prosecuted. All that’s happening is that these crimes are finally being investigated. The PFC rightly puts it that ‘where (soldiers) didn’t uphold the law they should be subject to investigation and prosecution as with anyone else’.
To date, only four British soldiers have actually been convicted of shooting civilians in Northern Ireland and all were released after five years through ‘Royal Prerogative of Mercy’ despite being given life sentences. All were allowed to rejoin the army.
Contrast this with thousands of republican and loyalist prisoners who served years in jail. Yes, many were pardoned as part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) but most had served lengthy sentences. We are not talking about people who were never punished for their crimes. There is a huge difference between early release of prisoners as part of a mutual agreement – remember, prisoners from both sides were released, it wasn’t a one-sided thing – and crimes going completely unpunished. If ex-members of paramilitaries – loyalist or republican – were found guilty today of an unpunished offence committed before the GFA, they would be tried, as they should be.
So whether you see this as a witch-hunt or not rather depends on whether or not you feel that people suspected of murdering innocent people should stand trial in a court of law.
The government has failed to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM)
McKinstry moves onto what he sees as the ‘disgraceful failure‘ by the government to tackle FGM which he rightly describes as a ‘barbaric practice‘. Looking at the available evidence, he appears to be on more reliable ground with this assertion.
FGM has been illegal in the UK for over 30 years now but, despite a £2.8 million six-year programme called the Tackling FGM Initiative involving a range of charities and community groups that generated an extensive resource pack, a report by the House of Commons Select Committee in September 2016 revealed that there has not been one single successful prosecution for FGM. The report stated that this is a ‘national scandal that is continuing to result in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls‘. A study in 2011 estimated that there are approximately 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales subjected to FGM.
This country has casually accepted sharia law
A popular belief of the likes of Britain First and the English Defence League, and stated with confidence by McKinstry in his article, but another that doesn’t stand up to close examination. A recent Full Fact analysis into the existence of sharia courts in the UK found that, although there are a number of sharia councils (estimated to be between 30 and 80 in total) that have been set up to make decisions on religious matters, they aren’t courts of law and none have the power to over-rule regular courts.
The sharia councils exist to provide services such as family mediation and issue divorce certificates. Although some people are uncomfortable about their existence and there are concerns that women may be disadvantaged by mediation outcomes, these councils aren’t that much different from the Jewish rabbinical courts (which also have no power to over-rule regular courts) that have existed in the UK for over 200 years.
In 2016, the government launched an independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales.
The DWP pays out welfare benefits to multiple wives in polygamous marriages
McKinstry acknowledges that polygamous marriages are against the law in the UK. The only instances of polygamous marriage that this country recognises are where they have taken place in a country that permits them and where both parties were residents of that country at the time of marriage. Anecdotal evidence exists of some polygamous marriages taking place in the UK through informal ceremonies that are not recognised under UK law.
Although McKinstry’s statement has some truth to it, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A 2017 government briefing paper on polygamy states that: ‘At present, some benefits can be paid, in certain cases, in respect of more than one spouse‘. These rules have been in place in the UK since 1987.
At present, wives in polygamous marriages can claim for income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. Plus they can claim for child benefit/tax credits. Housing benefit and council tax benefit cannot be claimed for multiple households, so a husband cannot have multiple wives and claim separate housing and council tax benefit. In the event of the husband’s death, wives in polygamous marriages are not entitled to bereavement benefit and do not qualify for state pension on the basis of the husband’s contributions.
Making a welfare claim as a spouse in a polygamous marriage is actually a disincentive as the amount they receive as a polygamous wife is only 57% of what they would receive as an individual claimant in their own right. The government has decided that polygamous marriages will not be recognised under Universal Credit arrangements (currently being phased in and expected to be fully introduced by 2022). This means that in some cases polygamous households may receive more in welfare benefits than under current arrangements, as additional wives may claim as individual claimants in their own right.
Islamic jihadism has flourished in Britain to a greater extent than in any other European country
This comment is most likely based on the statement a few weeks back from Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terror coordinator, who warned that the UK is home to between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic extremists which is the highest known figure in Europe.
However, while this is obviously a big concern, the estimated number includes a vast range of individuals from those the security services feel could pose a genuine threat to fringe individuals who have featured in investigations, people who have had past links to extremism and people with no history of violence who have radical views.
The statement that jihadism has flourished in Britain to a greater extent than elsewhere can’t really be made on the basis of this figure for a few reasons. It’s an estimated rough figure, there haven’t been similar assessments made in other European countries, and the existence of individuals with extreme beliefs is not the same as jihadism flourishing. In fact, far more attacks have been prevented than carried out in this country. To say that jihadism is flourishing almost sounds as if you’re giving the terrorists a pat on the back and making them sound more successful in their goals than they have been.
There is open bias and exclusion against the indigenous population in some services and sectors
According to McKinstry, ‘the fixation with diversity is now carried to a grotesque conclusion of open bias and exclusion against the indigenous population‘. He claims that ‘in public housing, some providers trumpet their racial favouritism’ whereas elsewhere ‘a host of public sector training schemes are reserved for ethnic minority candidates‘.
The evidence he offers to back this up is paltry. The one housing provider he names is a voluntary sector organisation, the Camden-based Odu-Dua Housing Association which provides affordable housing for black and ethnic minority people in North London. Because that’s what the voluntary sector does – provides specialist support for various sections of the community in need. Odu-Dua runs 184 properties and was set up in the 1980s to find housing predominantly for young black homeless men. It doesn’t exclusively provide housing for BME groups but they are the main target group.
There are numerous housing associations that exist to cater for specific groups, such as Hanover which provides homes for the elderly, Windsor Walk which houses people with long-term mental health problems, Probus Housing which provides safe and secure accommodation for single working women, and the Mary Seacole Housing Association that provides homes for young single homeless people.
The problems with accessing adequate housing among minority groups has been documented in studies such as a 2004 report by Shelter which detailed how BME households were over four times more likely to experience homelessness than white households, with the causes of this including limited housing opportunities, racial harassment and lack of appropriate housing services.
Similarly flimsy is the claim that the public sector is now a hotbed of positive discrimination in terms of employment opportunities. McKinstry cites the BBC which offered training schemes targeting BME groups under its 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. But beyond this, there is no evidence of such schemes anywhere in the public sector.
Immigration to the UK is running at almost 600,000 arrivals a year
This is a misleading comment. McKinstry is talking about the gross figure, which according to the latest statistics is around 588,000. But the net figure, accounting for those leaving as well as arriving, was 339,000. There is little point in using the gross figure in most discussions on migration as it doesn’t tell you much about national migration patterns on its own. It’s like pointing out how much a specific social group cost in terms of public expenditure without also mentioning what that group pays back into the pot in taxes.
This is important here as McKinstry links the immigration figure to ‘collapse of justice‘, as if Britain is being invaded year upon year by waves of criminals. Yet there has been no significant increase in crime in the UK according to the most recent statistics, and recent research has found there to be no causal link between immigration and crime.
So the results of this fact-check on eight comments would suggest that only one of them (the government failing to tackle FGM) fully stands up to scrutiny. The rest are a mixture of the Express‘ textbook exaggeration, distortion and misinformation. A 12.5% accuracy rate – not good at all but, sad to say, not that surprising.
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