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UK Press Standards org rejects complaint against newspaper for calling Vaisakhi Sikh new year TWICE

A Sikh Press Association complaint made against The Times newspaper for stating that Vaisakhi is the Sikh new year twice in three weeks has been rejected by the Independent Press Standards Authority (IPSO).

The ruling was made based on IPSO believing ‘Because the description of Vaisakhi as a “Sikh new year” festival is so widespread…the Committee did not consider that repeating it represented a failure to take care’. 

See the IPSO statement on the complaint rejection here.

Commenting on this ruling, Sikh PA Senior Press Office Jasveer Singh said: ‘This is a deeply disappointing outcome for the Sikh community and religious literacy in the UK. The rejection of our complaint by IPSO is a complete mockery of supposed press regulation in Britain. If newspapers cannot be held to account for a simple factual inaccuracy made multiple times, including on the front page, what can they be held to account for?

The reasons outlined by the IPSO Complaints Committee show a complete lack of understanding of this case. They refer to the fact that Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year as Sikh PA’s “position” when in fact it is an established, irrefutable fact. Moreover, much has been made by both The Times and IPSO of the “specific context of the photo captions” as if the fact that the inaccuracies occurred in a caption and not in a body of text somehow changes the level of accuracy required.’

During April 2018, print editions of The Times on two separate days – 9th April and 30th April – carried photograph captions that incorrectly described Vaisakhi as the Sikh new year.

A photograph in the 9th April edition of two boys at a Nagar Kirtan was accompanied by the
caption: ‘Street party: Thousands of Sikhs paraded through Glasgow on a route taking in the city’s four temples to mark Vaisakhi, the Sikh new year, next Saturday’.

The Sikh Press Association contacted The Times’ Feedback Editor regarding the caption, explaining: ‘Vaisakhi in fact marks the creation of the Khalsa, and the second month of the Sikh calendar. The Sikh year begins with the month of Chet’,  whilst also offering assistance with the aim of accuracy to help any future coverage on Sikh stories.

That email was not replied to and unfortunately, The Times ignored this advice. Mere weeks later, on 30th April, the description of Vaisakhi as the ‘Sikh new year’ made it onto the front page of the newspaper. A photograph of Sikhs at the Vaisakhi in the Square celebrations was accompanied by the caption: ‘Brothers in Arms: Jasdeep Singh, of the National Army Museum, with volunteers in First World War uniforms at a celebration of the Sikh new year in Trafalgar Square’.

Sikh PA raised this repeated mistake in a call to the newspaper’s feedback editor Rose Wild both on that day and over the course of the following weeks, taking the position that The Times had a duty to acknowledge the mistake publicly to all its readers who were misinformed about Vaisakhi. Sikh PA also suggested the newspaper actively show they take religious literacy seriously by sending somebody from the publication to a media training course which was being held by the Religious Media Centre. Not only did the newspaper did continue to ignore Sikh PA’s correspondence, their staff even stopped taking calls from Sikh PA press officers.

Following this, Sikh PA decided to submit a formal complaint to IPSO, which initiated correspondence between Sikh PA and Ian Brunskill, Assistant Editor at The Times under the clause of accuracy, based on the inaccurate statement about Vaisakhi.

Sikh PA argued that repeating the inaccuracy that Vaisakhi is the Sikh new year just weeks after being corrected over an identical accuracy, which was also upheld in 2015 in a complaint to The Sunday Times, contravened the provision that the press must take care to publish inaccurate information. Moreover, the second provision provided a solid basis upon which to expect a public apology from the newspaper.

Regarding The Times’ stance on the matter, the decision of the IPSO Complaints Committee stated:

‘The publication said that ‘Sikh new year’ was a widely-used
summary description for the festival, which was generally understood and almost universally used, and to claim that this was significantly inaccurate was disproportionate… The publication provided a wide range of sources in which the festival was referred to as the “Sikh new year”. The publication considered that the complainant’s interpretation was particular and orthodox…Because the description of Vaisakhi as a “Sikh new year” festival is so widespread, and encompasses Sikh and Indian sources, the Committee did not consider that repeating it represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the captions.’

The Sikh Press Association was and still are thoroughly unimpressed by the stance taken by The Times and their staff’s defensive and accusatory attitude towards a Sikh organisation explaining the significance of a Sikh festival. The response from Sikh PA to points made by The Times in its correspondence via IPSO can be seen here.

The Sikh Press Association constantly strives to promote and uphold accuracy regarding the reporting of Sikhs and Sikhi in the media. Sikh PA recognises that the reference to Vaisakhi as the Sikh new year is just as widespread as it is inaccurate. The Times was by no means the only media outlet to make that error this year; other high profile media outlets including ITV and the Guardian have made identical mistakes. In their cases, however, the offending descriptions were swiftly corrected in a quiet manner following professional dialogue with Sikh PA.

Jasveer Singh added regarding this situation: 2018 was the worst year since Sikh PA’s inception in seeing major news outlets describe Vaisakhi inaccurately. Whilst we recognise that means we have a lot more work to do internally, the UK media in general has a lot to be held to account for too. Most of them are simply regurgitating the first thing they find upon a google search of Vaisakhi, which includes a mistaken piece on the BBC website, which thus far no one at BBC has taken responsibility to correct, despite the fact we have been chasing this change for over a year.’

This outcome leaves Sikh PA with some serious consideration to do regarding how we engage with media organisations in the UK. As always, we ask for the support of the sadh sangat in moving forward. We only work at their direction and we hope both The Times and IPSO recognise Sikh community feelings on this issue. We will remain open for dialogue with both parties.’

For more information on this issue, Sikh PA can be contacted on email at media@sikhpa.com. Email The Times about this situation on feedback@thetimes.co.uk, and IPSO on inquiries@ipso.co.uk.

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