Despite the continuing debate about ‘Islamophobia’ and whether or not it is the right word, the reality of anti-Muslim bias in British media coverage of Islam and Muslims is no longer disputable. Not only is it now clear that the predominant narratives about Muslims in our media are overwhelmingly negative, inaccurate and racist; it is also clear that they have had a devastating social impact, undermining community cohesion and contributing to a dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
These are the findings of my new report, Race and Reform: Islam and Muslims in the British Media (PDF), submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Unitas Communications -- a cross-cultural communications agency specialising in Islam-West relations. My report draws on interviews with media professionals who have worked at the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The Times, Channel 4/ITN and BBC World TV. It also examines specialist studies of media coverage on Muslims going back to the early 1990s.
The range of journalists and editors we spoke to all concurred that the Leveson Inquiry’s terms of reference require it to urgently investigate how to ensure media accountability for false anti-Muslim reporting. Brian Cathcart, former deputy editor at the Independent on Sunday, told us that “where Muslims are concerned, some of the country’s top-selling newspapers have too often failed... damaging stereotypes have been adopted and repeated by some newspapers... Since these papers enjoy such wide circulation, this cannot fail to disadvantage Muslims in British society.”
Similarly, former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt commented: “There is no doubt that Muslims face a serious disadvantage in the way they are covered in the British press... underlying media coverage of Muslims is a base assumption... that there is a problem with them in relation to British society and values.” There is also “a lack of any positive coverage of the good work and great things that Muslims do.”
For the most part, the research shows that the populist tabloid press bears primary responsibility, with poor journalistic standards permitting the proliferation of anti-Muslim stories which, however, with their wide circulation tend to frame the news agenda for broadsheets and broadcasters. In particular, though, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 saw dramatic spikes in negative, stereotypical reporting across the board that tainted British Muslims with the brush of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.
Our most disturbing findings concerned the way anti-Muslim media coverage has detrimentally affected social cohesion. While in 2001, a third of British non-Muslims admitted feeling threatened by Islam, ten years on the number had doubled, with a further three quarters of non-Muslims agreeing that Islam in general is negative for Britain.
Simultaneously, anti-Muslim hate crimes have escalated in correlation with this rise in Islamophobic sentiment. The latest Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures show that the number of religiously aggravated offences referred to them has risen by 45 per cent. Yet Muslims account for more than 54 per cent of religiously aggravated offences overall through most of the decade, as well as 44 per cent of deaths due to racist hate crimes since the 1990s. Between 2009 and 2011, police data from just two regions confirms a record level of 1,200 religiously aggravated offences against Muslims.
So what is to be done?
Lord Guy Black of Brentwood, Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group, noted that despite some progress with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) on issues relating to false anti-Muslim reporting, further progress was necessary through a successor body to the PCC. Lord Black has also urged the need for this successor body to be able to conduct independent investigations and enforce penalties of up to £1 million. Yasir Mirza, Head of Diversity at Guardian News & Media noted the need for more robust enforcement powers for the PCC’s upcoming successor in dealing with third-party complaints from groups or communities, while Cathcart emphasised the need for the new regulatory regime to have statutory authority, although still remaining completely independent of both the press and the government. In addition, Julian Bond, Director of the Christian Muslim Forum, suggested the appointment of an advisor(s) to the upcoming regulatory framework on issues relating to Muslims and minorities.
Our recommendations also concerned simple issues of fairness and values. Professor Julian Petley, Chair of the Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom, highlighted the need for a statutory right of reply to factually incorrect articles, published swiftly and given equal prominence. He also suggested contractual recognition of the journalistic right to resist editorial pressure to report inaccurately. Going deeper, Tehmina Kazi, Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, urged a revision of the entire press code of conduct with assistance from the Equality & Human Rights Commission to ensure media compliance with existing equalities legislation.
Ultimately, though, the question of values led to recommendations about the very heart of media culture. Jason Beattie, political editor of the Daily Mirror, condemned the scarcity of Muslim journalists working in the local and national press, which he said increased opportunities for misunderstanding Islam and Muslims. He called for measures to improve diversity in media employment practices. Similarly, Rita Payne, former Asia editor at BBC World TV, addressed an institutional lack of familiarity with Islam by recommending specialist training for journalists reporting on faith and minority issues, particularly concerning Islam and Muslims. Both Beattie and Payne also called for more direct engagement between media and minority/Muslim communities.
It is critical that the Leveson Inquiry takes these recommendations seriously. Because a failure to do so may well lead to a more intolerant and dangerous society that is, consequently, less truly British.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Chief Research Officer at Unitas Communications and Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the award-winning documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011). His new report, Race and Reform, is here: http://www.unitascommunications.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/race-and-reform.pdf
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