A new age of racism? Why the Leveson Inquiry must investigate anti-Muslim bigotry
The facts are in. Over the last two decades, British media coverage of Islam and Muslims has been overwhelmingly negative, stereotypical, inaccurate – and racist. And a range of journalists and editors from across print and broadcasting media in the UK concur that the problem is bad enough that the Leveson Inquiry should urgently investigate how to hold the media to account for this shocking lapse in journalistic standards.
These are the findings of my comprehensive report on the issue, Race and Reform: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, recently submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Unitas Communications – a cross-cultural communications agency specialising in Islam-West relations.
My report draws on interviews with a range of media professionals who have worked at the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, The Times, Channel 4/ITN and BBC World TV. But it also looks at specialist studies of media coverage on Islam and Muslims over the last two decades.
The findings are deeply disturbing, but they don’t just demonstrate an overwhelming trend of negative and inaccurate reporting. They also show that this trend is correlated with a steady rise in Islamophobic sentiments over the last decade, and that this in turn has contributed to an escalation of racist attacks on British Muslims.
All our interviewees agreed that anti-Muslim reporting was a significant problem in some sections of the British media. Jason Beattie, political editor of the Daily Mirror, said: “In general, though not exclusively, the portrayal of Muslims in the mainstream media has been unsatisfactory… [including] sloppy and sometimes stereotypical reporting.” Brian Cathcart, former deputy editor at The Independent on Sunday, similar notes 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.”
The problem is that particularly vocal sections of the media – mainly the tabloid press – put out inaccurate reports which, due to their wide circulation, often frame the news agenda for the rest of the media. Combined with lack of robust regulation, and a dearth in positive news stories, the result is a “general predominance of anti-Muslim narratives.”
But what is really shocking about our findings concerns the social impacts of biased reporting. In 2001, 32 per cent of British non-Muslims said they felt threatened by Islam. At the end of the decade, this figure had grown – a whopping 75 per cent of non-Muslims now believe Islam is negative for Britain, and 63 per cent don’t disagree that “Muslims are terrorists.”
In this same period, anti-Muslim hate crimes have been rising rapidly, and are now at record levels with police data from only two regions confirming 1,200 religiously-aggravated recorded offences against Muslims from 2009 to 2011. According to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the number of religiously-aggravated offences referred to the CPS has risen by 45 per cent – yet Muslims account for more than 54 per cent of these offences overall through most of the decade.
The journalists, editors and political leaders we consulted largely agreed that the only response to this toxic situation is an overhaul of the British media’s regulatory framework. According to former Channel 4 programmes editor Charlie Beckett, the problem is that “there has been a regulatory failure by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), combined with cowardice of politicians and other media groups to condemn the practices.”
For a start, the press code of conduct needs to be revised to take greater account of equality issues – a task which could be achieved with support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This should include addressing discrimination against groups through false and inaccurate reporting, not just individuals.
The PCC (or as is more likely its successor body) also must be better able enforce its obligations. On the one hand, this requires greater independence from both media and government. On the other, it entails meaningful sanctions and penalties. Under proposals by our interviewee Lord Guy Black of Brentwood, head of the PCC’s funding body, a future press regulator should have the power to launch independent investigations and impose fines of up to £1 million.
And last but not least, an independent advisory panel on minority issues would aid the new regulatory body in ensuring broader impartiality and fairness in media coverage.
But this is not simply about regulation. Many of our interviewees also emphasised the need to reform wider media culture in general.
Journalists and editors must receive appropriate training and education to ensure they have a grounded and valid understanding of minority issues in all their complexity and diversity. This better understanding should also be fostered by the creation of consultative forums in which media institutions are able to engage directly with British Muslim communities.
Likewise, we must ensure the protection of journalists attempting to exert their ethical right to resist editorial pressure to report inaccurately or in a way that involves racist denigration, as has already been unanimously voted for by unions at a TUC conference last year.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the issue of minority underrepresentation in the media, highlighted earlier this year by a New Statesman survey which found, among other things, that overall the British broadsheet press has only five non-white fixed weekly columnists. This scarcity of minorities, particularly Muslims, in the media can only be combated with robust measures of positive action to ensure that media institutions are more representative in their employment practices of the wider population.
None of these recommendations encroach on freedom of the press. But if they were implemented, they would go some way to slow the appalling breakdown of social cohesion we have experienced over the last ten years.Tagged in: bbc, Channel 4 News, daily express, daily mail, ethics, guardian, islam, Leveson Inquiry, muslim, pcc, press, Press Complaints Commission, racism
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