The predominant press narratives about Muslims in the United Kingdom are overwhelmingly negative, inaccurate and racist – the Leveson Inquiry must address this - says think-tank
For more than a decade after 9/11, the future of Muslims in Britain has looked bleak and will continue to do so without significant reform. Our report Race and reform
, which was submitted earlier this month to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, finds not only that the predominant narratives about Muslims in our media are overwhelmingly negative, inaccurate and racist. But also that this has had a devastating social impact, undermining community cohesion and contributing to a dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
The 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 Television
. It also examines specialist studies of media coverage on Muslims going back to the early 1990s.
For instance, one study of two liberal and conservative British broadsheets in the 1990s found that 88 per cent of articles on Islam reported the faith as a foreign phenomenon; and that British Muslims were most commonly linked with "fundamentalism". Similarly, a range of studies after 9/11 concur that the vast majority of coverage of Muslims is inaccurate and stereotypical. One noted that 91 per cent of articles about Muslims from a randomly selected one week period were "negative". Another looked at nearly a thousand British press articles between 2000 and 2008, finding that two thirds depicted British Muslims as a "threat" and a "problem". Yet another, which examined the last 15 years of British press coverage, concluded that after 9/11 British Muslims were consistently associated with terrorism and extremism - which in turn is associated with Islamic belief.
Why is this? Both the media professionals and the research suggested no evidence of a generic 'Islamophobia' across the entire British media – but rather a problem of particularly poor journalistic standards in the populist tabloid press; generating inaccurate reporting, which tends to frame the wider news agenda in print and broadcasting by establishing the major stories.
The biggest concern, though, is not simply with the reporting itself but with its social impact. Over the last decade, poll after poll proves that general British perceptions of Islam and Muslims have increasingly deteriorated, to the point that now a full two thirds of the population associate Muslims with terrorism. And three quarters of the population view Islam in general as negative for Britain.
And this has given fuel to far-right extremists, who frequently use the very same anti-Muslim media narratives to justify racist violence. Currently, hate crimes are at record levels with police data from only two regions recording 1,200 religiously-aggravated offences against Muslims over the last four years. And while the Crown Prosecution Service figures show that religious offences have risen by 45 per cent, they also show that Muslims are overrepresented in these crimes - accounting for more than 54 per cent of religiously-aggravated offences through most of the decade, as well as 44 per cent of deaths due to racist hate crimes since the 1990s.
In other words, if these trends continue to intensify for another decade - then we will all be in for a very rough ride as Britain becomes increasingly polarised along faith and ethnic lines. For this reason, it is imperative that Lord Leveson takes seriously the full range of recommendations put forward by the media professionals and community leaders we consulted.
They include: a more robust statutory regulatory framework, albeit one that is completely independent of both government and the press; powers to deal with complaints from third-parties including communities and groups; a statutory right of reply to factually inaccurate reports, given equal prominence; a better press code of conduct revised with assistance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure media compliance with existing equalities legislation; harsher penalties for violations of the press code of conduct including fines of up to £1m; the power to conduct independent investigations; establishment of an regulatory advisory panel on issues relating to Muslims and minorities; greater mechanisms for formal engagement and exchange between media agencies and minority groups; positive action to improve diversity in employment to promote more minorities and Muslims as journalists; and protection for journalists from editorial pressure to generate inaccurate stories.
It is not too late to put a stop to the deepening of the racial and religious divide that appears to have swept across Britain over the last ten years. However, we cannot achieve this without recognising the media's critical role in framing the exclusionary discourses that have unnecessarily inflamed social tensions. As former Independent on Sunday
deputy editor Brian Cathcart told us: "The Leveson Inquiry is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get these things right." Let us hope that this happens.Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development think-tank and chief research officer at Unitas Communications