The War on Terror has been greatly facilitated by the mainstream media’s bias against Muslims and Islam. This book offers a convincing analysis of how persistent and wide-ranging Islamophobia in the British media has been in the past ten years.
Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, eds. Julian Petley and Robin Richardson (Oneworld Publications 2011), 352pp.
Outrageous! ‘Piggy banks are being banned in case they offend Muslim customers… All promotional material bearing the figure has now been scrapped because the Koran forbids Muslims from eating pork and pigs are considered by them to be unclean’ (p.73). This is from an article that appeared in the Daily Express in 2005, and it would be understandable if readers were slightly taken aback by the news. If it were true, that is. But the story is nonsense: a local bank had produced posters for a savings campaign, featuring piggy banks; they were then taken down to be replaced by a different poster for next month’s campaign on personal loans. That’s all.
The episode is an extreme example of irresponsible journalism, but it is symptomatic of the sort of reporting on Islam and Muslims that has featured in the British press over the last decade, as Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media convincingly demonstrates. The book, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson, offers an in-depth analysis of similar episodes from the past ten years and concludes that there is an underlying current of Islamophobic bias running through the British media. Journalists have neglected their duty to promote informed debate about Muslims and Islam, and instead pandered to prejudice and fostered the anxiety of their readers. According to Richardson, ‘Muslims are the latest incarnation of folk devils in a lineage which since the 1950s has included teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, video nasties, recreational drug-taking, yardies, African-Caribbeans, welfare scroungers, dangerous dogs, teenage mothers, trendy teachers, asylum-seekers, Gypsies and travellers, and immigrants of many kinds’ (p.16).
The essays collected in this volume cover a wide range of topics. A very useful introduction tackles definitional and conceptual problems such as those associated with the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself. For example, is it appropriate to talk of a ‘phobia’? Does the term refer to fear of a religion, or rather to an anxiety about an ethno-religious group? The subsequent statistical analysis traces the growing coverage of British Muslims after 9/11 and again after the 7/7 bombings – and the way in which ‘Islamic’ and ‘British’ values were increasingly portrayed as incompatible. The following chapters offer closer examinations of individual episodes: the biased coverage of the British Muslim Council in a Panorama programme; inaccurately reported news items that reinforce anti-Muslim prejudices; the questionable anti-extremism agenda of the government; and others.
A very striking instance of anti-Muslim hysteria was the reaction provoked by a lecture that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave in early 2008. His comments were reported in the press as calling for the implementation of Sharia law, and the opinion pieces that appeared in the papers were characterised by a pronounced hostility to Islam in general. As it happens, the Archbishop had not proposed that members of any religious group (he was not referring to Muslims in particular) should ignore secular law, but merely that ‘they should have access to a second system on certain occasions’ (p.208), as Claire George writes in her essay. When it transpired that the press had been misrepresenting his comments, he was accused of liberal intellectualism, that is to say writing in such a style that there was no way he could not have been misrepresented.
The authors suggest several ways how publishers, editors and journalists can correct this anti-Muslim bias: publishing a range of opinion from Muslims; presenting Muslims ‘as individuals whose stories are worth telling, rather than merely as examples of a generic problem’ (p.272); employing more Muslims in media organisations; increasing journalists’ religious literacy; and, above all, adhering to the tenets of responsible journalism.
The fact that biased reporting about Islam is a persistent problem in the British (and, for that matter, ‘Western’) media was demonstrated yet again a few weeks ago, after the Norway massacre: Initially, several news outlets reported the crime as an attack by ‘Islamist extremists’, before it transpired that the murderer was a Norwegian racist. Most ludicrous was the coverage by The Sun. In the print edition that appeared the next morning, it confidently claimed to know the reason for the attacks: ‘Why Norway? The answer is simple’. Now, even by a tabloid’s standard, it is rather presumptuous to claim that the reason for such an event is simple and can be summarised in 60-odd words (that’s the length of the subsequent paragraph), before anyone has even the foggiest idea who was responsible for the attack. The reasons the paper put forward were that Norway was ‘brave’, that it ‘had stood up to Muslim fanatics’; ‘by daring to oppose terrorism’, the tabloid wrote, ‘Norway has become a victim of it’.
Only in the subsequent paragraph does the reader learn that this is all pure conjecture – the paper’s editors do not in fact know more than the reader herself: ‘We do not know if yesterday was the work of al-Qaeda, which has threatened Norway before, or Libyan madman Gaddafi’. Notice that in the bigoted world of The Sun, there are only two possible perpetrators. In the online version of the same article, this ‘mistake’ was corrected. The massacre has all of a sudden lost its political ramifications – it is just a loner with a ‘personal grievance’. Importantly, this interpretation was not confined to the usual suspects, i.e. the right-wing tabloids, but also appeared, for example, in *The Guardian*: Columnist Simon Jenkins wrote that the tragedy did not ‘signify’ anything and should not be seen as having any relevance to politics.
The prejudiced reaction by the Western media even provoked a condemnation from the UN: Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief said: ‘The way in which some public commentators immediately associated the horrifying mass murder in Norway last Friday with Islamist terrorism is revealing and indeed an embarrassing example of the powerful impact of prejudices and their capacity to enshrine stereotypes’.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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