The Leveson Inquiry published its report into the UK press last Thursday. As you may know, I gave evidence to the Inquiry on behalf of ENGAGE back in January. It appears that while both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have courageously given their full support to the Leveson report’s recommendations (it won’t win them any friends amongst key press barons and editors), our idiot Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already signalled that he is opposed to key elements of the report.
Please do take two minutes to sign the Hacked Off petition calling on the UK government to implement the Leveson recommendations in full. It will also generate an automated email to your MP asking them to support the Leveson report. Also, do forward the link to the Hacked Off petition to all your friends and contacts and urge them to do the same so we can hopefully have a more accountable press in this country. As Leveson said it is outrageous that the press are in effect allowed to mark their own homework.
Anyway, it was with interest that I read the section in the Leveson report about the treatment of minorities in the UK press. Here is the key extract:
8.34 It seems that a raising of the game is also required in relation to the representation of some ethnic minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants drew the Inquiry’s attention to a recent report from the Council of Europe’s Commission on Racism and Intolerance, which stated:395“[ECRI] notes with concern that Muslims, migrants and asylum seekers Gypsies/Travellers are regularly presented in a negative light in the mainstream media, and in particular the tabloid press, where they are frequently portrayed, for example, as being by definition associated with terrorism, sponging off British society, making bogus claims for protection or being troublemakers. ECRI is concerned… [about] the racist and xenophobic messages themselves that are thus propagated in the media…”
8.35 This conclusion, and in particular, the identification of Muslims, migrants, asylum seekers and gypsies/travellers as the targets of press hostility and/or xenophobia in the press, was supported by the evidence seen by the Inquiry.
8.36 In relation to alleged discrimination of Muslims, the Muslim advocacy group Engageshared its concern that the last decade had seen, within parts of the tabloid press, an increase in Islamophobic and discriminatory coverage of Muslim issues. It drew the Inquiry’s attention to numerous headlines referring to Muslims, or Muslim practices, in alarmist and sensational terms. It noted, amongst others, the following headlines, which appeared to have little factual basis but which may have contributed to a negative perception of Muslims in the UK: ‘Muslim Schools Ban Our Culture’; ‘BBC Puts Muslims Before You!’; ‘Christmas is Banned: It Offends Muslims’; ‘Brit Kids Forced to Eat Halal School Dinners!’; ‘Muslims Tell Us How To Run Our Schools’.396
8.37 The organisation submitted to the Inquiry a summary of some of its complaints to the PCC since December 2007 relating to inflammatory and inaccurate reporting. The articles of which Engage had complained included:(a) a Daily Star article entitled ‘Poppies banned in Terror Hotspots’, which suggested that a ban on the sale of Remembrance Day poppies had been imposed in certain Muslim populated areas, where no such ban existed.397(b) A Daily Star article entitled ‘Muslim only public loos’, which suggested that a local authority planned to build new public toilets, with taxpayer money, for the exclusive use of Muslims, when this was a simple fiction.398(c) A Daily Express article entitled ‘Muslim plot to kill the pope’, which reported on a non-existent plot.399(d) A Daily Mail article entitled ‘Cafe wins fight to fry bacon after Muslim complaints’ which implied that complaints to a local authority which had sparked enforcement action by planning officers had been made by Muslims, when that was not the case.400
Engagealso drew the Inquiry’s attention to complaints made by others to the PCC in relation to articles alleged to be discriminatory or inaccurate in their reporting of Muslim issues. Those complaints included:(a) A complaint from ummah.com
in relation to an article in The Sun alleging a Muslim plot to kill prominent British Jews. The basis of the article was an apparently extremist posting on the ummah.com
website. Investigations revealed that the posting had in fact been fabricated by The Sun’s “anti-terror expert” and the story had no basis whatsoever.401(b) A complaint from the Ummah Welfare Trust, an international relief and development charity, in relation to a Daily Express article alleging connections between the charity and terrorist organisations on the UN’s proscribed list. There were no such connections.
8.39 Engage’s representative, Inayat Bunglawala, was of the view that the articles complained of had the cumulative effect of increasing prejudice against Muslims. However, he went further: his view was that the headlines identified, and the decisions to place those articles on the front page of the newspapers, were deliberate, and were intended deliberately to increase such prejudice.403 He indicated that many of the headlines had been used by the far right to further its racist propaganda.404
8.40 The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne shared some of these concerns. His pamphlet ‘Muslims Under Siege’ was instructive.405 It recalled a story published in The Sun with the headline ‘Brave Heroes Hounded Out’ which told how “Muslim yobs” had wrecked a house to prevent British soldiers returning from Afghanistan from moving in. In his pamphlet, Mr Oborne noted that millions of Sun readers reading the article would have felt justified anger and contempt for “the violent and treacherous Muslims who had carried out such a disloyal act against brave British soldiers. But there was one very big problem with the Sun story… there was no Muslim involvement of any kind.” The pamphlet continued:406“What the Sun had done was to take a local story about a piece of vandalism, probably caused by local snobbery about the presence of soldiers – and convert it into another kind of story altogether about evil Muslims. This case is far from unique. As we discovered while researching this pamphlet, is in fact typical of reporting of the Muslim communities across large parts of the mainstream British media.’
8.41 Suleman Nagdi MBE, representing the Federation of Muslim Organisations, considered that “certain tabloid papers have reported on issues concerning Muslims with a lack of accountability which has resulted in a climate of hostility in both the reporters and the readership”.407 He thought that some articles were explicitly discriminatory, but drew the Inquiry’s attention to the conclusions of a study published by Paul Baker of Lancaster University entitled ‘The Representation of Muslims in the British Press 1998-2009. This concluded:408“More common than the expressly negative representation of Muslims, was a more subtle set of implicitly negative representations, with Muslims often being “collectivised” via homogenising terms like “Muslim world” and written about predominantly in contexts to do with conflict, terrorism and extremism.”
8.42 Other academic research seen by the Inquiry supports that view. In its briefing note for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia, Engagedrew attention to a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies which had reviewed the representation of British Muslims in the press between 2000 – 2008.409 That report concluded:410“In sum, we found that the bulk of coverage of British Muslims – around two thirds – focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general).
The language used about British Muslims reflects the negative or problematic contexts in which they tend to appear. Four of the five most common discourses used about Muslims in the British press associate Islam/Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values. So, for example, the idea that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational is present in 26% of stories. By contrast, only 2% of stories contained the proposition that Muslims supported dominant moral values.Similarly, we found that the most common nouns used in relation to British Muslims were terrorist, extremist, Islamist, suicide bomber and militant, with very few positive nouns (such as ‘scholar’) used. The most common adjectives used were radical, fanatical, fundamentalist, extremist and militant. Indeed, references to radical Muslims outnumber references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.”
8.43 Mr Peppiatt suggested that this type of unbalanced reporting was motivated by circulation. One of the keys reasons he cited for resigning from the Daily Star was what he perceived as its Islamophobic agenda. He said that he experienced a top down pressure to unearth stories which fit within what was described as the Daily Star’s “narrative” (“immigrants are taking over, Muslims are a threat to security”); the factual basis for a story was less important than that narrative. Mr Peppiatt said he was personally responsible for writing the fictional “Muslim only public loos” story. Although the newspaper was aware that the story was not true, an editorial decision was taken to publish anyway. Similarly, Mr Peppiatt described an article he wrote on plans to require Sikhs to remove their turbans at airport security, for fear that Islamic terrorists might disguise themselves as Sikhs. There was no factual basis for that story either, but Mr Peppiatt invented quotes from a “security source” to lend an air of credibility.411
8.44 The overall picture is more nuanced than witnesses such as Mr Peppiatt have been prepared to accept. The Daily Star submitted a lever arch file containing a bundle of what it described were ‘pro-Muslim’ articles; although I would not necessarily agree with that precise designation, the broad sentiment is wholly accurate. Here, a quantitative assessment is inappropriate; the Inquiry could not begin to reach judgments as to the proportion of ‘pro-Muslim’ against ‘anti-Muslim’ pieces.
8.45 In any event, that would be to miss the point. It is not as if the ‘pro’ articles somehow cancel out or fall to be weighed in the balance against the ‘anti’: the real point is whether articles unfairly representing Muslims in a negative light are appropriate in a mature democracy which respects both freedom of expression and the right of individuals not to face discrimination. The evidence demonstrates that sections of the press betray a tendency, which is far from being universal or even preponderant, to portray Muslims in a negative light. As with the case of discrimination against women discussed above, issues arise in relation to the interpretation and application of clause 12 of the Editors’ Code, and the arguable need to identify an individual target of discrimination, but the key point which falls to be made in the present context is the need for a regulator with the ability and power to grapple with these issues and set appropriate standards.
8.46 The tendency identified in the preceding paragraph is not limited to the representation of Muslims and applies in a similar way to some other minority ethnic groups. The Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants, the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, and the Federation of Poles in Great Britain gave evidence that supported and complemented each other. Together, their evidence suggested that the approach of parts of the press to immigrants a
nd asylum seekers was one of advocacy rather than reporting: some newspapers expressed a consistently clear view on the harm caused by migrants and/or asylum seekers (often conflating the two) and ensured that any coverage of the issue fit within that narrative.
8.47 It is unquestionably right that, in relation to inherently political questions like immigration and asylum, editors and journalists are entitled to express their strongly held views in their newspapers. However, the concerns raised by the various witnesses were not limited to the expression of views, but included allegations of wilful blindness to the (lack of) truth of stories which fit with a newspaper’s adopted viewpoint. Stories which are factually incorrect clearly raise issues under clause 1 of the Code regardless of clause 12. The organisations drew the Inquiry’s attention to the follow as examples:(a) The Sun’s story headlined “Swan Bake”, which alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans from ponds and lakes in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses to the phenomenon, but it seemed there was no basis to the story: the Sun was unable to defend the article against a PCC complaint.412(b) The Daily Star’s article headlined “Asylum seekers eat our donkeys.” The story told of the disappearance of nine donkeys from Greenwich Royal Park. The police were reported as having no idea what had happened to the donkeys but, in a piece of total speculation, the story went on to claim that donkey meat was a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe, that there were “large numbers of Somalian asylum-seekers” in the area and some Albanians nearby, and concluded that asylum seekers had eaten the donkeys.413(c) The Daily Mail’s erroneous report that a judge had allowed an immigrant to remain in the UK because “the right to family life” protected his relationship with his cat.414
8.48 It is one thing for a newspaper to take the view that immigration should be reduced, or that the asylum and/or human rights system should be reformed, and to report on true stories which support those political views. It is another thing to misreport stories either wilfully or reckless as to their truth or accuracy, in order to ensure that they support those political views. And it does appear that certain parts of the press do, on occasion, prioritise the political stance of the title over the accuracy of the story. Ms Stanistreet, on behalf of the NUJ, gave evidence as follows:415“Journalists that I spoke to in the course of collating this testimony painted a disturbing picture of the nature of the day to day sentiments expressed by senior editorial staff- such comments give an insight into the approach taken on coverage of race and ethnicity. These included a reporter being told by the news editor to “write a story about Britain being flooded by asylum-seeking bummers”; instructions to “make stories as right wing as you can”; a reporter being told to go out and find Muslim women to photograph with the instruction: “Just fucking do it. Wrap yourself around a group of women in burkas for a photo”.
8.49 Although the weight to be given to this anonymous evidence is necessarily limited, it coheres with the evidence given by Mr Peppiatt and Mr Oborne, and is consistent with the kinds of complaints made by the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants, the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, Engageand Mr Nagdi. That evidence suggested that, in relation to reporting on Muslims, immigrants and asylum seekers, there was a tendency for some titles to adopt a sensationalist mode of reporting intended to support a world-view rather than to report a story. The evidence given by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain suggested a similar approach to gypsy and traveller issues.416
8.50 It is important to reiterate that the evidence was not all bad: there were many examples of titles with responsible and positive reporting on these issues, and even within the section of the press identified for criticism, there was evidence showing a complicated picture. For example, although the Daily Mail has been criticised for its reporting of some minority issues, its Stephen Lawrence campaign demonstrated a newspaper committed to tackling and condemning racism.
8.51 Nonetheless, when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning. The press can have significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts. While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment. Although the majority of the press appear to discharge this responsibility with care, there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.
8.52 Overall, the evidence in relation to the representation of women and minorities suggests that there has been a significant tendency within the press which leads to the publication of prejudicial or pejorative references to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental illness or disability. Whether these publications have also amounted to breaches of the Editors’ Code in every case is debatable, but in the ultimate analysis is little to the point. That failure has, in the main, been limited to a section of the press and may well stem from an undue focus on seeking to reflect the views (even if unsuccessfully) of a particular readership. A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints.