United Kingdom: Media Caught in the Crossfire

In Britain as the storm over Innocence of Muslims began to erupt the BBC immediately identified how media themselves were used to ignite the controversy in the Muslim world. On September 13th 2012 reporter Alistair Leithead commented:

“It was the film’s translation into Arabic and broadcast on Arab television stations and talk shows which sparked the violence – although investigations are now under way in Washington to establish whether the worst of the violence was not spontaneous.”(19)

The BBC didn’t dwell on its own role in the process, although it did acknowledge in the same report that it was one of many in the mainstream media that had repeated the mistaken and highly controversial claim that that the author of the video was of Israeli origin.

“The exact origin of the movie and the internet clip, and the motivation behind its production, remains a mystery, “said Leithead. “But it appears not to be linked to an Israeli film-maker as was earlier widely reported, including by the BBC.”

In fact, this widely-reported statement was deliberate misinformation and mischief-making by the film-maker himself who was looking to provoke and enrage Muslim activists. It was a falsehood repeated by many broadcasters and newspapers, including the Guardian, and it remained current and uncorrected for 24 hours making its way into the mainstream coverage of media around the globe.

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Kuala Lumpur, 21/09/2012. Malaysian Muslim demonstrators march towards the US embassy against an anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims” and the publication of caricature of the Holy Prophet Muhammad..Pic FIRDAUS LATIF

The editor of the BBC Arabic Service, Faris Couri, agrees that media coverage lacked responsibility. “Media allowed this production deemed amateurish and insignificant to be noticed,” he said. “The film caused a lot of anguish among ordinary Muslims; however, small groups used it as a pretext to launch violent attacks that led to death, injuries and destruction of properties.”

Analysing his own team’s reporting on the video and the protests, he is convinced the BBC’s Arabic coverage was balanced and objective. “Radio conducted the first telephone inter- view with the Egyptian film producer from the United States,” he said. “The demonstrations and associated violence across the Arab and Islamic world were covered on other plat- forms and there was special attention to attacks on embassies and to what was going in Egypt, especially the Coptic community were its leaders condemned the film.”

The BBC also reported the Egyptian courts verdict in which seven men associated with the film were sentenced to death, in absentia.

But did media adequately highlight those moderate voices in the Muslim world condemning violence and did it provide enough context by explaining who was behind the protests, their political nature and the numbers involved?

Couri is a mite defensive. He stresses that they were careful to carry a number of different viewpoints “including people who were equally robust in condemning the film and the violence that followed.”

He said: “The questions were asked about the groups who were behind the violence and what they represent, but there were no clear answers. It is easy to say they were groups of fanatics but it is difficult to say what was their political nature and motives. None of the countries where violence took place produced results of any investigations in the events.”

For their part media policymakers, editors and reporters, complain that the rush to judgement by readers and some parts of grassroots journalism are contributing to lowering the quality of reporting and reinforcing the trend towards less responsible journalism.

Chris Elliott, the Guardian’s Readers Editor goes further and says we are witnessing “the decline of newspapers where the news and journalism are synonymous”.

Without trying to excuse the UK and other media for irresponsible reporting on the protests in many Arab countries last year, Elliott explains how it is difficult to catch up with the world of instant tweets, social media comments and other forms of the audience’s reporting or at least spreading of the information online.

“We still need responsible, fair and ethical reporting and it is wrong to suggest that one group, whether is Muslim or some others, is to blame,” he said. “Media have to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing and to voice the moderate views. It is import- ant that journalists don’t demonise anyone, in this case, Muslims.”

He says journalists and editors wage a constant struggle to deal professionally with the constant ow and rising tide of information, much of it unverified, on the Internet.

“It is hard not to report on something that everyone is talking about, like in the case of the alleged chemical attack in Syria,” he says. “So therefore, many fall into trap and publish unverified reports. One of the problems of the editors is that they

don’t have the courage to say – we are not reporting on something while we don’t investigate the story and while we don’t check all the facts.”

He highlights the need to verify information, check facts and put reporting into context. “It is absolutely the editors’ responsibility to dig deeper,” he says. “It is our responsibility to write stories carefully and to follow the basic rule of putting them into context. We all have to be more careful.”

The Guardian’s publication of the Associated Press story on the alleged Israeli origins of the Innocence of Muslims producer led to an appearance before the UK’s Press Complaints Commission. Because AP didn’t correct its report for 24 hours the Guardian’s online edition kept the misinformation from the filmmaker current.

One example of irresponsible reporting was found in the London Daily Telegraph which, on September 27th, carried an article on Google’s refusal to take down the Innocence of Muslims video from its YouTube site and which was illustrated by a violent photo of the protesters with knives.

This portrayal of extremism and violence was not balanced with any coverage from Muslim leaders that were at the time condemning violent protest.(20)

The notion of global ‘Muslim Rage’ generated by Newsweek in the United States reached the UK through the pages of Vice magazine which published an article on a demonstration outside the United States London embassy entitled “Islamic Rage at the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ reached London Today.”(21)

Similarly, the tendency to exaggerate was found in coverage of UK protests by The Week which reported that “Ten thousand people travelled from Glasgow, Blackburn, Manchester and elsewhere to the protest” in London according to the Daily Telegraph. The BBC put the number at 3,500.(22)

While it is difficult to test the impact of media coverage, a study for The Guardian at the time reported a slight increase in levels of hostility to Muslims in the UK based upon the results of a poll carried out by polling agency YouGov. This examined voter perceptions of con ict and coexistence between ‘the West and the Muslim world’ and questioned respondents about the Innocence of Muslims film.

The poll reveals higher levels of hostility to Islam in the UK than in the US with 43 per cent of Britons agreeing with the statement ‘There is a fundamental conflict (between the West and the Muslim world); in the end one or other must prevail’, compared to 39 per cent of Americans polled. Similarly, fewer British respondents – 41 per cent – agreed that ‘It is possible for the West and Muslim world to co-exist in peace’ compared with 47 per cent of Americans.(23)

In another poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the furore, but only released in January 2013, 24 per cent of Britons agreed that the makers of the film ought to have been prosecuted by the US authorities for committing a hate crime, while 40 per cent opposed such action.(24)

(19) See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19572912

(20) See http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/micwright/100007852/google-the-innocence-of-muslims- and-the-politics-of-tech/).

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