News media in the United Kingdom have a reputation for some of the most professional, sensitive and careful journalism in dealing with the rights of minorities and people from different religions and cultures. But at the same time, some of the country’s tabloid newspapers are among the worst offenders when it comes to stereotypes, hate-speech and Muslim bias.
In what was probably the lowest point for British media coverage, the country’s highest circulation tabloid newspaper, the Sun, in April 2015 was carpeted by the United Nations human rights chief for describing migrants as “cockroaches” in a piece of journalism which he said was reminiscent of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
This incendiary piece appeared only hours before another migrant ship sank off the coast of Libya killing some 800 people. It prompted protests on a massive scale: more than 300,000 online protests and more than 300 complaints to the newly-formed Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
But the intervention of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein shows that the frustration over media-inspired hatred, particularly coming from Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, extends far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. As Zied noted in his protest when bias and prejudice make the headlines in Britain it is often as a result of editorial choice, while elsewhere in Europe where “demonisation” of migrants is also taking place it is “usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media”.
This insight was highlighted in 2018 in evidence given to the UK parliamentary group investigating hate crime and its consequences. Among those who have testimony was the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury who focused specifically on the role of the media in encouraging widespread Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination across the country.
She gave some clear examples of malicious acts of journalism: “We have everyday examples of what I call low-level poisoning of the discourse: schoolchildren banned from singing “Silent Night” over fears it will offend other religions. That was not true.
- “They grabbed me everywhere. More than 900 migrants carried out Germany New Year’s Eve sex attacks”, The Express, not true.
- “Terror in Spain, gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in supermarket” The Sun, The Mail, The Express; not true.
- “Muslim migrants behind rise in anti-Semitism”, The Times; not justified by the evidence.”
“I think it is papers realising that….the bogeymen of the time, are British Muslims and, therefore, it is an easy way to sell papers. I think it is appalling.”
Warsi also cited The Times story about a Christian child being fostered by a very conservative Muslim family who would not let her eat bacon or wear a crucifix. The inaccuracies came out over a period of time, but because of The Times’ reputation as a quality newspaper, many people took the report as gospel.
“It does start to impact in the way politicians respond to, and it impacts the way in which the public start talking about it,” she said.
Also giving evidence was Professor Chris Frost, Chair of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Committee. He pointed to a survey showing that 64% of British people get all their knowledge from the press and that 74% of Britons know next to nothing about Islam. “What is worrying is if they are getting all their information about Islam from the press and if that press is basically dripping small doses of inaccurate knowledge into their ears, they are not going to get any further information.”
The UK self-regulating body for the press, IPSO, set up in 2014 as one of the bodies replacing the Press Complaints Commission, has received 18,666 complaints about discrimination. But it has found only seven breaches, which critics say is because the Editors’ Code only recognises discrimination against individuals, rather than a group. The Code has also been criticised for being ‘woolly’ in relation to inaccuracies.
Like other media across Europe, in the summer of 2015, the British press faced the challenge of reporting on the record numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean. As in many other countries, the pivotal moment came at the beginning of September 2015 when a majority of the front pages on one day were dedicated to the death of Aylan Kurdi. Almost overnight this reframed the rhetoric from scare-mongering, as described by the front page (28 August) of the Daily Mail – “Migrants: How many more can we take?” – to a more humane call for aid and hospitality “A tiny victim of a human catastrophe” (3 September).
This almost schizophrenic reaction to the so-called “migrant crisis” highlights the tempestuous relationship the UK press has with migration, fearful on the one hand and fearless on the other. Reporting around migration often remains framed through an old-fashioned perspective which for some people has an imperial, if not colonial tone.
A more recent example of the UK media exposing Islamophobia is to be found in London’s Evening Standard on 6 August 2018. The Standard, whose editor is former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, led with the headline ‘Tories in denial on Islamophobia says Hero Imam’. The Imam referred to is Mohammed Mahmoud who was hailed for his bravery and compassion when he stepped in to defend a man who had driven a van into worshippers as they were leaving the Finsbury Park mosque. Until the Imam took control, the crowd was attacking the driver of the van which killed one man and left 12 others injured.
More than a year later, Imam Mahmoud has criticised the Conservative government for failing to engage with the Finsbury Park community following the terror attack by a man who it is claimed was radicalised by the far right online. This is in spite of Metropolitan Police figures showing a rise in the number of Islamophobic attacks in the city. In the same edition, the newspaper carried an editorial calling for action to root out Islamophobia and an opinion piece by Imam Mahmoud.
 Evidence to Parliament Home Affairs Committee, 20 February 2018 on Hate Crime and its Consequences. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/hate-crime-and-its-violent-consequences/oral/81930.html