Bias, bigotry and time for a regulator that honours Leveson’s recommendations
By Shenaz Bunglawala
We’ve been waiting with bated breath for progress with appointments to the Appointments Panel and the selection of its Chair to kick start the process of inaugurating a new press self-regulator.
Why the impatience?
Well, because we’re sick and tired of the tenacious volume of anti-Muslim bias and bigotry that pervades the print media. Our evidence to the Leveson Inquiry detailed some of the more egregious examples of poor reporting, flagrant bigotry and the perils of an emasculated industry regulator that had no power to stem the tide. But nothing we’ve seen to date is a patch on the abominable column by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail satirising a ‘Jolly Jihadi Boy’s Outing’.
What’s the story here: A Muslim group hired out Windsor Legoland during the off-season when private bookings are another revenue stream for the theme park. The organisers, Muslim Research and Development Foundation, were hosting the event and selling tickets inviting families to a fun day out. The initiative builds on an earlier excursion to Chessington World of Adventures which attracted around 10,000 people. It was meant to be a day of fun, laughter and family togetherness. But no more.
Last week, Windsor Legoland issued a statement regretting the cancellation of the event pointing to the “deliberate misinformation fuelled by a small group with a clear agenda…designed expressly to achieve this outcome”.
The ‘small group’ in question are the English Defence League who bombarded Legoland’s Facebook page with such a volume of threatening, vitriolic posts that the page had to be taken offline. The police are now investigating some of the messages posted for incitement.
The ‘deliberate misinformation’ however goes beyond the xenophobic, thuggish reaction we’ve come to expect from this far right racist group. Richard Littlejohn in his column rehearsed every conceivable Islamophobic trope from suicide bombing and misogyny to hand-chopping and burqa-clad women, as though these were commonplace features of British Muslim life. He threw in female genital mutilation to the inventory, as though it too was a ‘Muslim’ crime. Of course the necessary caveat applies: the decent majority of Muslims have no truck with these ‘extremists’. As though adding a get out clause compensated for the harm done to Muslims everywhere.
We all know that targeting ‘extremists’ with tropes that extend to the majority by virtue of an acculturated indifference to discerning facts about Islam from disingenuous stereotypes, means that the ‘decent majority’ cease to be.
It is no surprise then that the representatives of 25 Muslim organisations wrote to Paul Dacre urging that the article be taken down and an apology issued to Muslims and to the wider British public for such brazen hate-mongering. (Even the Guardian, to its discredit, titled an article about the letter as ‘Muslims demand…’).
It is indicative of how pervasive and permissive coverage on Islam and Muslims has become. We would hasten to ask Paul Dacre if he would have permitted any such similar tirade about another minority group? Our guess is no.
Muslims are an easy target. A vulnerable minority caught between a securitisation discourse and a developing ambivalence to the accommodation of religion in public life. Here, the Daily Mail is happy to champion the efforts of Christians to proudly exhort their Christian faith in the public sphere. Muslims doing the same, by organising a day out at a national theme park, invite contempt.
Littlejohn’s column reinforces a number of conclusions arising from the study done by Professors Tony McEnery and Paul Baker, of Lancaster University, and Dr Costas Gabrielatos on the Representation of Islam in the British Press. Their work, the largest study of news articles about Islam and Muslims in the British print media to date, is a must read for any who want to understand the effects of the steady and cumulative volume of negative reporting on the normalisation of anti-Muslim prejudice in our media.
Something that stands out in their study, and which Littlejohn’s column exemplifies, is newspaper columns are often where the worst offences against the regulatory code occur.
To be clear, we’re not asking for the curtailment of freedom of speech. No democracy worth its name would be without it.
What we are asking for and desperately looking forward to, with the sealing of the Royal Charter, is a regulator that will honour Lord Leveson’s recommendation that the new regulatory body, while fully protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, will have the power ‘to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation’.
Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at IENGAGE. IENGAGE is a not for profit company working towards enhancing the active engagement of British Muslim communities in our national life, particularly in the fields of politics and the media.