Bias, bigotry and time for a regulator that honours Leveson’s recommendations

Posted: March 3, 2014 at 10:30 pm

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.

5 comments

  1. Thanks Shenaz,
    We need to keep the pressure on Paul Dacre and the grim Daily Mail. Truth is that I think he might have tolerated similar tirades against other groups & individuals, which is why we need one another. Please be encouraged to keep up the good work you do for us all. Your friends @RichardsonInst are honoured to be associated with you.
    Roger

  2. Dan - reply

    Of course Dacre permits – and even encourages – similar tirades against minorities who don’t conform to his narrow Little Englander vision of British life.

  3. Robert Reynolds - reply

    Dear Shenaz,

    Your appeal is heartfelt, and deserves answer by all in society.

    In my view we have to consider the origins of excess in loyalty and in hostility, in the lack for individuals of social justice, making our various natural groups – family, clan or tribe, class or faith – carriers of either hope or threat, sadly to be sought-out as such.

    Until we have education for society-wide adult understanding of equal partnership, we will remain divided, in truth atomised, and naturally mistrustful. Especially in times of social stress, groups will be at high risk of mutual suspicion, of conflict and growth of hatred, if injustice goes unaddressed.

    Some help may come, albeit uncertain and slow, with Leveson-compliant oversight of a much more independent press-regulation, the press still free to publish but no longer immune from moral reproach and possibility of legal consequence, slow the build of ‘case law’, the benefit of doubt always tending to favour publication.

    Such caution will be needed even in the ideal society, equal partnership agreed, since what we experience as inspiration and conviction (ever evolving, youth to adulthood to age, individual and cultural), at times will prove of error, if not folly. We have come to share a hard-learned determination that honest views of reality must contend in the public arena.

    With whatever mix of conscience and law our public debate is bounded, from our self-honest humility and self-mockery there will always emerge some mockery – and not always so gentle – of others. Sometimes the wildness of youth and the rigidity of age will need to be challenged, if only to ensure due reflection.

    In the realm of the apparently arbitrary, the traditional and the revealed, there may be survival to some extent of ‘pure faiths’ and ‘ways of life’, but from the evolution of rights in wider society may come need to re-think and certainly to get along with family members and neighbours following differentiated ideas.

    The ancient utility of clan and tribe in wider society might have owed much to need for protection: the individual or family might be slain but for threat from the wider less easily lost entity. Sadly, in modern life, the manifestation of tribe – whether of dress-style, football club, even of faith – all too often appears more for the purpose of threat than of self-defence.

    Littlejohn’s ‘humour’ is inexcusable, but worth considering is the instinctive: fear induces aggregation, which in turn begets fear. Security sometimes – regrettably – might dictate such, but ‘an outing’ that becomes ‘an initiative of 10,000′ begins to look like an expeditionary force.

    Massed happiness in our society may seem a provocation for the excluded poor, unaware of the cause they might make with all of goodwill, lost and vulnerable as unemployed, under-employed, under-paid, obliged to beg for state charity.

    Yes, we need a press free to follow conscience, the Royal Charter a good step towards.

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