The Phantom Paramedic: A failure of journalism or Islamophobic reporting at The Star and Express?

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A paramedic told talkRADIO that he wasn’t allowed to enter a mosque on the basis of his sexuality – a story later reproduced in two national newspapers.

But was he even real?

Or were these events fabricated, and a stark reminder of how easily misinformation can be spread by newspapers?

By Hacked Off intern, Ella Boon

 

On Friday 26th of March, talkRADIO received a phone call from a ‘paramedic called Tom’.

The host of the show Cristo Foufas spoke to ‘Tom’ on air for around 17 minutes. During this time, ‘Tom’ described an incident whereby, in the words of talkRADIO in a tweet, “he was stopped from entering a mosque in Oldham to render assistance to a heart attack victim and lives in constant fear after death threats”

According to ‘Tom’, he was refused entry to the mosque because he was gay.

Both the Daily Star and Express ran the story with sensationalist headlines. The Express embedded a snippet of the talkRADIO interview under the headline “Gay paramedic says he was ‘refused entry’ to a mosque”, whilst the Star provided a limited interview transcript.

It appears that neither paper attempted to contact ‘Tom’ or corroborate the story.

LGBT people across the country face prejudice based on their sexuality every day. Where this occurs, it must be exposed.

However, this story now appears to be nothing more than a tale. In the interview, ‘Tom’ described how the individual barring access to the mosque presumed his sexuality by his appearance because he had lots of piercings. He also stated that he had spoken to his superiors about the incident.

However, when the North West Ambulance (NWAS) investigated the claim, they “found no record of this incident and contrary to what the caller said on air, the local management team has not been informed of any such exchange taking place.”

Moreover, they did not know anyone of that description working for the NWAS.

Dezinformatsiya is the Russian origin word for disinformation, the process of inventing stories to mislead people and intentionally presenting false claims as fact. The less malicious but equally dangerous sibling of disinformation is misinformation, the spreading of untrue information unknowingly, as “the people sharing it think that [it] is true.”

This distinction is important when understanding the British press’ role in fuelling prejudice against the Muslim community, which contributes to public distrust.

In this case, the story was called out as totally unsubstantiated in a revealing Twitter thread from the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), which exposed the whole story as without evidence or basis, on a thirsty news day.

How did talkRADIO respond? In a video apology, the interviewer Foufas says, “we accepted [Tom’s] story in good faith” and “we took his details in case there was an occasion where we needed to verify what he said”. Thus abdicating the station from journalistic responsibility to verify sources before broadcast (which is especially important when dealing with such a potentially damaging claim.)

Exposing the public to these damaging inaccuracies is likely to fuel distrust of Muslim communities.   The allegation of homophobia – particularly serious given the ongoing reality of homophobia right across our society – contributes to the false and Islamophobic narrative that the Muslim faith is somehow “incompatible” with a liberal way of life.

Commenting on the story the Director of MCB’s Centre for Media Monitoring, Rizwana Hamid, said:

“This kind of irresponsible journalism only serves to demonise an already vulnerable community.  In making his claims of discrimination, ‘Tom’ employed several tropes which the far-right use to justify their Islamophobia.  Painting the Muslim community as homophobic, intolerant, and extreme, and making demonstrably false claims of ‘no-go areas’ with heavy Muslim populations where others feel unsafe, only serve to cause animosity between Muslims and others, and fuel the flames of hatred that are growing in the UK.”

 

Ella Boon tweets at @LadyB00n

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