THE BLOG

A Compelling Headline Is No Excuse for Front Pages Like The Sun's

25/11/2015 15:46 GMT | Updated 25/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The Sun has a tradition of memorable front pages. But while "Gotcha" and "Freddie Starr ate my hamster" are culturally iconic, Monday's splash grabbed attention for all the wrong reasons.

The now infamous "1 in 5 Brit Muslims sympathy for jihadis" story attracted a record number of complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation and prompted a backlash from pollsters, journalists and community leaders.

I was a social researcher by trade for many years before I was elected to Parliament in 2010 and during that time I conducted literally thousands of surveys. This experience taught me that, in the words of former Guardian editor CP Scott, "facts are sacred". A compelling headline is no excuse, you simply cannot misrepresent figures in this way and expect to be taken seriously.

Survation, the pollsters who gathered the data for the story, have rightly distanced themselves from the way in which the information was presented. The fact that YouGov, normally The Sun's go-to pollster, refused to conduct the research in the first place speaks volumes.

I'm a great admirer of The Sun, over the years it has carried out the kind of investigations into corruption in politics, business and sport which have shown British journalism at its finest. That is the reason it is the best read newspaper in the country.

For a long time it has been popular in Labour circles to criticise the tabloid press and in particular The Sun newspaper. There are those who look down on the red tops as "low-brow" and "sensationalist" and refuse to co-operate with their journalists. But I'm not one of them.

I believe The Sun at its best is not only a great newspaper but a national treasure and provides MPs like me with the opportunity to get our messages across to a wide audience.

But with great popularity comes a responsibility to report the facts in an even handed and accurate way. Sadly, on this occasion they have spectacularly failed to do that.

In the wake of the horrendous terror attacks on Paris, these are times of heightened sensitivity and those in the media must be careful not to incite hatred or create scapegoats.

In my constituency of Rochdale, where one in four adults has roots in Pakistan, Kashmir or Bangladesh, front pages like this can having a damaging effect on community cohesion.

It is important for the national press to understand and connect with people from all backgrounds. When I invited former Sun editor David Dinsmore to tour Rochdale last year it was the first time he had ever stepped foot in a mosque. He met with members of Rochdale's Muslim community and seemed keen to gain a better understanding of what life is like for diverse groups in modern Britain. It is a shame that the lessons learned here were not reflected in The Sun this week.

As a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia I have seen countless examples of how inaccurate or carelessly worded coverage in the mainstream media can quickly lead to discrimination, harassment and violence on the streets.

Let me be clear, my views are not a case of blind liberal multiculturalism or political correctness gone mad.

Following the Rochdale grooming scandal I was the first to challenge minority groups to play a greater role in combating these sorts of crimes. I also criticised Greater Manchester Police and other public bodies for failing to investigate for fear of being branded racist.

If there is a difficult or sensitive conversation to have, I am more than willing to have it. But such conversations have to be based on fact and understanding and conducted in reasoned language.

Labour's candidate for London Mayor Sadiq Khan gave a considered and measured speech this week in which he urged British Muslims to "challenge extremist views wherever we encounter them." He added: "For decades successive governments have tolerated segregation in British society. In doing so, we've allowed the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked."

The Sun may have hoped Monday's front page would encourage the kind of frank and open debate that Sadiq Khan was calling for. Instead they have risked furthering the cultural division which prevents this kind of dialogue from happening.

Simon Danczuk is the Labour MP for Rochdale