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Time to Hold the Media to Account for Islamophobia

Over a decade after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington - and seven years after the London bombings - questions about Islam, Muslims and their place in the wider Western world continue to foment strong debate.

Over a decade after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington - and seven years after the London bombings - questions about Islam, Muslims and their place in the wider Western world continue to foment strong debate. One only needs to look at Mehdi Hasan's recent observations on the daily racist vilification he receives as one of only two Muslim columnists in the national media.

So just how much of a problem is anti-Muslim reporting in the British media - and what is its social impact? I set out to answer this question in my new report, Race and Reform: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, submitted to the Leveson Inquiry last week.

The report, commissioned and published by Unitas Communications Ltd. - a cross-cultural communications consultancy specialising in Islam-West relations - draws on interviews with a range of media professionals across print and broadcast media in the UK, including journalists and editors from the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, Daily Star, the Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The Times, Channel 4/ITN and BBC World TV.

My aim was to find out exactly what the existing research to date says about this problem, and how it has tangibly affected the lives of British people - and our conclusions were deeply worrying.

Specialist studies of media coverage on Islam and Muslims over the last two decades demonstrate an overwhelming trend of negative, stereotypical and inaccurate reporting. As Jason Beattie, political editor of the Daily Mirror, told us: "In general, though not exclusively, the portrayal of Muslims in the mainstream media has been unsatisfactory... [including] sloppy and sometimes stereotypical reporting."

But this isn't because all media outlets sing from the same 'Islamophobic' hymn sheet - far from it. Rather, poor journalistic standards in the populist tabloid press generate inaccurate reporting which tends to set the wider news agenda in print and broadcasting by framing the 'big stories' of the day.

This was the case both before and after 9/11. One study of British broadsheets in the late 1990s, for example, found that they consistently associated the Muslim world with "extremism and terrorism", "despotism", and "sexism"; while reporting of British Muslims focused primarily on "Muslim violence in the public sphere", including terrorism, faith schools, and crime.

Another study of two liberal and conservative British broadsheets between 1994 and 1996 found that 88% of articles on Islam reported the faith as a foreign phenomenon; and that British Muslims were most commonly linked with "fundamentalism".

After 9/11, and 7/7, this trend accelerated. A study commissioned by the Greater London Authority of 352 articles over a randomly selected one week period in 2007, found that 91% of articles about Muslims were "negative". A wider Channel 4-commissioned survey of 974 British press articles from 2000 to 2008 found two thirds of them to portray British Muslims as a "threat" and a "problem", with references to "radical Muslims" outnumbering references to "moderates" by 17 to one.

A further big-picture University of Ottawa study of British press representations over the last 15 years found that the biggest shift in reporting after 9/11 was to associate British Muslims with terrorism and extremism; and to associate acts of terrorism with Islamic belief. In all articles on terrorism, the study concluded, the "Muslimness" of perpetrators of terrorism is emphasised.

So there is no question about it. Reporting on Islam and Muslims in the British media has been predominantly inaccurate, false and racist.

But there is another side to this picture which is, perhaps, even more disturbing. Correlated with the rise in negative media reporting on Muslims, my survey of opinion poll data over the last decade illustrates a rising trend of anti-Muslim sentiment in wider British society. Professor Julian Petley of the Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom points out that, "if non-Muslims are led to believe that Muslims and Islam pose an existential threat to the 'English way of life', then this cannot but seriously damage community cohesion." Thus, from 2001 to 2006, the number of UK non-Muslims who said they felt threatened by Islam rose from 32%t to 53%. By 2010, a further survey found that 75% of non-Muslims now believe Islam is negative for Britain, and that Muslims do not engage positively in society; with 63% not disagreeing that "Muslims are terrorists."

This has had a double-whammy impact. On the one hand, media discrimination has contributed to the alienation of some British Muslims. In 2007, 63% of British Muslims felt that UK media portrayals of Muslims were "Islamophobic" - and 72% of those reported that they "don't feel a sense of belonging" to Britain. As Julian Bond, Director of the Christian Muslim Forum, explains, "even the most engaged, integrated, and inter-faith Muslims" finds such negative media portrayals to be "wearying, frustrating and irritating".

On the other hand, anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen steadily over the last decade, and are now at record levels. Since 1999, racist offences in general have increased by fourfold - but Muslims are overrepresented as victims in these crimes. The latest Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures record a rise of 45% in the number of cases referred to the CPS by police on grounds of religious hostility, and that over most of this decade Muslims accounted for more than 54% of religiously aggravated offences, and are the largest faith group experiencing hate crimes. As of 2010, though only 3% of the population, Muslims represent a massive 44% of those who have died in lethal racist attacks since the 1990s. And police data from two regions over the period 2009 to 2011 documents a total of 1,200 recorded anti-Muslim hate crimes.

And so we come full circle: the predominantly negative and racist reporting on Muslims in the media has promoted an increasingly dangerous anti-Muslim mindset in British society, which in turn has led to an escalation of violent attacks on British Muslims. As former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt observes, "False and inaccurate stories about Muslims routinely put out by the press are, in turn, routinely used as tools by far right groups to legitimise their case and gain followers. The internet is full of forums using mainstream newspaper reporting as proof that their hateful views about Muslims are true. Unfortunately, newspapers refuse to recognise their role in that."

In this context, doing nothing is not an option - to secure a peaceful and cohesive British society for our children, it is imperative that the media be held to account for racist reporting that feeds into the machinations of far-right criminals. Based on input from the media professionals and community leaders we consulted, my report thus makes eight key recommendations to the Leveson Inquiry, among which included: more robust enforcement powers for the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to deal with third-party complaints, with a more equal right of reply and harsher penalties for violations of the press code of conduct including fines; a better press code of conduct revised with assistance from the Equality & Human Rights Commission to ensure media compliance with existing equalities legislation; establishment of a PCC advisory panel on issues relating to Muslims and minorities; greater engagement between media agencies and minority groups, including measures to improve diversity in employment; protection for journalists from editorial pressure to generate inaccurate stories.

We are not demanding any form of censorship. What we are demanding is very simply that journalists be tasked to report real news - not fake it. Is that too much to ask?

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