Far from me to add to journalists’ woes in the middle of the Hackgate scandal but a pretty damning book recently out gives an unflattering picture of the media’s coverage of the Muslim community.
Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and ex director of the Runnymede Trust respectively (http://bit.ly/qh4TCv ) , does not make comforting reading. I discussed it this week on Epilogue an English language arts programme put out by the Iranian state TV, Press TV(see http://www.presstv.ir/Program/189749.html ) ).
Much of the analysis – with one glaring exception I am in agreement. The book, has a wide range of contributors including my old colleague, Hugh Muir, now the Guardian’s witty diary editor. It provides a forensic analysis showing much of the media coverage of the country’s two million Muslims equates them with terrorism or extremism or portrays Islam as a dangerous or irrational religion.
Equally damaging is a forensic examination of tabloid scare stories (both Daily Express) showing that Lambeth Council had abolished the term Christmas lights or a museum in the Cheddar Gorge had banned Before Christ to appease Muslims were fabrications. Worse than that, when the authorities tried to correct such ludicrous stories, they were ignored. The broadsheets were not exempt – a story claiming the Archbishop of Canterbury was backing the introduction of Sharia law for everyone -was totally misrepresented by The Times. ( he wasn’t he had raised the issue in a theological discussion distorted by that paper)
Where I part company with the authors is their attack on John Ware who produced a controversial programme on hidden Muslim extremism in Britain for BBC’s Panorama. His main point was that leading Muslims working with the UK government on a moderate agenda were using Arabic websites to support extremism including suicide bombers. This coincides with a similar warnings from both ex Observer journalist Martin Bright and Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist.
The book gives a lame excuse for this behaviour. If the same people give different versions of their views to meet the needs of different audiences – in this case Palestine and the British domestic public - that’s all right because all politicians do it. But I am afraid it isn’t -either leading figures should tell the Palestinians they sympathise with their cause but don’t support the bombers- or tell the Brits, they do support suicide bombers in the fight against Israel. They can have their cake and eat it. And Ware was obviously right to pursue them over this.
That aside this book is important -including fascinating interviews with Muslims who are journalists and how they were treated by their news desks -some being “used” to infiltrate extremist groups. As one put it: “I am a professional journalist not a professional Paki”.
Given the present climate of mistrust and the concerns about society being distorted through the prism of the media, there are valuable lessons to be learned. We need more responsible and diverse coverage or this will be another reason why the press is dying and becoming increasingly irrelevant to more and more people.
What it does not discuss is the increasingly vitriolic and unbalanced stuff in the blogosphere – from all sides. But if the media doesn’t do its job properly and spends much of its time attacking or fabricating stories about Muslims or indeed, any other minority, it is playing with fire by creating the climate for even more vicious blogs and racial tensions.