Back in November 1998, the Sun carried a highly provocative front page story asking "Are we being run by a gay mafia?" in reference to some members of Tony Blair's government who happened to be gay. The story led to heated controversy with the Sun coming under heavy fire for what was widely viewed as an inflammatory and bigoted headline. Three days later, the Sun announced that it was adopting a change in policy towards gays and would no longer be seeking to "out" them.
The incident is telling for a number of reasons, including how our best-selling national newspaper had failed to keep up with changing public attitudes towards the matter of sexual orientation. However, when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry, the story is very different.
"Muslim schools ban our culture", "Muslims tell us how to run our schools", "Christmas is banned: it offends Muslims", and "BBC puts Muslims before YOU!" are just some of the headlines which have been splashed across the front pages of our national newspapers in recent years. Our papers, particularly some tabloids, appear rather eager to stir up prejudice towards UK Muslims. Some of these headlines have been openly cited and utilised by the far right BNP and the English Defence League in their anti-Muslim campaigns.
Last Tuesday, I gave testimony on behalf of ENGAGE before the Leveson Inquiry, which is looking at the ethics and practices of the press. ENGAGE is a Muslim organisation that seeks to encourage greater civic engagement, political participation and media awareness amongst British Muslims. Our recommendations to the Inquiry centred around three areas.
Firstly, when newspapers make serious errors in their stories, the subsequent correction or apology should be given a prominence that is commensurate with their original story. This would surely encourage greater diligence and accuracy on the part of some of the worst tabloid offenders. At present, the situation is farcical. Back in December 2010, a Daily Express front page read "Muslim Plot to Kill Pope". Note the lack of any cautionary speech marks -- the story was presented to its readers as a clear fact. Pages four and five of that day's edition were also given over to the same story. Less than 48 hours later, all the six detained men were released without charge by the police. The Express's response? One sentence hidden away on page 9 noting their release.
Second, whichever body eventually replaces the discredited Press Complaints Commission, it should be given the power to ensure a swift resolution of complaints. Back in June 2011, the Daily Mail published a column by Melanie Phillips in which she described ENGAGE as an "extremist Islamist group" and claimed that they were funded by the government. As I pointed out to the Leveson Inquiry, Mel P has a very particular worldview. She is on record for repeatedly suggesting that the "litmus test" for deciding whether someone is a "moderate Muslim" is whether they "'understand that fundamentally Israel is the victim in the Middle East." I suspect most sane people would happily fail her "litmus test". Still, while her characterisation of ENGAGE may be idiosyncratic, her assertion that they were funded by the government is simply untrue. ENGAGE value their independence and have never received a penny from the government and indeed, have never applied for a penny from the government. It is now over seven months since the Mail article was published and they still have not published a correction. The Daily Mail's legal counsellor sheepishly promised to the Leveson Inquiry that a resolution to this complaint was "imminent" but one has to ask what value a correction will have many months after their original false story.
Thirdly, it is bizarre that serving editors of newspapers can also sit on the PCC committee that adjudicates complaints from readers. It is a clear case of a conflict of interest. The Inquiry has already heard proposals that they should be replaced by former senior journalists/editors who were no longer employed by our newspaper groups. It is a sensible suggestion and certainly one that improves on the current position.
Ultimately, we need to try to get to the point where our press apply the same standards to Muslims as to any other faith group or any other minority group community. Currently, no other faith group is treated with this barrage of inaccurate and often downright malicious misrepresentation in the national press. It is, of course, understandable that in view of the al-Qaeda terror threat we have seen in recent years that newspapers will often touch on the issue of Muslims and Islam in their reporting. That is, however, absolutely no excuse for their lies and incitement.