Islamophobia and the press

No other faith group receives this inaccurate and malicious treatment in the national press.

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.

Inayat Bunglawala is the chair of Muslims4UK, and a consultant editor at ENGAGE. He blogs at Inayat's Corner.

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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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