Profiling the prejudices of the press

Molly Campbell's disappearance would have occasioned little comment if she had been the brown child

In a recent column in support of racial profiling, Gerard Baker of the Times argued that, "if all the big terrorist attacks of the past 35 years . . . had been carried out by . . . white, English, middle-aged newspaper columnists", he would be taken away for questioning every time he checked in at an airport.

That may well be true. However, though even the Telegraph's Simon Heffer is surely innocent of terrorist activity, white, English, middle-aged columnists "have become associated over a very long period" (I have used Baker's words again) with brandishing opinions without being in full possession of the facts. Why, we must ask, are they not taken away for questioning - by their editors, I mean, not the security services - every time they submit copy?

The Times must have congratulated itself on its speed off the mark with the story of Molly Campbell, and on the cogency of its comment. This child of a broken marriage between a white Briton and a Muslim of Pakistani origin had been whisked away from her school on the Isle of Lewis, apparently by her father and sister, and taken to Pakistan. The Times report on 29 August was admirably circumspect, with its "allegedlys" and "thought to have beens" in all the right places. It made no mention of a forced marriage.

The following day, however, the Times splashed the story across two pages. Louise Campbell, Molly's mother, had made a televised appeal for her daughter's return, "shaking uncontrollably and barely able to pick up a glass of water". With her new partner, she and Molly had recently moved to the village of Tong, near Stornoway. Locals told the Times of "a chatty and cheerful 12-year-old . . . cycling with friends or reaching over a fence to stroke a neighbour's cat". At weekends, "she could be spotted on her way back from the beach, her hair caked in sand and her pockets bulging with shells". Over this idyllic picture of carefree girlhood, Sajad Ahmed Rana, the father, loomed like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, lurking in a big car.

Though the reports now referred to "speculation about a possible forced marriage to a 25-year-old man", they also noted the police refusal to comment and the suggestion that Molly, unknown to her mother, may have met her father the day before the alleged abduction. But Times commentators treated the forced marriage as a given. "It is a long way from the Outer Hebrides to Lahore," a leader advised us. Molly's journey was "an outrage to the most fundamental of British rights and values". Mary Ann Sieghart, in her column the next day, lamented that "even the Outer Hebrides failed to provide sanctuary", while Camilla Cavendish complained that feminists had failed to comment on Molly's case. Yet even as Sieghart and Cavendish polished their outrage, Times reporters were hearing suggestions that Molly had begged to be taken to Pakistan. Two days later, the papers had pictures of a smiling Molly, calling herself Misbah Iram Ahmed Rana and insisting she was overjoyed to be with her father.

No other London national gave the Molly story as much coverage and comment as the Times. Perhaps they were too preoccupied with Natascha Kampusch, the 18-year-old Austrian held captive for eight years (see Kira Cochrane, page 20). Whatever the reason, they and we should not rush to judgement, even if the Times did so.

Racism and ignorance

We still don't know exactly what pressures Molly is under or what her father intends for her. In any case, as the Scottish courts made her mother her legal guardian, her father may still be charged with abduction. But we should be clear about one thing. Molly's disappearance would have occasioned little comment if she had been the brown child of two brown parents, particularly if she had been living in Bradford or Tower Hamlets. Only because she is white was she singled out from dozens of other children abducted by their fathers every year. And only because she is white did the press highlight the prospect of a forced marriage, while it ignores better-attested cases involving hundreds of other young Britons.

Almost everything the Times's commentators wrote about forced marriages was right. As Cavendish said, the cause of the women involved "is every bit as important as Edwardian emancipation".

But she and her colleagues accepted a narrative that conjured images of wily Orientals luring innocent white girls ("End of innocence", was the Times leader headline) to unmentionable cruelties in the mysterious east. They thus allowed the campaign against forced marriages to be associated with racism and ignorance. In assuming, on slight evidence, that a girl taken to Pakistan would be married off against her will, they followed the rules of racial profiling. Perhaps Gerard Baker and others will now understand its dangers.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, It must be Gordon, Gordon, Gordon