Media Islamophobia, the paranoid style and dodging flying cars

In 2010, a Stockport café owner was refused retrospective planning permission for an extractor fan because her neighbour complained the vent was 12 inches from his front door and the smell of frying bacon each morning made him sick. Since the neighbour’s name was Graham Webb-Lee, we may assume that he was of blamelessly Anglo-Saxon stock. But the Daily Mail, in promoting this humdrum neighbourly dispute into a subject of national importance, used as the headline his comment – which may or may not have been prompted by a reporter’s suggestion – that Muslim friends refused to visit him. No Muslim complainants, however, were identified. In fact, the only Muslim involved was the café owner’s Turkish husband.

This is just one example of how British newspapers use every opportunity to highlight how Muslims, abetted by “politically correct” politicians and bureaucrats, allegedly undermine our way of life. “They” want to ban Christmas, force our children to eat halal meat and make us all submit to sharia law. More seriously, “they” mount terrorist plots against such widely loved institutions as Coronation Street. Nearly all these stories are, if not downright false, grossly inflated or distorted. Studies suggest more than two-thirds of British press stories about Muslims portray them as a threat to British values.
Though Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, quoted British newspapers  and magazines during his trial in Oslo, we should not accuse them of inspiring him. Yet the similarities between his mindset and theirs are striking. Both see Islam as an existential threat and argue that establishment “liberals”, through their zeal for multiculturalism, are as culpable as Muslims themselves, if not more so. Since guilt by association is no guilt at all, we should leave it there, observing only that editors and journalists should mind both their language and their facts.

Out to get you

The Breivik trial sent me back to a celebrated essay on “the paranoid style” in politics, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964 by the late Richard Hofstadter, a Columbia University history professor. Drawing parallels with early US campaigns against Masons and Jesuits, he was writing about newly revived American conservatism, then led by Barry Goldwater, the unsuccessful Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election. According to Hofstadter, Goldwater conservatism was characterised – to borrow a phrase from Joe McCarthy, an earlier practitioner of the paranoid style – by a belief in “a conspiracy of infamy” among those in high places and by a sense that Americans were being robbed of their country. What marked out the paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was, first, an almost pedantic care to compile “evidence”, complete with compendious references and, second, the use of an apocalyptic framework.
The parallels with the American right’s campaign against Barack Obama are obvious. But so are the parallels with Breivik and the whole debate about Muslims in Europe. My fear is that the paranoid style is now becoming the standard format for political discourse, unwittingly validating the murderous instincts of a Breivik.
None of this is to deny that we left-inclined commentators can be guilty, too. Perhaps I can be charged with a paranoid fixation on the influence of Rupert Murdoch and the Mail.

Rockefeller the boat

David Cameron and other ministers who declare themselves “relaxed” about publishing private tax returns may be unaware that the practice began in the US; not, as widely believed, in Scandinavia. Though Congress twice relaxed the requirement, it made individuals’ income tax returns publicly available in the 1860s and again in the 1920s. Great American business names such as William B Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J D Rockefeller Jr, Henry Ford and J P Morgan, and Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson had their annual liabilities listed in newspapers. In the 1930s, however, the public was preoccupied by the kidnapping for ransom of the infant son of the rich aviator Charles Lindbergh. Publicising indications of personal wealth, it was argued, would encourage more such cases. Congress repealed its third and final disclosure law in 1935 before it went into full effect.
With the Sunday Times Rich List and company law requirements, kidnappers now have all the information they need. So why not make everybody’s tax returns public? Thousands of people, finding their neighbours or colleagues better paid than they are, would storm into their bosses demanding more. The masses would be better off.

Down on the levy

The bidding war between the political parties on donations is going in the right direction, with Ed Miliband proposing a £5,000 cap, even though it would lose Labour millions from the unions. As critics point out, Labour would still have the automatic £3 per union member levy, but if I were Miliband I would trade that in for an opt-in levy and propose an even lower cap of, say, £500. The more the parties are compelled to connect with the great unwashed and rebuild mass memberships, the better. If they have to sack the PR advisers, cut the spurious election “rallies” (designed entirely for TV) and econ­omise on glossy manifestos, better still.

Loony Lennonism

Sunday newspapers can be comically anxious to convince readers they are bearing genuine, urgent news. Slap in the middle of a fascinating, if faintly implausible, story about plans for motorways in the sky to accommodate flying cars, the Sunday Times advised that they will be “kept away from airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Liverpool John Lennon, which had one of its busiest days of the year yesterday with visitors to the Grand National”. What a relief! I spent all Saturday worrying if the great event would in future be safe from flying cars. 

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial