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25 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Journalists need to call out Islamophobia in their own papers

The Times’s correction of its Muslim foster care story is a start – but it’s far from enough.

By Miqdaad Versi

Surprise, surprise. The Times has finally been forced to acknowledge something well established – that one of its four front-page stories about a “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care” had “failed to take care not to publish distorted information”.

The story was inaccurate in a number of different ways, most of which were not included in the press regulator’s ruling despite the family court judge, Khatun Sapnara, taking the rare step of publishing a court order that contained details contradicting the original reporting of the case. The paper claimed that in the Muslim foster carer’s home “they don’t speak English”, but, in actual fact, the language of the home was English. It claimed the Muslim foster carer removed a cross from the Christian girl, when the carer actually gave the valuable (and inappropriately sized) cross to the grandmother for safe-keeping. It claimed Muslim foster carer stopped the Christian girl from eating her favourite food (carbonara) because it contained bacon, which was not true. It implied the Muslim foster carer was against the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, but actually the girl received an Easter egg from the carer. And it claimed the first Muslim carer wore a niqab outside the family home but actually she wore a hijab (headcovering).

In terms of the narrative, the reality of this single child protection case proved very different to the race-baiting “clash of religions” that The Times tried to portray. The Muslim foster carer actually had a “warm relationship” with the girl; the “white Christian girl” actually happened to come from a Muslim background.

This was not a single error of judgement but a catalogue of inaccuracies, wrapped up in a racist and Islamophobic narrative (“white Christian girl” vs. “Muslim foster carer”). The scale of the disgust was shared by Sir Martin Narey, head of the government inquiry into foster care provision, who called it “disgracefully dishonest” and refused to speak to The Times as a result. In fact, the major independent and third party providers of foster care have jointly issued a statement calling The Times’s coverage “wholly unacceptable”.

Little wonder that far-right activists including Tommy Robinson, the EDL and Britain First, jumped on the story to promote their anti-Muslim hate. Why wouldn’t they, when it falsely promotes the idea of the victimisation of white Christians and fits the “clash of religions” narrative?

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Others such as Trevor Phillips similarly piled on, shockingly likening the case to “child abuse” in The Sun. The Daily Mail’s front page highlighted the willingness of some Conservative MPs to demonstrate their outrage on the side of the “white Christian girl” and against the “Muslim foster carer”, without knowing the facts.

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Yet even after the facts became clear, The Times’s Executive Editor, Andrew Griffin, defended the four front pages as “an important child protection case” and an example of reporting “without fear or favour”. At each stage, the paper displayed classic tabloid behaviour: selected and distorted facts, attacked minorities, then claimed anti-political correctness bravery. This is not good enough.

Some might think the press regulator IPSO should be congratulated for forcing the first front-page correction note for a Muslim-related story. But let’s not forget, this is only a correction (without an apology) for one part of one of the four front pages and it actually took an incredible eight months to rule on the issue. Worse than that, the ruling almost did not happen. The regulator claimed it could not assess the veracity of complaints such as mine, even though a court-approved independent statement had set out the facts. Only after Tower Hamlets complained, did IPSO choose to assess one part of the story. This is also not good enough.

We are also yet to hear apologies from Conservative MPs Robert Halfon, Philip Hollobone, Andrew Bridgen and Shailesh Vara who fell into the trap of providing appalling commentary to aid the Daily Mail’s reporting of this story. This is also not good enough.

My biggest disappointment, however, as someone who monitors media reporting on Islam and Muslims closely, is the unjustifiable silence of journalists working at papers such as The Times, The Sun or the Daily Mail.

I am not referring to young journalists, who are under huge pressure to toe the line and fear losing their job, but those established in their career, whose liberal reputations are often built on their anti-discrimination credentials. For them, there is no excuse.

They cannot have missed the story (it was after all, as mentioned, the front page of The Times for four days) or its undeniable bigotry, unless Islamophobia was a blind spot for them. These journalists could have raised their voices on social media. They could have made their views known in their newsrooms and in the editorial meetings. They could have used their platform to investigate the issue, or to write their own column.

Yet the vast majority, with notable exceptions including BBC’s Callum May and the Guardian’s Jamie Grierson, failed to do so. It is little wonder that bar the editor-in-chief of the Daily and Sunday Express, most newspaper editors giving evidence yesterday in front of the Home Affairs select committee failed to, or flat out refused to, acknowledge Islamophobia in their outlets.

Yes, we need more Muslim journalists; yes, we need a fit-for-purpose regulatory system; and yes, Muslims need to speak out more.

But it should not be the role of the victims of discrimination to tackle the problem of Islamophobia; rather those within the system, with the privilege and power, must speak out and not tolerate bigotry.

How long do we have to wait for Muslims to be treated equally? If liberal journalists are not going to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry when they see it in the newspapers who fund their columns even as they challenge other forms of bigotry, then perhaps Muslims need to call out their hypocrisy more directly. Because we deserve better.