Racism and the British press
Protests have rocked the Muslim world over the past week, sparked by a tawdry amateur film produced in the US widely seen as a gratuitous attack on Islam.
Throughout the Middle East the ongoing reality of US interference and bloodshed makes any insult to the Islamic tradition especially provocative. But even in Britain Muslims have cause to feel they are seen as "fair game" by an unscrupulous media.
The Leveson Inquiry is entering its concluding phase and the subject of press racism has been ignored.
Only two of 99 witnesses called to give evidence have been from minority backgrounds, leading critics to slam the inquiry as "white people addressing white people."
Yet a swathe of independent studies show that press racism exists and continues to shape public perceptions and attitudes towards ethnic minorities.
When women's groups gave evidence to the inquiry in January, demanding the censorship of sexualised images of women such as the Sun's infamous page three and attacking the myths perpetuated about rape by some outlets, it received widespread coverage. Lord Justice Leveson admitted that much tougher regulation would be needed to tackle the problem.
Surely media racism is worthy of the same attention?
Dr Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed of Sussex University recently submitted the report Race and reform: Islam and Muslims in the British media to Leveson. It highlighted the correlation between increased incidences of racist violence on the streets and the streams of anti-Muslim coverage in the press.
The report states that in 2010, 75% of non-Muslims believed Islam was negative for Britain and that Muslims do not engage positively in society, and 94 % agreed that Islam oppresses women. Dr Ahmed warns:
"A by-product of this social polarisation is that many British Muslims increasingly see British media and society as Islamophobic, contributing to a greater sense of alienation and undermining a sense of belonging."
He agrues that anti-Muslim reporting,
"reinforces extremist narratives and vindicates the anti-Western ideologies promoted by militants".
As the Runnymede Trust pointed out in evidence to the inquiry in 2011, similar inflammatory stories are regularly published about immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, fuelling community tension.
It called for an alternative regulatory regime which would reverse the Press Complaints Commission's (PCC's) failure stating that,
"to advise editors that relentless repetition of hostile epithets amounts to unbalanced reporting and is likely to generate hostile views in local communities."
While negative coverage about Muslims has risen significantly since the September 11 2001 terror attacks on New York, other minority groups are also affected by press racism.
David Harker, an assistant editor at the Guardian, recently noted that violence and underachievement among black British citizens continue to be the dominant themes in most stories about African and Caribbean communities.
Such negative stereotypes have a real impact on the life chances of young black people.
Harker notes that a study commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government found that 70 % of stories on black men focused on criminality. He says,
"No sensible person could seriously claim that 70 per cent of black boys are criminals, yet this is clearly the image the media portray. It is hugely damaging. When boys apply for jobs, what will be in the mind of the employer, who can't help but be influenced by the media description he or she sees constantly?"
So how successful have efforts been in challenging Fleet Street racism through the ages - beginning in the 1970s, when it was at its height?
The NUJ did not escape Thatcher's 1980s onslaught against the unions. In the past journalists at the Express revolted against Richard Desmond's demands for inflammatory stories about Gypsies and travellers, but it's been a long time since we've seen a walkout by journalists over issues of race - though the Daily Star was forced to pull a page mocking Muslims after its NUJ chapel objected in 2006.
The old Commission for Racial Equality was hated by the press for challenging racism. Viewing its anti-racism agenda as an assault on "freedom of speech," the Daily Mail dubbed it "the Holy Inquisition." But its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, made clear in 2008 that it had no intention of taking on the press nor the time or resources to do so.
This was despite the fact that consultation with race groups had revealed media racism to be one of their key concerns.
Six years ago the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) wrote to the PCC highlighting the fact that its editors' code of practice had failed to tackle racism.
The letter was prompted by the PCC's failure to uphold a complaint about the inaccuracy of a story run by the Express in July 200, under the heading Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers.
It pointed out that not only was the story untrue - but such coverage was
"in and of itself both xenophobic and racist in the extreme."
Clause 13 of the editor's code says that "the press must avoid prejudicial or perjorative reference to a person's race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability."
CPBF recommended that the word "person's" be removed from the clause - noting that the PCC had not upheld a single complaint under clause 13 and that the revision would "bring within the ambit of the clause much of the racist comment that besmirches most of the British press."
In 2012, what has changed? Not much. In January the New Statesman investigated the question of race and the British press. It revealed that there are no non-white national newspaper editors or political editors.
Three nationals did not have a single writer on the comment pages who was not white. Only five journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds had columns in the comment pages of national papers.
Today any discussion about challenging racism in the press is met defensively with the counter-argument about the need for a free press. Yet Richard Peppiat - a former reported for the Daily Star - contends that what we really have in Britain is merely "corporate free speech" driven by the desire to maximise profits. Peppiat emphasises that promoting fear and anxiety is often good business for newspapers.
Mehdi Hassan - political editor of the US news website the Huffington Post - has described the "great British commentariat" as a "mono-racial, monocultural closed shop."
As Hasan highlighted, columnists wield enormous influence over society, policymakers and politicians. They can set the political agenda and define the parameters of national debates. Contrast the silence over this lack of diversity with the manufactured hype which surrounded an allegedly racist tweet by Labour MP Diane Abbott.
As Brian Cathart, professor of journalism at Kingston University, told the New Statesman earlier this year:
"Is the media institutionally racist? The simple answer is yes, of course."
He adds that the industry,
"doesn't get it and doesn't want to."
The Leveson Inquiry should take the opportunity to revisit the guidelines on race reporting. And it should take on board CPBF comments from that letter back in 2006. He adds,
"Factually accurate reporting, and reporting free from hatred, bigotry and intolerance, are in our view basic communicative rights in a democratic society and citizens should be fully entitled to complain effectively if those rights are denied."
Originally posted on the Morning Star