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Yes, the British Media Is Racist

The Society of Editors' claim that the British press isn't racist was rightly mocked – but it's only one small indicator of the deep denial that exists about the role our media plays in demonising the oppressed.

If we ever needed reminding of the disconnect that exists between sections of the media and minority communities—that we inhabit a parallel universe to those who write the first draft of history—then the Society of Editors’ statement that it was ‘untrue sections of the media were bigoted’ as a response to the interview given by Harry and Meghan was the perfect reminder.

The body that represents almost 400 members of the media not only sought to defend itself from critical remarks about some sections of the media being ‘racist and bigoted’; it went further and issued a blanket defence of all media coverage.

Gary Younge, one of Britain’s most prominent journalists of colour, often says that the further from power you are, the more you see. Those of us whose communities have been on the receiving end of such bigotry know all too well that the editors’ statement was not only untrue – it served as a reminder of just how much work still needs to be done.

Look at the reporting of Muslim communities during the never-ending War on Terror. Muslims have been demonised, and portrayed as an enemy within, a fifth column, and a collective threat by various sections of our media. At times, asking parts of the industry to take Islamophobia seriously has been a bit like asking an arsonist to put out a fire.

I can hear the shouts of ‘Nonsense! We don’t shy away from the difficult issues!’ as I write this, coupled with claims that Muslims are just being too sensitive to criticism. But the truth is that the bar for accurate reporting when it comes to Muslim communities is already on the floor.

Inaccurate stories have long been splashed on the front pages of our country’s newspapers. Examples include the claims that Muslims are forcibly trying to adopt white Christian children, that Muslims are plotting to take over schools in Birmingham, or that ‘84 percent of grooming gangs are made up of Asian men’ – a stat that was debunked by the Home Office itself.

Stories written about the ‘Muslim problem’ or claims that ‘there is not enough Islamophobia in the Tory party’ are part of a consistent pattern where moral panics have been whipped up against the community. Research from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 2018 showed that most coverage of Muslims in the British media has had a negative slant, and is contributing to Islamophobia.

There have been a steady stream of complaints upheld against newspapers for inaccurate reporting against Muslims, often including false accusations of extremism. Gary Jones, editor of the Daily Express, has himself said that the paper helped create Islamophobic sentiment.

To therefore claim that it’s just ‘one or two examples’ or a ‘needle in the haystack’—as Ian Murray, now former executive director of the Society of Editors, did on the BBC when trying to defend the statement—smacks not only of gross ignorance, but of a state of denial.

Then again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Murray thinks the media is the one institution in the country that doesn’t have a problem with racism. His privilege, embodied in the fact that he works in one of the most socially exclusive professions in the country, in which 80 percent of editors are privately schooled and only 0.2 percent are Black and 0.4 percent are Muslim, insulates him from the consequences of the inaccurate and bigoted reporting which most affects minority communities like my own.

Claims that one in five Muslims support ISIS—just another example of a story that needed correcting, which the Sun itself admitted was misleading—have empowered the likes of Tommy Robinson and Britain First, who led far-right demonstrations in my hometown of Luton. And it’s not only Muslims, of course – Nick Davies’ recent book Flat Earth News detailed how 64% of Black people shown in the Daily Mail were criminals, an appalling statistic which goes some way to evidencing the systemic bias against that community.

For some editors, printing a simple correction in a small box within the paper is the end of the matter – but for many minority communities the impact has been long-lasting. We’re the ones left to pick up the pieces, while others have the privilege of being able to ‘move on’.

Another part of the Society’s statement which hasn’t been picked up on much was the claim that the ‘UK media has a proud record of calling out racism’. I wish that were true when it came to Islamophobia, a normalised prejudice that has gone from passing the dinner table test, according to Tory Peer Sayeeda Warsi a decade ago, to one in which political parties across Europe now dabble to win votes.

During the election campaign in 2019 and since its conclusion, the scale of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party has barely been reported on, nor portrayed as a scandal. In September of last year, a Hope Not Hate poll of party members found that 57 percent of party members have a negative view of Islam. According to the same poll, almost half of Conservative Party members (47 percent) believe that Islam is ‘a threat to the British way of life’, while 58 percent believed that ‘there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates, and non-Muslims cannot enter’. This figure rose to 66 percent among those who backed Boris Johnson in the 2019 leadership election.

Not only has the scale of the problem been ignored by the media – when the MCB submitted a dossier of evidence setting out dozens of examples of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party—with examples including a local association chairman who called for Muslims to be banned, a party member who called for Muslims to be thrown off bridges, and another who called for Muslims to be sterilised—it barely raised a murmur.

Following the release of the report, the Daily Telegraph didn’t cover the story at all; nor did the Daily Mail. There’s been little pressure or mention since in sections of the media into how the Tory Party’s investigation into all forms of prejudice is going. It was announced over 500 days ago. So forgive me if don’t buy into Murray’s claim that the ‘UK media has a proud record of calling out racism.’

There will undoubtedly be those who will try to shift the goalposts by claiming that Islam isn’t a race. Of course it isn’t, but Muslims are racialised. How else would you explain the attacks on Sikhs for being Muslim? When women are subjected to Islamophobic abuse, no one stops to ask them about their ideology: they’re identified as Muslim by cultural and racial signifiers, such as the colour of their skin and their clothing. This should be obvious to anyone acting in good faith.

Murray has now resigned as executive director of the Society of Editors after more than 160 journalists of colour from across the industry described the statement as ‘laughable’ proof of ‘an institution and an industry in denial’. But While Murray may have gone, significant work still needs to be done to tackle hateful and bigoted narratives that exist about Muslims, minorities, and other communities.

Walter Lippmann once said that ‘the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.’ The same could be said today. I hope journalists and editors who broke ranks to call out the statement will now show the same passion and energy in combatting false narratives which stigmatise and further the oppression of minority communities.