With Islamophobia Awareness Month coming to a close, one might be forgiven for thinking the silence with which it was met reflects the minimal degree of Islamophobia in wider society. The opposite is in fact true. Britain’s Islamophobia is embedded and institutionalised, and particularly pervasive in the media.
A new report from the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) has taken stock of the true scale of the British media’s Islamophobia problem. By analysing over 48,000 online articles and 5,500 broadcast clips from between September 2018 and October 2019 containing key words to do with Muslims and Islam, as well as examining media from the following year, the report unveils the type of consistently unfavourable framing Muslims in this country have to endure.
Almost 60 percent of the articles examined across online publications were identified as associating negative aspects and behaviours with Muslims or with Islam. One in five placed a primary focus on terrorism or extremism.
The Spectator proved a repeat offender across the board. 10.9 percent of the relevant articles published in the inspected period by the magazine were understood to be ‘very biased’ against Muslims. In all, 18 publications had at least one in five relevant articles which demonstrated an ‘antagonistic bias’ towards Muslims and/or Islam, and five had a figure of 30 percent or more: the Spectator, Daily Mail Australia, Mail on Sunday, Christian Today, and the Jewish Chronicle.
But the Spectator again topped the table, displaying the highest level of antagonism towards Muslims and/or Islam at 37.3 percent. More broadly, the CfMM’s report found that right-leaning and religious publications have the highest proportion of articles which misrepresent Muslim behaviours or beliefs.
Incendiary rhetoric is, of course, a famous part of the Spectator’s modus operandi. In 2005, it published an article by one Boris Johnson in which he unambiguously asserted that ‘Islam is the problem’, and that it is only ‘natural’ for the public to be scared of it. Johnson’s trajectory since making these statements is indicative of the ease with which Islamophobia in the media goes unchallenged, if not celebrated.
And it’s a symptom of the wider trend. Paul Dacre edited the Daily Mail for 20 years, and in that time approved a myriad of cartoons and headlines directed at Muslims. He was the government’s choice for chair of broadcasting regulator Ofcom before pulling out of the race this month, and has since returned as editor-in-chief of DMG Media—the parent company of titles including the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro, and the i.
Politicians, public figures, and publications can all sing from the same Islamophobic hymn sheet and enjoy their careers unhindered and unaffected. The Muslim community, on the other hand, bears the full burden. Figures published in 2019 found that 31 percent of Britain’s population sees Islam as a threat to ‘the British way of life’, and the Home Office found last month that 45 percent of all religious hate crime in England and Wales was aimed at Muslims during the year ending March 2021.
In the broadcasting domain, things aren’t much better. The CfMM report found that 47 percent of all relevant clips showed Muslims and/or Islam in a manner which presented negative aspects and behaviour. Among clips rated ‘very biased’, BBC national channels were the highest offenders, responsible for 45%. Sky News was responsible for 40%, despite broadcasting less than half the total number of the BBC.
This points to a further problem. While the Mail and the Spectator might be widely understood as outlets with a right-wing bias, platforms like the BBC and Sky are not. A recent Ofcom report showed that 72 percent of people consider the BBC to be accurate, while 76 percent hold the same view of Sky News. The majority of the British public also say that what they know about Muslims and Islam comes from the media.
The report also found that right-wing pundits in both print and broadcast were frequently left unchallenged when making generalisations against Muslims. One common trope alleges that Muslims receive special treatment out of fear of offence, meaning freedom of speech is compromised—or so the argument goes.
Melanie Phillips, for example, appeared on Sky News in October 2020 arguing that the media has for several decades been censoring itself over matters pertaining to Islam. ‘If you were deemed to have offended against Islam, you would die or your newspaper would be burnt to the ground,’ she said—a claim left unchallenged by presenter Adam Boulton.
The reality is that Phillips has freely written articles that outright dismiss the existence of prejudice against Muslim people. In 2018 she contended in the Times that ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’, and doubled down in the Jewish Chronicle a year later, insisting that claims of Islamophobia were ‘bogus’. Neither newspaper was burnt; the only flames apparent were those Phillips was fanning.
It was more than a decade ago that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, then co-chair of the Conservative Party, declared that Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner table test’ and had become widely socially acceptable in Britain. The measurable scale of media Islamophobia, compounded by the ascent of some of its most vocal proponents into the highest offices of the land, only proves that her statement remains salient.
As the Director of MCB’s Centre for Media Monitoring Rizwana Hamid said: ‘It is time for the industry to admit that, on occasions and too often when it comes to Muslims and Islam, it gets things wrong.’ This is not a problem that can be left to fester unaddressed: until outlets deal with the recklessness with which they frame Muslims and Islam in Britain, Muslim communities will continue to suffer the consequences.