It shouldn’t be controversial to say journalists have failed in reporting on Muslims and Islam in the UK. Inaccurate use of terms and frequently negative constructions can make the religion seem strange, dangerous, or simply not British. Scholars have shown how journalists frequently associate Islam with terrorism and extremism. Though the news is often “bad”, it is exceptionally so when it concerns Muslims.
This is not a new phenomenon. Postcolonial literary critic Edward Said, writing about news coverage in the 1970s and 1980s, argued that as far as most news reports are concerned: “Islam is a threat to Western civilisation.” This assessment came two decades before 9/11, which steeply ramped up the media interest in and suspicion of Muslims in the UK.
This has endured, leading to a double standard evident in the contrasting reporting of the murder of MP Jo Cox by a white man with far-right views, and that of soldier Lee Rigby. Cox’s killer was described as a “timid gardener” while the men who killed Rigby were branded “Islamic fanatics”.
For British Muslims, this has led to a feeling of unease in the country where they live and where most were born. Islamophobia monitoring group TellMAMA has argued there is a link between media narratives and hate crimes in Britain. Individuals at the centre of high-profile news stories can lose their reputations, their jobs, or even their citizenship.
Knowing this, scholars have advocated for improved reporting practices. Civil society groups monitor the press and can equip communities to manage press queries and complain about poor coverage. But the private press isn’t answerable to such groups but to regulators.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was created following the Leveson Inquiry to replace the Press Complaints Commission. To the dismay of groups such as victims’ rights advocates, government regulation of the press was not adopted.
Instead, a new voluntary regime was established. News organisations chose their regulator, agreed to follow their code of practice, and faced penalties for breaches. IPSO was the biggest and, for critics, the friendliest to publishers.
IPSO has just published its long-promised guidance for reporting on Muslims and Islam. The document discusses how to apply the Editors’ Code of Practice to articles on these subjects, with a focus on accuracy and discrimination.
This effort has been mounting for a couple of years. In autumn 2018, I joined a working group that was consulted as IPSO drafted the guidance. I’ll keep the text of draft documents and group conversations confidential, as requested, but I will contrast the form I hoped the document would take with what was eventually published.
IPSO’s Code is what binds the members. Bespoke guidance doesn’t add to or supersede the code. Rather, it highlights with specific examples where journalists might trip up in reporting a complex, sensitive and newsworthy topic. For IPSO to provide guidance on Muslims and Islam is a sensible response to a social fact.
But in September 2019, the thinktank Policy Exchange, which had obtained a copy of the guidance, published a report calling it an erosion of press freedom. IPSO defended its decision to prepare guidance and rejected the claim it was setting new rules for reporting on Muslims.
But at that point, the work seemed to stop. IPSO had planned to publish its guidance in 2019. Instead, 2020 came with no further news. A new chair took over at the regulator. And of course, COVID-19 disrupted everything. Yet I believe the attack from Policy Exchange also disrupted this work, delaying it and contributing to a significantly different product. The “chilling effect” that Policy Exchange worried would bind journalists has instead bound the regulator.
The guidance provides basic demographic details on Muslims in Britain and explains key terms. It identifies questions for journalists to consider as they prepare their stories. This is welcome.
But it says little about sourcing practices, and given a lack of familiarity with Islam for both journalists and their readers, the choice of sources has a big impact on the story. Journalists are reminded of diversity among Muslims and encouraged to consider a source’s track record in public statements. But the guidance doesn’t ask journalists to consider a source’s claim to authority or how representative their views might be – and these are essential questions for reporting a complex topic such as Islam.
What the guidance does offer, and in abundance, are soothing statements that journalists are free to write what they wish, so long as it’s accurate and doesn’t discriminate against an individual. The right to shock and offend is noted several times in different ways. Journalists are reminded that the code “does not prohibit prejudicial and pejorative references to a particular religion” and that they are free to publish comment and even conjecture – so long as it is distinguished from fact.
The substance of this is to say: “Don’t worry – you can still be nasty to Muslims in general.” And this has been baked into a document intended to provide guidance for what IPSO’s CEO Matt Tee described as “local papers, often produced with a small, less experienced staff who may value such assistance”.
In his foreword to the Policy Exchange report, Sir Trevor Phillips – a former journalist and chair of the Runnymede Trust when it prepared its 1997 report on Islamophobia – worries that IPSO “is well on the way to becoming a servant of a small, unrepresentative element of Muslim opinion”.
On the contrary, the regulator is once again behaving like the servant of private news organisations, taking pains to assure them they can continue the business-as-usual practice of reporting on Muslims. The kind of reporting that left Channel 4 presenter Fatima Manji without satisfaction when she complained about a column in The Sun she alleged was discriminatory.
Deference to the news industry is what led to the abolition of the PCC and was a key question for the Leveson Inquiry. Those reforms are still wanting – and wanted.