London’s PC despot

In the name of combating 'Islamophobia', Ken Livingstone has launched an attack on press freedom that reveals his fear of the public.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

What kind of leader launches an open assault on the press, accusing it of jeopardising public safety and demanding that it put its ‘house in order’? What sort of ruler proposes ‘guidelines’ to the press on what stories it should cover, and even worse, what kind of language it should use to cover them, what kind of people it should employ, and what kind of values it should uphold and communicate to the mass of the population? Kim Jong-il, perhaps? Saddam Hussein, before he was chased into his hole in the ground and later executed? How about Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London?

This week, ‘Red Ken’, as some people insist on calling him, launched a report on British media coverage of ‘Muslim issues’. Titled The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, Non-Muslims and the UK Media, the report was commissioned by Livingstone’s Greater London Authority. It explores the alleged rise of Islamophobia in the media. And in the name of tackling the apparent spread of prejudice through the papers (especially tabloid ones), Livingstone and his supporters have crossed a line normally only transgressed by despots: they’re using their political clout to try to shape the media in their own image. Strip away all the PC lingo about ‘protecting Muslims’, and the London mayor’s latest initiative comes across as an intolerable attack on press freedom.

The report argues that Islamophobia is rampant in the British press, and that new attitudes amongst journalists and codes of ethics will be required to deal with it. In his foreword, Livingstone argues that there is an increasingly ‘negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media’, which is helping to ‘[sow] divisions among London’s diverse communities’ (pxi). Elsewhere, the report argues that such coverage means ‘Muslims understandably feel vulnerable to hate crimes and unlawful discrimination’; indeed, the ‘drip-drip-drip’ repetition of ‘abusive and emotive language’ about Muslims could lead to ‘more hate crimes and acts of discrimination than otherwise’ (p128). In short, the media’s irresponsible coverage of Muslim issues is a threat to social cohesion and a potential harbinger of violence.

In fact, the report uses questionable, one might even say dodgy methodology to show that the media are continually ‘abusing’ Muslims. For chapter 2 – ‘A normal week? Threats and crises in Britain and the world’ – the report’s authors select a ‘random’ week in 2006 and assess the newspapers’ coverage of Muslim affairs during that week. They chose Monday 8 May to Sunday 14 May 2006. During this week there were apparently 352 articles on Muslim-related issues in all the mainstream daily newspapers. The report’s authors found that of these 352 articles, 91 per cent were ‘negative’ in their portrayal of Muslims and Islam, and only four per cent were judged to be positive. Five per cent were judged neutral. This is evidence, the report claims, of the ‘demonisation’ of Muslims by a ‘torrent’ of negative stories (p18).

It pays – a lot – to look more closely at how this research was carried out. First, the random week selected by the researchers happened to be the week in which the government published its report on the 7/7 bombings. That report came out on Friday 12 May. Not surprisingly, there was a huge amount of press coverage, and not surprisingly most of it was ‘negative’, in the sense that it was about four British-born Muslims who blew up themselves and 52 others in London a year earlier; even individuals of an old Stalinist bent, such as those who stack’s Livingstone’s GLA, would find it hard to put a ‘positive’ spin on such a story. Of the study’s 352 newspaper stories related to Muslims, 69 – or 19.6 per cent – were about the 7/7 bombings (p26).

What’s more, the researchers made a broad sweep indeed when selecting articles ‘about Muslims’. They counted all articles that included the words ‘Islam’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Islamic’, ‘Islamist’, ‘Sunni’, ‘Shia’, or the words ‘radical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘extremist’ if the ‘context was such that it was reasonable to assume that an association with Islam or Muslims would be made’. In other words, even an article about an ‘extremist’ online al-Qaeda sympathiser, say, could be selected as a negative story about Muslims, even if it did not say anything about his religious identity (p17). The researchers also included articles where the names of people were obviously Muslim, ‘even if their religious identity was not explicitly stated’. This leads to a bizarre situation where articles about the sentencing of the former boxer Prince Naseem for dangerous driving are included as part of the torrent of negative stories about Muslims. Naseem was sentenced to 15 months in prison in the week selected by the researchers (on 12 May 2006), and because his name (Naseem Hamed) is obviously Muslim, and because the stories (on dangerous driving) are obviously negative, they are added to the pile of evidence that the media are abusing Muslims. Of the 352 articles selected by the researchers, 15, or 4.3 per cent, were ‘negative’ stories about Prince Naseem (p26).

Even worse, in selecting articles that include the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’, the researchers included all of that random week’s coverage of the bloody mess that is postwar Iraq. May 2006 was the bloodiest month of the year so far in Iraq: according to the Iraq Body Count website, between 2,000 and 2,100 people were killed in Iraq during that month. Not surprisingly, articles about Iraq come second only to articles about 7/7 in the researchers’ list of ‘negative stories on Muslims’. Of their 352 selected articles, 49 – or 13.9 per cent – were news articles about the violence and instability in Iraq. Here, even reporting about a bloody foreign war, which might not necessarily mention ‘Muslims’ but by necessity mentions the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’, is cited as an example of irresponsible and abusive media content on Muslims.

What are the researchers saying? That coverage of things like Iraq and 7/7 needs to be more positive? That journalists who write on war and rare acts of terrorism should mind their language lest they offend Muslims? Or more to the point, lest they offend those who fancy themselves, through the power of self-selection rather than anything so grubby as an electoral process, to be the representatives of Muslims. The contributors to Livingstone’s report include Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, Mohammed Abdul Aziz of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, and Tariq Hameed, who writes reports for the Muslim Council of Britain on how journalists should cover Muslim affairs. Are these individuals so narcissistic that they read about the debacle in Iraq and think only of their personal feelings?

In labelling as ‘negative’ and ‘abusive’ even stories about war and terrorism, the report’s authors show their deeply censorious streak. They are effectively updating, in PC terminology, the old BBC man Martyn Lewis’s demand in the 1990s for more ‘happy news’. Where Lewis said news reporters should seek out ‘good news stories’ as well as bad news stories, effectively spreading the ‘And Finally’ bit of News at Ten across the whole news agenda, Ken’s researchers label everything from coverage of Prince Naseem to the war in Iraq as overly negative, and demand more positive stories on Muslim affairs. This is a demand for the press to overhaul its agenda, for journalists to shift their focus, change their language, and, as the report says, ‘contribute to informed discussion and debate amongst Muslims and non-Muslims about ways of working together to maintain and develop Britain as a multicultural, multifaith democracy’ (pxiv). In short, the press should do the kind of thing that Livingstone wants it to. It speaks volumes about Livingstone’s arrogance and contempt for public debate that he would like to, if only he had the power, turn the press into an offshoot of his political fiefdom.

So, the demonisation of Muslims in the media does not normally consist of articles attacking or slurring Muslims – rather it consists of news reports on Iraq, 7/7, Prince Naseem, as well as Iran, Palestine and numerous other newsworthy issues. Thus, the authors of the report are forced to trawl the dodgier regions of the tabloid media for what they consider to be truly disturbing examples of anti-Muslim prejudice. In chapter 3 – ‘Britishness is being destroyed: worries in a changing world’ – they flag up examples of the media abuse of Muslims. The main example – make sure you are sitting comfortably – appeared on the front page of the Daily Express in October 2005. It was headlined: ‘HOGWASH: Now the PC brigade bans piggy banks in case they upset Muslims.’ The report spends five pages discussing and dissecting this silly but fairly typical ‘PC gone mad’ story that the vast majority of us will have shrugged off at the time and certainly forgotten about since. In total, chapter 3 breaks down what the authors admit are ‘four small episodes’, ‘each relatively trivial in itself’ – that is, all of them are tabloid-style ‘PC gone mad’ stories – yet cites them as evidence that there is an ‘attack on Muslims’ in the media (p31).

The authors then get really desperate. Unable to find many clear expressions of serious anti-Muslim prejudice in the mainstream, they move on to the online discussion boards of the tabloid newspapers. On the Daily Express website they find that web-users have written things like ‘I am sick to the back teeth of hearing about Muslims this and Muslims that’; ‘The Islamic tail is wagging the British bulldog’; and ‘Instead of assimilating into our culture, Muslims whine and complain… They should return to the homeland of their beloved prophet Mohammed.’ (p11) Clearly some of these statements were written by individuals with noxious views. But material posted on the free-for-all discussion boards of the Daily Express website hardly represents a mainstream torrent of abuse. If I took seriously everything that was ever said about me on online discussion boards, I’d never leave the house. That the researchers had to trawl the gutters of the World Wide Web in order to find abuse of Muslims (and even here, the abuse cited is fairly mild) shows that ‘Islamophobia’ is not a mainstream or powerful prejudice. Yet the researchers seem desperate to demonstrate that it is. That is because this report looks to me less like an attempt to tackle real prejudice than to propose some quite authoritarian ideas under the guise of ‘tackling Islamophobia’.

This report demonstrates what the phenomenon of Islamophobia is actually about today. There has been no public groundswell in anti-Muslim prejudice, or in anti-Muslim violence; rather, the spectre of ‘Islamophobia’ exists in the minds of the elite, who look upon Britain’s white working-class communities as an unpredictable blob liable to carry out acts of violence against Muslims if they read an article about piggy banks being banned or Prince Naseem being jailed. The Islamophobia agenda, as pushed by central government, the GLA, the police, various self-selected Muslim community groups and, as it happens, large sections of the media itself, is underpinned by a poisonous view of the masses as irrational and given to violent outbursts, and Muslims as pathetic victims who need heroic Ken and his handpicked Muslim community warriors to protect them. That is why this report focuses mostly on the tabloids, because, as it says, these papers are read by ‘millions’ of people. Those horrible, hard-to-predict millions; we can’t have them reading inflammatory material, can we? (pxvii)

The report says that media coverage may lead to increased violence, yet all the evidence suggests that there has not been a rise in anti-Muslim attacks. At the end of last year, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that in 2005-2006 – in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, when politicians, the police and others predicted there would be an anti-Muslim pogrom – there were only 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, 18 of them against Muslims (or ‘perceived’ Muslims). This represented a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005 (1). It is the irrational fear of public opinion that is widespread in the GLA and elsewhere that leads some to see a connection between fairly ordinary media coverage of important events and a possible rise in violence. The truth is that Livingstone’s desire to police the language that journalists use, just as central government has tried to curb the language all of us use in relation to ‘religious hatred’, does nothing to rejuvenate or improve communuty relations or public life; instead it allows ideas to fester, unchallenged.

Common Ground, with its strange methodology, cliquish community group input and fear of tabloids and tabloid readers, ends by calling for an overhaul of the media. It calls for ‘codes of professional conduct and style guides about use of terminology’; for the employment of ‘more journalists of Muslim heritage who can more accurately reflect the views and experiences of Muslim communities’; and for the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the government’s Department for Communities and Local Government to focus on ‘combating anti-Muslim prejudice in the media’ and in ‘the general climate of public opinion’ (p133). These are explicit demands for increased government intervention into the press, and anyone who believes in the freedom of the press should rigorously oppose them and hope that the government ignores them.

Of course there are vast problems with the British press, its tendency to scaremonger about the threat of terrorism amongst them. Yet as Karl Marx, history’s most passionate and consistent defender of freedom of the press, argued, a ‘bad’ free press is better than a ‘good’ controlled press. Marx said: ‘The free press remains good even when its products are bad, because these products are deviations from the nature of a free press, [while] the censored press remains bad, even when its products are good, because these products are only good insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press’ (2). Marx ridiculed nineteenth-century European rulers who argued that the press should be restricted because it threatened the ‘public good’ and who called on newspapers to hire only ‘respectable’ individuals whose ‘position and character guarantee the seriousness of their activities and the loyalty of their thinking’ (3). Livingstone, if he had the power, would do precisely these two things. He argues that the media is ‘sowing divisions’ and ‘harming social cohesion’ – that is, threatening public safety – and his report goes so far as to suggest who the media should employ: more Muslims, who apparently have the expertise and the loyalty to uphold the multicultural vision.

There is something archaically tyrannical in Livingstone’s vision for the press: on the basis of questionable findings, he and his supporters express their desire to cajole the media into promoting the Livingstone vision for society, which is the ‘building and maintenance of Britain as a multicultural society’ (pxiii). If Livingstone got his way, it would represent an explicit politicisation of the media, though it would be done under the guise of representing the interests of Muslim communities and the British people more broadly. Yet as Marx said, in a controlled or censored media, the government ‘hears only its own voice, knows that it hears only its own voice, and is yet fixed on the delusion to hear the voice of the people…’ (4) The press should remain free from all forms of delusional interference by the authorities. Our current bad media – fairly free, messy, a bit mad, but which represents at least an aspiration to independence and objectivity – is a million times better than Livingstone’s vision of a calm, slavish and unquestioning ‘good media’ could ever be.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) See Hands up if you’re suffering from Islamofatigue, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Communication and Freedom: Karl Marx on Press Freedom and Censorship, Hanno Hardt, The Public, Vol.7 (2000)

(3) Communication and Freedom: Karl Marx on Press Freedom and Censorship, Hanno Hardt, The Public, Vol.7 (2000)

(4) Communication and Freedom: Karl Marx on Press Freedom and Censorship, Hanno Hardt, The Public, Vol.7 (2000)

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Topics Free Speech


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