Vast scope of Islamophobia in the British press revealed by one man’s monitoring of newspapers

Miqdaad Versi, an assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) who has been documenting the Islamophobia of the British press and lodging formal objections to them with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), has been profiled by The Guardian. His objections, and subsequent Ipso processed, have led to the newspapers identified as propagating Islamophobia amending all instances of fabrications concerning Muslims. Such fabrications have included a 9 November 2016 article in The Times, which stated, “Islamist School Can Segregate Boys and Girls”, and a Daily Express website headline in the same month which stated, “Anger as less than A THIRD of Muslim nations sign up to coalition against Isis”.

The Excel spreadsheet Versi uses to record all of these instances of fabrications concerning the Muslim community and Islam is so extensive “that it becomes difficult to believe the errors are all coincidental”. As The Guardian article notes, “the document is a cold account of how flagrantly British papers get their news about Muslims wrong, and how often they reuse the same stereotypes … the Muslim disloyal to this country; the Muslim so conservative he is practically antiquated; the Muslim swarming into Britain; the Muslim pushing his way of life upon others. The most permanent residence of these Muslims is not Brick Lane in London or Small Heath in Birmingham, but the pages of Britain’s newspapers”.

In another spreadsheet, Versi keeps track of every mention of Muslims in daily British newspapers since August 2016. The spreadsheet contains about 24,750 entries at the time of the profile, and each is labelled either “Positive”, “Negative”, or “Neither” according to the impression Versi believes it conveys of Islam. In the May version of this spreadsheet, 14,129 of the recorded stories were negative. However, other academic studies have found the proportion of unfavourable articles to be much higher, with a 2011 study from the University of Leeds putting the number at 70%.

Press regulators can only address issues of factual precision and relevance, and so Versi cannot officially challenge many of the articles which portray Muslims negatively, only those which contain fabrications. But, as the article profiling him notes, “his patient pointillism reveals the larger problem: the newspapers have, for years now, relentlessly demonised Muslims, setting them up as the implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, British and civilised”.

The contribution of the press to rising levels of Islamophobia in the West has been well documented, such as in the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research’s 2018 European Islamophobia Report. In previous years, Jewish people, black people, and Irish people have all faced similar targeting rom the press, with Muslims becoming a target in 1989 with the Rushdie affair.

Among journalists, there has been little acknowledgement about the press’ constant exhibition of Islamophobia. The problem is worsened by the fact that social media allows press stories to be spread globally in seconds, meaning that fabrications regarding the Muslim community and Islam have huge influence before they can be corrected. And when they are corrected, the corrections rarely get the attention the original story received.

Amongst the wider community of academics, press regulators, and government committees, who are also concerned about the problem, there is no agreement on how to tackle it. “Versi has identified and quantified a problem, only to be told that it is too big to solve”, says the profile, but it’s clear a solution is needed.

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Subramanian, S. (2018) ‘One man’s (very polite) fight against media Islamophobia’. [online] [Accessed 25 October 2018].