Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Baroness Uddin (Labour)
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, for bringing this debate to the House. Since the events of 9/11 and 7/7, media attention on Muslims and the Muslim community has dramatically increased. Studies conducted by Cardiff University media school, among others, and commissioned by Channel 4 analysed some 974 stories and found that approximately two-thirds of all "news hooks" for stories about Muslims involved either terrorism, religious issues such as Sharia law, women in the context of forced marriage, highlighting the cultural differences between British Muslims and others or were simply about so-called Muslim extremism. These stories all portrayed Muslims as a source of conflict, emphasising differences. By contrast, however, only about 5 per cent of stories were based on problems faced by British Muslims, and only on very rare occasions was there a mention of anything inclusive or positive.
Noble Lords will be familiar with sociologists' thinking on how media impact on society. They refer to the two concepts of "agenda setting" and "framing". "Agenda setting" refers to ways in which the media, through an emphasis on some issues and not others, helps shape particular concerns of our time. "Framing" contextualises it so that society can make sense of that issue. Take immigration as an example. For decades now, the media have framed this issue in terms of colour and threat rather than the desperate demand for labour required in post-war Britain. This has successfully led to immigration being looked at as an alien concept and immigrants as aliens.
Similarly, the agenda set by the British media has been distinctly anti-Muslim. One study found that terrorism was the dominant issue in headlines referring to minorities. When the text of the reports was analysed, terrorism was the second most frequent issue, with immigration being the first. Where Muslims were referred to in the texts, the report showed that they were overwhelmingly referred to in relation to terrorism. In the few cases where Muslims were given a direct voice as speakers in the story, the majority were associated with terrorism.
Clearly, then, there is a disconcerting amount of evidence which indicates the partisan and partial way in which Muslims and Islam are represented in the British media. The consequence of this anti- Muslim agenda set by the media is a framing process which sees a war between "us" and "them". "Us", according to the media, happen to be harmless individuals who are being taken advantage of by "them", who are a burden on the state, agents who corrupt or pollute our culture, criminals and terrorists who are a threat to our society, our security and way of life.
The British media profess tolerance but the daily news coverage and comment columns demonstrate just how conditional that tolerance is, and promote a regard for Muslims not as citizens with equal rights and varying views but as visitors in "our" country. Such is the demonisation process that media stories are deliberately manipulated to attack Muslims. We know that these attacks impact significantly on all aspects of their lives including-and this is deeply troubling-employability.
Many noble Lords may be aware of the Department for Work and Pensions study conducted a few years ago, which brutally illustrated the highest discrimination that exists against those with Muslim-sounding names. Take one newspaper which splashed a front-page story in 2006 which described a "Muslim hate mob" vandalising a house near Windsor and leaving an obscene message on the drive. According to the paper, the house was due to be rented by British soldiers returning from a tour of Afghanistan. An MP was quoted in the article as saying:
"If there's anybody who should f*** off"-
I apologise to the House-
"it's the Muslims who are doing this kind of thing".
It may come as no surprise to your Lordships' House to learn that there were no Muslims involved in the story. The house was in an affluent area and anonymous callers had objected to the arrival of the soldiers as it might lower house prices.
Such headlines and stories are legion. It would make depressing listening if I recited any number of them. They are a shameful illustration of the worst kind of press reporting, where a particular section of the community is targeted. But why should the media adopt this approach? Why do we not hear about the Ministry of Justice statistic that 2.3 million "show and account" powers were used? There are twice as many stop-and-searches of Asian people per head of population compared to others. Further, there are 37,000 racially and religiously aggravated offences recorded by the police which are hardly reported. Well, we now know through submissions made to the Leveson inquiry how closely sections of the media work collaboratively with law enforcers, politicians and government. We have since come to learn and understand that individuals and organisations do not operate in a vacuum under these circumstances. They are influenced and guided by the political and accepted norms of the culture around them. It must be obvious to many of us that media coverage of Muslims and Islam is far from being of the proper standard we should and must expect from our media.
Many I have spoken to, young and old, men and women, professional and housebound, believe that the response to 9/11 and 7/7 by leaders in the US and UK, and the ensuing reporting in our media, have inexorably led to a rise in anti-Muslim feelings in our society which has, in a number of high-profile cases, been recognised as institutionalised discrimination. The consequences are significant. I can detail many examples of institutional discrimination which are faced by British Muslims in terms of education, the criminal justice system and, simply by having a Muslim name, their prospect of employability.
It must therefore be said that the state and its institutions must bear some responsibility. Through its pronouncements, declarations laws and edicts, it sets the tone and tenor of this progressively corrosive climate in society, of which the press is a part, where Muslims and Islam are the fifth column. The Leveson inquiry has given us a unique opportunity to redress what has been a systematic demonisation and criminalisation of a community. We must hope in the next few weeks, when Lord Justice Leveson reports, that his inquiry has taken heed of the seriousness of the evidence provided in this regard by an assortment of witnesses including former tabloid and broadsheet reporters.
Nothing should hold back the ability of the press to hold government and public officials to account. Equally, there must be something to allow ordinary citizens, including affected communities, to hold the press to account. Lord Justice Leveson needs to recognise the hurt caused to our communities and the anger within them, and to make recommendations which allow all citizens, regardless of their origin, culture or faith, to live without fear.