BBC chief defends ‘strikingly hostile’ interview with new MCB leader

19th Mar 2021
BBC chief defends ‘strikingly hostile’ interview with new MCB leader

BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Presenter Emma Barnett and Secretary-General of MCB Zara Mohammed (Credits: MCB & Roger Harris/House of Lords)

Hamed Chapman

The BBC’s Director-General has refused to intervene in a dispute over the questionable way the new leader of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was interviewed by the presenter of Woman’s Hour, Emma Barnett, after a public admonishment by 200 prominent figures, as well as the corporation receiving some 564 complaints.

The reprimand made in an open letter, whose signatories included several politicians, protested that the interview with Zara Mohammed was “strikingly hostile” and that the line of repeated questioning reinforced “damaging and prejudicial tropes” about Islam and Muslim women.

It said Barnett, who previously worked for BBC Radio Five and was briefly a regular presenter on Newsnight, kept interrupting the recently elected Secretary-General of the MCB and “mirrored the style and tone of an accountability interview with a politician, rather than authentically recognising and engaging in what this represented for British Muslim women”.

“Despite the BBC having a commitment to due impartiality and fairness, the line of questioning fell into a well-worn narrative of presuming Muslim women are inherently disenfranchised due to the parameters of a faith that supposedly has not reformed. What might have been an opportunity to inform the wider audience about what is possible in Muslim communities, the interview appeared intent on re-enforcing damaging and prejudicial tropes about Islam and Muslim women,” the signatories complained.

Instead of addressing the issue, Tim Davie tweeted a short statement from Woman’s Hour, which he said he agreed with. It referred to the radio magazine programme’s 75-year-old record and insisted that it was “legitimate for the programme to seek to explore some of the issues facing Muslims in the UK.”

“Woman’s Hour however has always been a programme that listens to feedback and learns from the responses we receive; we will reflect on the issues and concerns you raise in this open letter. We always endeavour to reflect the experiences and issues impacting Muslim women as well as think hard about how we do so, and we will continue to do that,” it said.

One of the organisers of the letter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, said that this “cannot be the way that media organisations, especially the BBC – which is meant to represent Britain and British people – engage with Muslim women and Muslim people.”

She told The Guardian that she had conversations with other Muslim women who were “seriously reconsidering whether or not going on Woman’s Hour is something that we want to do as part of any publicity around our books or conversations around issues that are really important to us”. Mariam Khan, the other organiser of the letter, said that while it was “disheartening” to see the interview, it helped expose “the wider cultural problem within the BBC and the media when it comes to the representation of Muslims.”

“This is a crucial moment in which the BBC can choose to turn its back on the Muslim community or engage in making a change and acknowledging it’s very real-life impact on the lives of Muslims in the UK,” she said.

The open letter also refers to the underrepresentation of Muslim voices across the public broadcaster and calls on the BBC to recommit to engage with Muslim women and those from historically marginalised communities and recruit Muslims in leadership and commissioning roles.

“It is perhaps no coincidence that this comes against a background where Muslim voices are underrepresented at every level within the BBC. By its own admission in the BBC’s latest Annual Report, there are virtually no Muslims working at BBC Studios (TV and Radio Production), which includes the production of Woman’s Hour, at either staff or leadership levels,” it said.

“The lack of representation within programming, such as Woman’s Hour, means that crucial insights in engaging with and reporting on Muslim communities are missed. The data on almost 5,000 episodes of Woman’s Hour broadcasts over the last 20 years indicates that less than 300 guests (2.4 %) have been Muslim women and many of these have not been British.”

Davie, who only became Director-General last September and was a former Deputy Chair of his local Conservative Party, insisted that the BBC’s key priorities were to improve staff representation and fulfil its duty to “reflect the wholeof the UK” in its staff and programs, a task he said was “vitally important.”

“We commit to returning to this on-air soon and to deepen our engagement with the issues that matter most to Muslim women, as well as looking at representation across Woman’s Hour as part of the BBC’s plans to more accurately reflect the society we serve,” he claimed.Among the many Muslim and non-Muslim critics of the treatment of Mohammed on Women’s Hour, particularly the selected clips doing the rounds on social media, was Aurelia magazine’s Deputy Editor, Shahed Ezaydi, who described it as “clickbait Islamophobia, plain and simple.”

“Many Muslim women will have seen their own experiences reflected in the way Barnett approached her questions to Zara. It’s yet another attempt by white women to paint and reassert Islam in its typical negative stereotype: a ‘backwards’ religion that just doesn’t care about women,” she said.

“It’s a stereotype as old as time. Islam is viewed as this violent and misogynistic religion, where women are treated badly and are living oppressed lives. And because of this, Muslim women couldn’t possibly be linked to feminism, let alone be leading feminists in their fields”.

As a sop, the BBC Director-General invited the writers of the open letter to meet senior colleagues at the corporation to “talk through the issues you raise” without mentioning whether he was making himself available but there was no indication at the time of going to press if anything had been arranged but there was no word of an apology and disciplinary measures.

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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