Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15. Those attending included editors and senior journalists from major media outlets as well as a cross section of Muslim community members and leaders. It comes amid an unprecedented growth in Islamophobia that have become the norm.
In his welcoming speech, Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi, described the event held at the iconic Merchant Taylors’ Hall in the city of London as “a constructive forum where we can learn from one another.”
He said he did not expect there would be a “magic wand where we will see an instant change in the tone reportage when it comes to Islam and Muslims.” Neither was it “a conference where we will exact demands off each other, but we do hope to understand one another.”
Being held on the occasion of more than a quarter of a century of publishing The Muslim News, he concluded by saying that the aims of the conference would “to honour the very raison d’etre that established this paper by exploring the relationship between Islam, Muslims and the media, and understanding why the media reports Muslims in the way they do.”
Executive Director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, congratulated The Muslim News on its 25th anniversary. It was an “important milestone” and “added an extra landmark to the UK’s diverse and vibrant media landscape. The paper has certainly made its mark, not least through its awards that spotlight the many brilliant achievements across the board of those in the community it serves.” He said it was important to “look at issues like these [reporting on Islam and Muslims] which are not easy, with lots of views, lots of perceptions. Sometimes perceptions about how media treats issues are harder to deal
Executive Director of Telegraph Media Group, Lord Black
Executive Director of Telegraph Media Group, Lord Black, argued that media plurality is “vital in a democracy. Plurality and diversity are also important to reflect Britain’s changing landscape.” He said that “strong brand like The Muslim News, which has so much to showcase the tremendous contributions of the Muslim community in Britain and campaigning quality of journalism, is fundamental importance to press freedom.”
The conference, chaired by ITN Journalist and Reporter, Fatima Manji, explored the reporting of Islam and Muslim from the differing perspectives of broadcast and print media and also explored ethics in journalism and media diversity in the UK today.
Director of Coexist Programmes, Michael Wakelin, argued that despite increasing diversity of faiths, “religious illiteracy pervades the media” and in dramas and soap operas, “there are many negative portrayal of religion people of religion.”
President of Society of Editors and Managing Editor of London Evening Standard and the Independent [Newspaper] Group, Doug Wills, said, “We do the best we can” on reporting about Islam and Muslims, however, “we accept it is not perfect.” He added that one of the ways to improve the reporting was to have people from different sections of the British community and said the doors are open for people from ethnic communities to apply.
Managing Editor of the Mail on Sunday, John Wellington, said his newspaper is “very conscious” and “we try to report news in a fair way”. He acknowledged that “there is a lot of ignorance amongst journalists as much as the general public” on Islam and Muslims. He also said the newspapers need to improve on the Islamic terminologies they use. “Most journalists use the word ‘fatwa’ as a mafia type word in order to go and kill someone. I learnt that it is just a religious command, like fatwa against smoking, alcohol and other bad behaviours.”
Former Managing Editor of the Daily Telegraph and now Manager of the Mail Training Programme, Sue Ryan, argued that it is not only Muslims who feel they are misrepresented.
Women are misrepresented too. “The only people who wouldn’t want this type of conference are white, middleclass, men.” She said Muslims are negatively portrayed in the papers when they are set apart in headlines, for example. She gave examples of headlines, ‘Muslim tells us how we run our schools’, ‘Muslim Peer charge in texting death crash’. “The answer is to have more Muslims on the staff” to ensure misrepresentations do not happen.
The question that arose during the discussions is why is it that many of the stories on crime etc are associated with ‘Muslim’ and how do newspapers decide whether or not to use it. Wills answered that it would only be used “if it was relevant then it would be inserted in the story.” However, none of the panellists were able to answer why the faith of Asians who were arrested on sex crimes was mentioned in the stories. What was the relevance in these stories?
When innocent pilgrims tragically lost their lives in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, when a crane collapsed, the Mail Online linked their deaths to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 in its headline: “At least 87 people killed…after a giant crane ‘operated by Bin Laden firm’ collapses…on anniversary of 9/11 attacks”. The panel were asked what relevance was 9/11 to the story. Wakelin of Mail on Sunday answered: “It sounds like a very weird story.”
In the panel discussion on the reporting by broadcasting media, Managing Editor of ITV News, Robin Elias, said that there is “unconscious bias in any news room and one way round it is to ensure your news team both in front and behind the camera reflects the UK society as a whole.” He added that he was looking forward to a time “when we have Muslim political correspondence on public spending, Muslim mother talking about high sugar in baby foods. This is what we ought to be aiming for. It is not longer issue of stereotyping or pigeon holing people.”
Professor of Journalism & Screen Media in the School of Arts at Brunel University, Julien Petley, showed different ways in which the print and broadcasting media are regulated. “The big difference between the two is that broadcasted are supposed to be impartial and balanced.” He claimed that the real problem we face is the “extent to which broadcast agenda are in many cases set by the press.”
News Editor of the BBC News, James Stephenson, argued that they have an enormous task reporting on events around all aspects of Muslim life which “has been greater than ever before. We are seeking to increase sophistication of our reports, therefore not lumping all Muslims together in our coverage. We are conscious of the scale and responsibility covering the stories.”
Home Affairs Correspondent of Channel 4 News, Simon Israel, said he has found in his work how easy it is to offend. “How quickly people become offended and how often you cannot see it until it is broadcast.” On the issue about language, Israel argued it was not necessarily the media who create it. “The Government was quite happy to talk about radicalisation, without spelling out quite exactly what is means, how it is done, who is involved in it, how they are challenging it. Is it to do with Islam or is it to do with some kids having mental health problems. It is nothing to do with religion.”
Regarding the lack of diversity amongst editors and senior producers, Stephenson recognised that this needs to be addressed. However, “we have been living through the age of austerity so that hiring new people at senior levels has been constrained.” Israel said he has seen “glass ceilings in most places I have worked – they are either sexist or racist. They become club mentalities.”
On the Ethics in Journalism panel, Founding Director of Impress Project, Jonathan Heawood, argued that Muslims were reported in the media in a discriminative way. “It is as though making links between Islam and extreme violence was natural whilst making links between Christianity, nationalism and extreme violence must be a sign of insanity. Is it any surprise that Muslims feel stigmatised by a media which embodies such a hostile political narrative? Is it any surprise that Muslims will look for legal or regulatory solutions to this kind of demonisation?”
The Editors Code of practise goes some way to address these concerns, he said. However, this protection only extends to individuals and not groups. The newly formed regulatory body, Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), does allow complaints to be brought by relevant representative groups. But this does not extend to discrimination Clause 12 of the Code.
Chairman of IPSO, Sir Alan Moses, said the goal of the regulatory body is to ensure fairness and respect and “we at IPSO want to achieve it. We acknowledge that it is a slow and difficult process. But at least we are working to serve the public and we are trying to do so.”
Editorial Director of the Sunday Times, Eleanor Mills, said the reason why we see a lot of problems about representation of Muslims in the media is because of decisions made by people around the [editorial] table. “We try to address such issues. For instance, we ran in the Sunday Times magazine article called ‘I am a Muslim’ looking at lost of difference kinds of Muslim stories in the UK.” Mills agreed about the lack of pluralism around the table of newspapers.
Observer Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, said it was important for newspapers to be accountable to what they write and in opening up dialogue with the readership, “listening to your readers, listening to your faults, you are building up trust and trust enables you to retain the audience.” He was surprised that even though the paper reports a lot on Islam and Muslims, the paper gets very few letters from the Muslim community.
“That may be because people don’t trust me to give them a fair hearing. I sincerely hope that is not the case.” He said his reporters find it very difficult to get Muslims to talk on Muslim issues may be because “there is a real fear of about how opinions will be received by others within the community. It has got worse since the London bombings.”
Deputy Managing Editor of the Independent Group and the Evening Standard, Will Gore, said the challenges of reporting on Muslims is not more regulations but “actually ensuring that there is a culture in newsrooms of diversity, of openness and understanding. If you foster that then you can avoid the very worst excesses that we see in some media outlets.”
There was a lot discussion on whether comment pieces should be based on facts or not as many, especially on Islam and Muslims, are not.
Sir Alan said when newspapers assert that the whole piece is opinion, it is out of the scope with accuracy and regulation. However, Sir Alan argued that the IPSO complaints committee agree that “even if it is within an opinion piece, then it still has to be based upon facts.”
Mills agreed with Sir Alan. “I am a columnist. I do base my arguments on facts. But part of a columnist is to provoke and debate,” she said.
In the panel on whether the media industry is in step with a changing Britain on diversity, BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, said there are more opportunities and there are more people of ethnic background working in the media. “The problem is that it is harder to get the job and keeping the job in broadcasting media. It was harder to get a job in the 1990s than now. Massive strides have been made.” He added that ethnic minorities have become editors of newspapers, contributors, commissioning editors etc. “To say that the media industry is completely out of step would be incorrect.”
Senior Producer at ITN, Roohi Hasan, said news organisations could do more on diversity and representation. “We at ITN are trying to cast the net wider across the country to recruit for all sorts of background.” She said that she was never pigeonholed in her work. “It is good to have faces and people of all sorts of background and cultures so that you can be called upon on your expertise and how to be sensitive in certain issues.”
Chief Executive of Media Trust, Caroline Diehl, said in the past journalists had more time to go into communities and connect with people. “But now journalists are doing the work of two to three people and are incredibly busy. Key for media industry is to connect with communities and build trust.”
Note: Media reporting on Islam and Muslims in the print media was chaired by Bob Satchwell. Media reporting on Islam and Muslims in Broadcasting Media was chaired by Fatima Manji. Ethics in Journalism was chaired by Ehsan Masood, Editor of Research Fortnight. Media Diversity: is the industry in step with a changing Britain, was chaired by Shenaz Bunglawala, Head of Research, MEND.