This interview was conducted as a part of my dissertation research earlier this year. My dissertation focused and explored the ways in which Muslims and the religion of Islam is presented within various forms of media; particularly the British newspapers.
The following questions were asked in the hopes of investigating the opinions held by prominent individuals who have dedicated many years to the study of this subject. Julian Petley is a professor and the Head of Research in Journalism at Brunel University, London. He has written for an assortment of newspapers including The Guardian. Furthermore; he keenly campaigns for a media which hopefully one day will be responsible and accountable for their publications.
Do the British media provide a neutral, fair and unbiased view of Muslims and Islam in Britain?
If you’re asking me about the majority of the newspapers and the national press I would say absolutely definitely not. I mean I think you might get a relatively balanced view from the Guardian and the Independent let’s say but they are minority readership papers, you only need to look at their readership figures to realise they are very low and they’re very untypical of the rest of the national British press which is far from liberal about anything and certainly I think do not give a neutral view of anything frankly and particularly not of Islam and Muslims. If you turn to radio and television which are the other media, I think the picture there is a bit better because after all radio and television is suppose to be impartial and neutral and balanced but in point of fact if you think back to one or two Panorama programmes recently; if you think back to one or two Dispatches programmes there are means of programmes there which have been pretty critical of Muslims and Islam. Not saying obviously Muslims and Islam should never be criticised, of course maybe there are things to be criticised just like with other views and faiths but it does seem to me that there has been quite a large number of programmes recently, one of which I analysed at great lengths in the book which is the Panorama programme by John Ware on the Muslim Council of Britain. I think that was a really atrocious piece of journalism and I think that it can’t square with the BBC’s commitment to editorial guidelines to impartiality and fairness and balance. In my view what you do get in that John Ware programme and in one or two other Panorama’s is the kind of replication of the agenda set elsewhere by the press.
Why do you think there is so much focus on Muslims in the media?
I think it all really came about because of 9/11, because the people who committed the 9/11 atrocity were Muslims, I think that was one of the reasons why the media focused on the Muslims. Rather than saying well you know as with all belief systems there are some people who are fanatics and fundamentalists, very quickly it seemed that everyone got tarred with the same brush and of course all this was given a further twist with the events that happened in London with the bombings. Muslim communities moved from being almost kind of rather invisible really to being increasingly demonised largely because of the association with terrorism. I also think that as the economic situation has got worse and also with all the international crises particularly focused on the Middle East, people look around for people to blame and scapegoat and alike and you know Muslims have come out top of the pile there.
Studies have shown that often Muslims are represented in the news media as extremists, against British values, a threat to Britain, backwards, barbaric, and women oppressors and so on and so forth. Are these genuine issues or are they in fact an exaggeration by the media?
I think these are exaggeration because if you look at most of the literature which has been written about media representations, if you think of the work of Elizabeth Poole or John Richardson who has done very good work on discourse analysis and the way in which Muslims and Islam are represented or Van Dyke for example; all of these individuals all shown that the representation of Muslims and Islam is overwhelmingly negative and for the most part extremely inaccurate. I think one of the best parts of our book is the chapter by the two journalists Hugh Muir and Laura Smith who take four stories mostly from the Daily Express and show them not just to be exaggerated or a bit factually incorrect but I mean totally factually incorrect and I mean one could have taken masses of stories and done that treatment and I’m absolutely confident that we could have found twenty, thirty, forty or fifty stories and revealed them to be a load of tosh.
The majority of coverage regarding Muslims exists within reductive frameworks, why do you think the media do not concentrate on alternative representations?
Well you could ask that question of almost anything the media represent, I mean you do have in this country a newspaper industry which you could say is biased towards the right or which has predominantly illiberal values and they’re all sorts of issues on which you know newspaper opinion is remarkably homogenous. Muslims and Islam would be one, immigration would certainly be another witness for what’s going on today for instance or you might turn it around and argue how many newspapers would actually really question fundamental values of the kind of deregulated finance capitalism that we have now through all these crises. How many newspapers for instance are saying let’s not cut our way out of this crisis lets suspend our way out of this crisis. I mean virtually none, I mean maybe the Financial Times occasionally maybe the Guardian now and again maybe the Independent but you know there is a remarkable homogeneity of views in our newspapers because they are ideal to be homogenous for the most part and you call them what you will; right-wing, illiberal, I mean conservative with a big C, small c – they are all of those things.
Do you think the way in which Islam and Muslims are represented has an impact on the perception of Islam and Muslims by non-Muslims?
I’m sure it does I mean I’d be amazed if it didn’t, I mean the more difficult question that you’re probably about to ask is does it cause the violence towards Muslims which to that the answer is I don’t really know. But it has to be the case surely, that you know newspapers provide us with a good deal of what we think about. I’m not saying that newspapers tell us what to think because we’re not complete dweebs and puppets here but nonetheless newspapers report unlike books for example to be telling you something about the real world and you’ve only got to think for one moment to realise that lots of people have views about things which they’ve got no personal experience with whatsoever. I mean I’m sure people have got views about President Gaddafi but have they met President Gaddafi? Have they been to Libya? No they haven’t. So these views must come from somewhere and I suspect that they do come from the media to a large extent. Of course the media would say in their defence that what they’re doing is simply reflecting the views of their readership but the answer to that is, so do you really think the purpose of journalism is to tell people what you think they know already, what about the idea of journalism as an enlightening and educative and demythologizing force? Well, that is not the British press.
Do you think the way in which Islam and Muslims are represented by the media has any impact on British Muslims themselves?
I think it does from what evidence I’ve gathered myself by looking at reliable public opinion surveys which are not very easy to come by, I think many Muslims feel resentful of the kind of coverage which they get and my argument and I’m sure I say this somewhere in the book is that it is a quite possible reason why some Muslims may turn to extremist forms of belief or direct forms of action because they do feel so alienated. One of the reasons they feel alienated in our society apart from being discriminated against in the jobs market and generally living at quite the rather poorer end of the economic scale is because they don’t like what they read about themselves in much of the British press.
How might British Muslims influence the coverage of Islam and Muslims in the media?
Well that is very difficult, I think there are lots of people who do not like the way in which they are represented in the media. Students for example have had a very rough time in the media recently. I think all you can really do in my view is to do your utmost to try to reveal that most of the stuff is bias, vicious, nasty and not true. I mean that’s where the Internet becomes very useful these days because there is no point in writing to newspapers whose mind is completely made up. Forget the Press Complaints Commission which is just a confidence trick but I think it is possible to get in touch with numerous websites which offer critiques of the press, there are numerous Islamic websites which offer specifically critiques from an Islamic point of view and there is although it is a bit sparse an Islamic press which you can get in touch with or the minority newspapers. I think what I’m trying to say is that you have to kind of mount a critique of the media probably from independent sources but I do think these make a difference even if you’re not going to influence the coverage for a very long time. Newspapers do not like to be told that they’re lying and that it is all crap; it does in a very slow drip drip drip way have an effect I think.
Sayeeda Warsi a few months ago stated that Islamophobia in Britain is becoming socially acceptable. How would you respond to this statement?
I think she’s absolutely right, there’s no question about it. I think that Muslims today are getting the same treatment as the Jews did in the first part of the 20th century, that the Irish did once the IRA campaign hit the mainland in the early 1970s. Now it’s Muslims because it seems to be perfectly acceptable to say unpleasant things about Muslims. I mean one of the things that I do occasionally when giving talks is to take something which is a very negative representation of Islam and Muslims and just change the words around and replace it with Jews and people look rather startled and shocked.
Who would you say speaks on behalf of British Muslims; is it individuals such as Warsi, Imams, academics, MP’s, Muslim celebrities like Omid Djalili or institutions such as the Muslim Council of Great Britain?
I think all of those; I think one of the things that I learnt very quickly is that there is no single Muslim community. There is a whole series of different Muslim communities and nobody speaks for all of them, and all individuals speak from different positions but the same would be true for example for let’s say the left in this country. There isn’t one left, there are all sorts of different left-wing viewpoints and I think the same is true of Muslims and Islam there are different viewpoints some of which the media like to label extreme, well some are extreme actually but they are very much a minority. And anyway extremism is not particular to Muslims, what about Christian extremism or Jewish extremists or neoliberal extremists?
Do you feel Muslims are offered fair opportunities to voice their opinions within the media?
No but not everyone else is very much, the mainstream media is a very one-way process in my view you can’t really count all that crap that people write on newspaper websites beneath articles, that’s not two-way. The broadcasters are a bit better and certainly in my view, I think it’s easier for the broadcasters to address than the press because you can always argue with the broadcasters that they are supposed to by law to be impartial and fair but again if you read my chapter on Panorama in the book you’ll see the Muslim Council of Britain’s objection to the Panorama programme was rejected because of the attitude that the BBC is never wrong.
Do you feel the media are able to comment on Muslims in such a way which they wouldn’t perhaps do regarding other minorities?
Yes I do, just try it with Jews. I think there is a long history of racism in the British press in particular I don’t think what’s happening to Muslims is by any means unique they just happen to be the target of the moment. I don’t believe that certain minorities particularly the Jews would be picked on like this, not least because they are quite powerful and they have members in the House of Lords and they have MPs and Jewish organisations that are well-respected and good for them you know I’m not criticising Jewish organisations for one minute. The fact that they fight back what they see as anti-Semitism and it sometimes is anti-Semitism is wholly admirable but it’s much more difficult for people such as Muslims to fight back because they’re not so powerful in that sense.
Do you think journalists are socially responsible in their representation of British Muslims and Islam; for example do journalists take into consideration the rich diversity of opinions held by Muslims, do journalists make enough effort to distinguish between Muslims and extremists?
I think the answer to that question depends on what journalists you are talking about… if it’s someone like Peter Oborne in the Telegraph yes he does, if it’s someone like Gary Younge or Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian, yes I think they do. I think they are responsible and I think they do make necessary distinctions but if you’re talking about people like Melanie Phillips in the Mail I don’t think they do for one moment. I think these people are idea lobes first and foremost and journalists second.
Do you think the media plays a role in the rising support for organisations such as the English Defence League and the British National Party?
Yes I think they do, I mean the interesting thing here is that they are always criticising the EDL and the BNP but in my view the kinds of views which are peddled by newspapers like the Sun, the Star, the Express and the Telegraph absolutely fuel bodies like the EDL and the BNP in the UK. It is extraordinary how these newspapers criticise these people yet they can’t really see that the views these people are expressing are very similar to the views newspapers are expressing. I suppose the reason for this apparent contradiction is that the newspapers are predominantly Tory newspapers and so they don’t want people supporting the Tory party to go vote for the BNP or whatever and it just shows how stupid they are in my view.
Do you think the general public have sufficient knowledge about Islam and enough contact with Muslims to be able to make an informed decision about media representations of Islam and Muslims?
Well that would depend on where you live I think, if you live somewhere like Slough or Leicester then yes compared to your mind being completely closed. If you have contact with people who are different from you on a daily basis you are much less likely to swallow the nonsense, hate filled rubbish you find in newspapers. It is very true where you go to parts of the country where there are no people of colour for example you often find incredibly negative attitudes towards difference and where do these people get their attitudes from, if not from newspapers?
For more of Julian Petley’s opinions please read his book entitled ‘Muslims in the Media – Pointing the Finger’.
Available in all good book stores.
Neelam Atique – November 2011