Select Committee on Home Affairs Sixth Report

8 The media

Coverage of terrorism and minority issues

196. There were complaints from most of our witnesses about media coverage of terrorism and Islam. Particular concern was expressed over the use of phrases such as 'Islamic terrorist' or 'Muslim terrorist'the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, among others, made the point that the term 'Catholic terrorism' had never been used during the period of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland.[203] Another criticism, raised by the Muslim Council of Britain and other Muslim witnesses, was that arrests on terrorism-related charges received significant media coverage, but if those arrested were later released without having been charged, coverage was minimal.[204] A further complaint, again raised by a number of witnesses, concerned tip-offs to the media, presumably by the police, of impending arrests. The case of arrests of Iraqi Kurds in Manchester in April 2004, all of whom were later released without charge, was frequently cited in this context.[205] These and similar points were made not only by Muslim witnesses, but also by the Church of England,[206] the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales,[207] the Evangelical Alliance[208] and the Mayor of London.[209]

197. The Home Office noted the risk of stigmatisation of minority communities and said that the Government understood "the extreme concern within Muslim communities that the extensive coverage of the views of extremists by some newspapers offers a misleading image of Islam that is not countered by positive coverage of the support that Muslim communities have given to the Police service in the fight against terrorism or the contribution which our Muslim citizens make to the UK".[210] The Minister of State also thought that "the language used [by the media] has sometimes not helped to create the kind of tolerant and inclusive society we would all want to see".[211]

198. Complaints about media coverage of minority communities were not confined to the Muslim community. The Hindu Forum told us that the national media had been largely indifferent to anti-Hindic attacks;[212] similarly the Sikh Community Action Network believed that there was not enough coverage of the issues facing the visibly Sikh community.[213] The Board of Deputies of British Jews argued that while anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents were covered sympathetically, coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflict was often 'one-sided and superficial'.[214]

199. None of those who criticised the media sought to impose censorship, although some argued that the laws relating to contempt of court and race relations should be applied more rigorously. It was also suggested that the Press Complaints Commission had failed to tackle the issues. [215]

Local and national media

200. Some witnesses believed that local and regional newspapers provided better coverage of minority communities than did the national press.[216] In at least one case we were told there had been a significant improvement, not to say a transformation, in coverage by a local newspaper.[217] Some also believed that local media were significant as a barometer of opinion, for example through the letters column.[218] Others felt that there were no significant differences,[219] or that national newspapers were more influential.[220] Witnesses from the media believed that differences were exaggerated, but pointed out that coverage of a particular incident in local media might well be in greater depth and more prolonged than in their national counter-parts.[221]

Broadcast and print media

201. A number of witnesses emphasised the importance of television, rather than newspapers, in their local communities.[222] For example, Father Philip Sumner, a Catholic priest from Oldham, told us:

"Certainly from my experience in Oldham, every time there has been some terror attack a number of people refer to me, […] who almost presume that whatever happens on their television screens is happening on a much wider basis than it actually is. [...] When something is put on the television screen I hear far more comments from my own parishioners, for example, concerning the Muslim community, the presumption being that terrorism is everywhere and that the Muslim communities are responsible."[223]

202. The Home Editor of the BBC told us that the Corporation were "acutely aware" of the "enormous power" of television.[224] He also acknowledged the inherent difficulties of covering the threat of international terrorism in a medium that relied on pictures. As he put it:

"You are dealing with briefings with people who are certainly not going to go on television about events which you do not see."[225]

We note that the Faith Practitioners group of the Home Office's Community Cohesion Panel believed that broadcast media were generally more responsible than their press counterparts:

"The Group were generally impressed by the degree of care that the broadcast media seems to take over faith matters. The Group commend many of their publications and handbooks. The Group were more disturbed by the quality of newspaper journalism. This was patchy - there were examples of good practice and examples of very unhelpful reporting that would do nothing for community cohesion."[226]

What the media said

203. When planning our inquiry, we had not intended to hold an oral evidence session specifically focussing on the media. However, such was the degree of concern expressed over their role, that we decided to ask representatives of local and national newspapers, and the broadcast media, for their views. Unsurprisingly, all denied that they reported irresponsibly. Newspaper editors argued that it made no sense for them to alienate potential readers in minority communities,[227] and the Executive Managing Editor of the Daily Mail made the additional point that a high proportion of newsagents were run by Muslims, whose support was thus crucial for newspaper distribution.[228] Representatives of broadcast and print media alike told us that they now avoided phrases such as 'Muslim terrorist' and that they tried to make clear the distinction between terrorists and followers of Islam.[229] We were also told that they made efforts to maintain contacts with the Muslim community.[230]

204. Witnesses recognised that there was a difficulty with reporting the release without charge of suspects whose arrest had been covered in some detail: the BBC acknowledged that "terrorist arrests in themselves are more newsworthy than somebody who is subsequently released".[231] But they also argued that there was a tendency to blame the messenger when newspapers reported unwelcome news,[232] and that minority communities should be less sensitive to criticism[233]a similar point was made by the Evangelical Alliance.[234]

205. None of our non-media witnesses disputed the presence of Islamist extremists in the United Kingdom, although many, such as the Forum against Islamophobia and Racism noted that some of those in their survey believed that radical elements received a disproportionate amount of media coverage, to discredit Islam.[235]

206. Robin Esser, Executive Managing Editor of the Daily Mail, disputed this, arguing that his paper had sought to expose extremists and to emphasise that they were not typical of Islam, including by running pieces by Muslim leaders.[236] The Home Affairs Editor of the BBC, Mark Easton, admitted that when the extremist cleric Abu Hamza had preached in the street and not in a mosque, he had been on television a "lot more". Mr Easton argued that there had been a real news event, but accepted that the availability of pictures had made the story more attractive to national news.[237]

The importance of language

207. Throughout the inquiry Muslim witnesses consistently criticized the use in the media of terms like 'Islamic terrorism'. Some witnesses recognised the sensitivity of the issues, and Home Office guidelines discourage the use of such terms. At the same time, the expression remains widely used in the media. It is clear that many people cannot understand why, if the leadership of Al Qaeda claim Islamic justification for their actions, the expression is not appropriate.

208. It is necessary to tease out the different strands of this important debate.

209. In the British context, the term is likely to be unhelpful in developing good community cohesion. At the present time at least, too few British people have much personal knowledge of Islam as a faith or of Muslims as fellow citizens. The identification of Islam with terrorism is likely to create a prejudicial view of the faith as a whole. We heard evidence to this effect from, for example, Father Sumner (see paragraph 200), a parish priest in Oldham.

210. In time this may change. The Oklahoma bomber claimed Christian inspiration but the term 'Christian terrorist' would have little impact simply because most people in this country have enough knowledge and experience of Christianity to know that this would be an extreme and perverted view of the faith. As community cohesion develops the same will become true of Islam and the sensitivity of language will diminish. The Committee believes that the loose use of terms like 'Islamic terrorism' should be discouraged and care taken to distinguish between the claims made by the terrorist groups and the faith of the vast majority of Muslims.

211. There is a second reason for recognizing the sensitivity of language. Accepting that a small number of British Muslims have become involved in terrorism has been a very painful experience for a community that has been and is overwhelmingly peaceful and law abiding. But that acceptance is critical to the development of successful strategies for tackling terrorism. In our inquiry, most Muslim witnesses accepted that this issue had to be addressed. The use of terms of sweeping terms like 'Islamic terrorism' constantly place senior Muslims on the defensive; having to justify their faith over and over again and possibly making it more difficult for them to address the small but serious problem of extremism.

212. Of course we reject the idea that British Muslims are not actively opposed to terrorism. It is clear that extreme views are challenged every day of every week within Muslim communities. Nonetheless, this work needs to be developed in the years to come and it is important that public policy supports those people who will shoulder the responsibility of doing so.

213. It is also clear that some anti-Semitic attacks are being perpetrated by young Muslims. This is almost certainly quite a distinct phenomenon from international terrorism but must also be tackled: leadership from within Muslim communities will again be key, and those leaders must be supported in that work.

214. We have sympathy with the view that everyone, and not just minority communities, should be more tolerant of comment they dislike. But the concerns about media coverage of terrorism and community relations expressed forcibly by a wide range of witnesses should not be ignored.

215. We received overwhelming evidence that media coverage of international terrorism and community relations has a powerful and often negative impact. Whilst some criticism was directed at particular publications, it is also clear that television coverage has a significant impact. We found representatives of the media unaware or dismissive of their importance in this issue. We believe that the media must live up to their responsibilities to report fairly and accurately. In particular, to link terrorists, asylum seekers and Muslims, whether explicitly or implicitly, cannot be a useful contribution to debate.

Is there a Government media management strategy?

216. Some witnesses suggested to us that there was a concerted Government strategy to manage media coverage of terrorism issues, either to divert attention from unwelcome news items or to create a climate of fear. For example, Mr Les Levidow of the Campaign against Criminalising Communities spoke of "the Government's mass media strategy" to exaggerate and fabricate terrorist threats.[238] The freelance journalist Mr Paul Donovan cited a suggestion that 'terror alerts' were used to divert attention from other political news.[239] Some support appeared to be given to these suggestions by the written submission from the Editor of the Daily Mail, noted in paragraph 146.[240]

217. In the oral evidence session, witnesses from the media were clear that on the one hand individual policemen or politicians might see advantages in tipping off the media about, for example, an impending arrest, and on the other that mechanisms existed, such as the Media Emergencies Forum, for the media and government to discuss coverage of terrorism. However, they were equally clear that, as the Home Editor of the BBC put it:

"I certainly do not believe that there is some kind of co-ordinated office somewhere in Whitehall trying to change our coverage of terrorism matters."[241]

218. We are satisfied that there is no Government strategy to manipulate media coverage of terrorism, whether to foster a climate of fear or to divert attention from other issues.

Incitement to religious hatred

219. A recurring issue was the possible new offence of incitement to religious hatred, set out in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. Many of our witnesses were ambivalent about the proposal, largely on grounds of freedom of speech;[242] at least one, the National Secular Society, was frankly hostile.[243] By contrast the proposal was supported by, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain[244]although others in the Muslim community were less certain.[245] The Home Office said that "the Government does not believe that the current legislative framework is sufficient to counter the Islamophobia and prejudice that some Muslim people experience".[246]

220. The proposal is currently receiving separate consideration in this Parliament as part of the scrutiny of the Government's Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. There is therefore little that we can usefully say about its substance. But we were struck by the warnings given by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who said:

"I think the main issue around that is managing expectations. […] One of the dangers around incitement to religious hatred is that communities - and indeed representatives of the Muslim communities have said this to me - believe somehow this is going to protect them from people being offensive or rude about Islam. It is not going to do that. You are perfectly free to be offensive or rude about any religion, there is no law against it. The danger is that if people think it is going to protect them from that and it does not they feel very let down by us, by the police, by the Government and by everybody else, and we get accused of being racist or incompetent, or a combination of the two, when in fact we are just applying the law. So it is very important that people understand what that offence will achieve: it will stop the grossest sort of conduct, but it is not going to stop people being rude about Islam."[247]

221. The Crown Prosecution Service's written submission noted that, between 2001 and 2004, 84 cases of incitement to racial hatred had been referred to them. There had only been two convictions. The CPS commented:

"Such cases prove very difficult to prosecute and raise a number of key issues around free speech and the evidence threshold required. Most crucially in terms of community relations these cases can create an expectations gap between communities understandable concerns to see cases brought to justice and the limitations on what can be prosecuted. Communities can become frustrated with decisions not to prosecute and CPS is often criticised as incompetent or discriminatory in its handling of such cases. Given the seriousness attached to handling such cases CPS is confident that this is not an area of service underperformancerather the challenge lies in prosecuting the cases referred."[248]

222. The Minister of State argued that there had been extensive debate in the House of Commons and elsewhere over the new legislation and that there were a range of provisions that would prevent its abuse. She believed that the Government had been "crystal clear" what it sought to prevent, that a range of faith groups now supported the proposed law and that the Muslim Council understood its scope. She nonetheless accepted that dialogue would have to continue with faith groups to ensure they too were clear about what could and could not be done.[249]

223. We are concerned that, although leaders of the Muslim community may have an accurate appreciation of the limits of the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred, this is not shared by their community as a whole. It is vitally important not to raise unrealisable expectations in minority communities, and rather than trusting to dialogue with leaders of faith groups, the Government should develop a strategy to ensure that the extent and limitations of the proposed offence are fully understood by all. We suspect that the extent of the legislation, and how often it is likely to be used, may also be misunderstood by some who oppose it. It is of course important to emphasise, as Ministers have tried to do, that such a change in the law should not be seen as a ban on criticism of any particular religion. The right to practice a religion, to criticise religious practices or to propagate non-religious belief is a basic right in a free society.

203   Ev 72, HC 165-II Back

204   Q 119 Back

205   Ev 68, HC 165-II Back

206   Ev 15, HC 165-II and Q 193 Back

207   Q 193 Back

208   Ev 27, HC 165-II Back

209   Ev 58, HC 165-II Back

210   Ev 49, HC 165-II Back

211   Q 495 Back

212   Ev 42, HC 165-II Back

213   Ev 89, HC 165-II Back

214   Ev 8, HC 165-II Back

215   Ev 70, HC 165-II and Qq 51 and 120 Back

216   Q 121 Back

217   Q 193 Back

218   Q 414 [Mr Zafar Khan] Back

219   Q 414 [Mr Singh, Chief Superintendent Twydell] Back

220   Q 411 Back

221   Qq 321-323 Back

222   Q 233  Back

223   Q 175 Back

224   Q 276 Back

225   Q 324 Back

226   Home Office, The End of Parallel Lives?: The Report of the Community Cohesion Panel, July 2004, p 33 Back

227   Ev 111 and 143, HC 165-III Back

228   Q 269 Back

229   Qq 270 and 273 Back

230   Qq 271 and 275 Back

231   Q 294 Back

232   Q 269 Back

233   Ev 111, HC 165-III Back

234   Ev 27, HC 165-II Back

235   Ev 31, HC 165-II Back

236   Qq 301-304 Back

237   Q 324 Back

238   Q 11 Back

239   Ev 24, HC 165-II and Qq 55-59 Back

240   Ev 111, HC 165-III Back

241   Q 325 Back

242   Qq 197-200 and Q 227 Back

243   Ev 74-80, HC 165-II Back

244   Ev 71-2, HC 165-II, and Qq 123-4 Back

245   Q 225 Back

246   Ev 47, HC 165-II Back

247   Q 398 Back

248   Ev 22, HC 165-II Back

249   Qq 483-490 Back

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