Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Muslim First, British Second

This was the title of BBC Panorama show on 16 February 2008. However the show did not present any real new discussion on the issue of identity for Britain’s approximately two million Muslims. What it did do is shine a spotlight on a slim minority. I shouldn’t be surprised, when I met the presenter, Richard Watson at The Frontline Club a couple of months ago he seemed bent on uncovering all that is bad about Islam – he presented a truly tabloid take guaranteed to marginalise. When I told him that the images he painted did not look like an Islam I recognised or had experienced (having lived in Muslim countries) he scoffed that I perhaps had not seen the dark side of Islam in Britain. I have lived in Iraq, Richard. I have seen plenty of dark sides – but I have seen equal amounts (more in fact) of good – it just doesn’t sell stories. Investigative journalism and uncovering truth is a vital element of any free media , but in the name of balanced journalism (another ethic I believe in) can Panorama please show both sides of the story?

My experience of Islam is that it one of the more peaceful religions – so let the media a) take religion out of the extremist debate - it is not useful to continually link Islam to extremism (this plays right into the hands of Al Qaeda branding). As I have written before (see the X Factor) – extremism is a human condition found in many parts of society and not always fuelled by religion. And/or b) pay proportionate attention to all that is good about Islam.

I don’t even know where to begin on Richard’s insistence on asking every Muslim cleric he comes across their views on homosexuality. Is there evidence to suggest that those intolerant of homosexuals turn to terror? I could find you handfuls of Christians and Hindus who reject homosexuality and know that homosexuality is categorically forbidden in the Torah. So how is this useful?

The fact is that the terrorist threat in Britain was actually reduced last month is also a significant point missed. I challenge the BBC to commission me to cover this story. And I ask The Panorama producers the same question that Richard asked A.R. Green in the show “Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

Not for the first time I feel a need to inspire the media to take some responsibility and to take a fair and balanced approach.


Emrys said...

Love the article - and remember the Frontline Talk. Currently in Pakistan and couldnt agree with you more - the peaceful side of Islam is far stronger even in a country such as Pakistan so often demonised as a hotbed of terrorism...

Mansoor said...

I agree entirely with your comments about the programme. When I look at the history of Islam/West encounters, I see a history of misrepresentations, misunderstandings and a significant smattering of ignorance about what Islam really represents. I also thought the programme's treatment of what it set out to do - expose the Government's new counter terrorism strategy and discover whether Home Office funded projects were being used to gather intelligence - was wholly inadequate.

Caroline Jaine said...

Encourage by the many supporting words after posting this, I have logged a complaint with the BBC. If you would like to do so too visit
NB: The Panorama show was broadcast on 16th February 2009.

Ekawaaz said...

Well I do agree with your points, and do appreciate you work. Even I had lived in many countries not a s many you :) but I did lived in few countries and do have some good memories, but one incident really opened my eyes just after London serial bomb attack.I had many friend from Pakistan to iraq in UK but i was amazed to see that none I repeat not a single Muslim friend of mine even bothered to say that this is wrong, infact 2-3 guys did said that what Britain is doing in Iraq and Afganistan is more barberic than this attack. I was shell shocked...See for me media people are not genious guys, they are just like us, and they know what sort things society is looking for so normally they make that sort of things with much hyped story and that there work.

But We just cant blame them all the time.. we need to look into the bigger picture and then see how the things will turn up.

Jeff said...

In an ironic coincidence of timing the latest Panorama documentary on British Muslims appeared, the very day, Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, has accused the government of exploiting the fear of terrorism and trying to bring in laws that restrict civil liberties.

Do any reporters at times exploit some incidents in an emphasis-added, over blown fashion for gaining advantage, claiming scoops, competing for ratings and score one-upmanship? Those seeking for one link window showcasing abundant examples need only visit a web page populated by despatches grouped as “Richard Watson On Extremism”

Our modern day Mr. Watson has been
going of all places to bookshelves at Tower Hamlet libraries to see if some books had extremists content. But maintains silence if young British men flying abroad to for active participation in conflicts zones posed any risk.

Two points need to be noted. First is that media coverage provides a good platform for politicians to justify and legitimize these responses. A second point related to that is that society’s top social-control powerbrokers can effectively manage how the public thinks about this issue. Steven Chermak author of Searching for a Demon: the Media’s Construction of the Militia Movement, suspects that “Celebrated cases, and often the moral panics that flow from such cases, provide dramatic lessons and an opportunity to reshape society.

Often the most unusual and unrepresentative events can dominate media coverage for a long period of time, providing an opportunity to reshape public thinking about an issue. Much of the public’s reliance on the news media and the profit-potential of news making are in fact linked to their ability to satisfy the public craving for information.

Sensational cases startle the public into accepting a new understanding by opening gateways to the public’s fears and frustrations, and igniting processes that illuminate the boundaries of a community. The media defines these events, relying primarily on representatives from institutions typically used in the construction of news.

Referring to the typical traits that he has observed, Chermak lists that the following tendencies were noted typically:

- References to extremist/violent elements were useful for the generation of political capital. It really underscores a broader point about how the media has become a place to market fear. Terrorism is presented clearly and without perspective. The public is not only blinded from understanding anything except the media perspective, but the fear conjured up following these events provide enough justification to accept responses—war, bureaucratic expansion, civil rights violations—uncritically and without reservation.

- Extremists’ “conspiracies are supported by picking and choosing anecdotal, fabricated, excerpted, or theorized evidence from speeches, media articles, political documents, myth, and mainstream and extremist publications.”

“Media professionals have learned by practice what events are worth covering, what events are worthy of substantial coverage, and how such events should be presented to the public. …The structure of news-making then directs them towards specific sources and documents.” Story placement illustrates what types of story are worthy of fetching a good headline.

Since the public generally assumes that press storytelling is factual, and even based on reliable, empirical based data, we are guided towards an unrepresentative and quite narrow worldview. Individuals and representatives of powerful and political institutions try to take advantage of this reality as they are accepted as having authority on such issues. They are thus given the chance to define the preferred meanings of these events and guide the media down a particular path of representation.

In a larger context, the recent writings of Chermak, an Indiana University Law professor, has some interesting pointers to offer: Does the framing of and reference to violent incidents and description of those suspected or alleged to be behind violence takes a specific form of treatment is the question examined by Chermak. Looking back at coverage of violence acts by certain sections of the media is intriguing because of the similarities in coverage. These similarities thus represent some of the common practices deployed by the media when describing, defining, and creating events.

In an uniquely insightful article, Marketing Fear: Representing Terrorism After September 11 in the Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media, Chermak offers a threadbare analysis of how some opinion makers, writers and media experts take full advantage of the propaganda opportunity by creating a symbolic threat, structuring the response to eradicate the threat, and declaring symbolic victories.

In a further twist of irony, Dame Stella Rimington's comments come as a study is published by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) that accuses the US and the UK of undermining the framework of international law.

Caroline Jaine said...

Jeff, your eloquent response has inspired me to dash out and purchase some Chermak! Thank you. My inbox is filling up with the incensed Panorama viewers - how about we do an open letter to the beeb asking for the opportunity to create a response to Watson's work? I have a few ideas, but will need your support.
Join the imediate Facebook group of contact me on if you want to join in the discussion more!

manowar said...


vr said...

Love the article - and remember the Frontline Talk. Currently in Pakistan and couldnt agree with you more - the peaceful side of Islam is far stronger even in a country such as Pakistan so often demonised as a hotbed of terrorism...

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