From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by The Bridge Initiative. I’m Mobashra Tazamal. Today I sat down with Miqdaad Versi, who is the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain as well as the Executive Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring. A 2019 article in the Guardian called him the “UK’s one-man Islamophobia media monitor.”
For the past few years, Mr. Versi has been independently lodging complaints against the British media to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) for the repeated errors and distortions about British Muslims. When it comes to Islam and Muslims, it seems as if the British press are held to a different standard in the sense that journalistic integrity and standards no longer matter. This is demonstrated by the sheer number of media stories that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. A 2007 study found that 91% of articles about Muslims and Islam published in a single week were negative. A 2011 study by the University of Leeds, surveying four newspapers over three months, put the number at 70%.
A Guardian profile of Mr. Versi noted that British papers often reuse the same stereotypes when it comes to Muslims — these being: “the Muslim disloyal to this country; the Muslim swarming into Britain; the Muslim pushing his way of life upon others,” and so on.
In our episode today, we discussed just how pervasive Islamophobia is in the U.K. media, what the Center for Media Monitoring is hoping to achieve, and why the Conservative Party continues to ignore calls for an inquiry into its Islamophobia problem.
MT: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do as it relates to Islamophobia?
MV: I work at the Muslim Council of Britain in charge of the Public Affairs area, and one of the things I try to do is understand Islamophobia. Where does it come from? What are the drivers of it? What you see from research is that two of the biggest drivers of Islamophobia in the country are: the leaders in the country, the politicians who drive the Islamophobia, and the way that media reports and shares information that’s happening across the world. There are a number of different reports which show that the way the media reports about Islam and Muslims has created or has contributed to an atmosphere of hostility against Muslims. When you see the large and worrying polling about attitudes towards Muslims, this really makes things worse. You see 30 to 40 percent of the population thinking that Muslims are a threat to the country, or that they would support policies to reduce the number of Muslims in the country, or that they would never want a Muslim to be Prime Minister, or that they would support — they believe the far-right conspiracy theories like there’s these “no-go zones” where non-Muslims can’t enter. I mean these are real challenges that have infected a significant proportion of our community and our society. I’m talking about 30 to 40 percent of the population hold many of these views. If you go to the even more extreme views, I think about 18 percent believe there is a real plan for Muslims to take over this country. We have to worry as to how this has happened. What is driving it? What can we do to at least mitigate at least some of the damage, recognizing that it can’t be upon the minority themselves to solve the problem. It has to be a broader struggle in society as a whole.
MT: It’s such a large number of people that hold these views, so looking at where these views are coming from, who is promoting it, the impact of such views on society, whether it be we see a rise in hate crimes or anti-Muslim legislation or support for anti-Muslim legislation. It kind of all revolves around a cycle that feeds each other.
MV: That’s exactly right. I think I wouldn’t necessarily say that the politicians have been the instigators of far-right theories here. I don’t believe that to be the case. What I do see is that when Islamophobia is tolerated, if not propagated, by elements of government, when someone who has run a racist campaign to be mayor of London attends cabinet now, when these types of things become normalized amongst leadership and tolerated, it does create that space within society for others to think, well, look, these guys are doing it, why can’t we? I think that leadership is very important on this.
MT: The Guardian did a long read profile on your personal efforts to hold the media accountable. You began documenting errors in articles and then independently lodged formal objections on these inaccuracies. And you did this all in your free time. It was a personal project of yours. I’m interested to know what motivated you to start documenting these issues and then filing the complaints. What are you hoping to accomplish with these filings?
MV: When I recognized Islamophobia as a real threat in our society when I look at all the statistics, look at the polling, when you see all of that together, there is a real question as to what can be done. I read a report showing how the reporting of Islam and Muslims in the media is a big driver for this. I was someone who read the media quite a lot in different ways, watched and saw what was happening. I realized that this is something we need to look at. I saw one article in particular about a Muslim gang who had attacked an immigration van. I looked at this, and this was in the Mail on Sunday, and I was quite horrified by the article. I was like, okay, what can be done? I’m not an expert in this at the time. I didn’t know what were the options, so I found out the way you can do this is by lodging a complaint to the press regulator and seeing what happens. After lodging that complaint, there was a recognition from the managing editor that maybe something was wrong there. On the back of that, I had a two-hour conversation with the managing editor of the Mail on Sunday, and he was very open to discussing the way that they were reporting on issues, and obviously at the practical hand saw the various things they had done badly and could do better. There was a recognition that in this case, I was right, and he changed it. I saw that there was a willingness at least from him to look at these things perhaps better in the future. That started the journey for me into realizing that there is a value in trying to make a difference, in trying to correct these inaccuracies, recognizing, however, this is after the fact, this is not solving the problem you know before it takes place. It’s responding to it after.
A lot of the examples that I saw were articles that ended up being shared by the far-right in the U.K., and whilst I got a correction afterwards, that correction was shared by liberals and lefties if you’d like. That’s not the solution that you want to get to. That was part of the journey, trying to say: Look, how do we solve this, how do we get this better? One element is definitely about getting these corrections and trying to get newspapers to realize they shouldn’t get this wrong. I think to some extent there is a recognition now that when they do something wrong, they will be caught up on it, and they will have to correct it. I think that some of these newspaper editors and managing editors recognize that and are hopefully being more careful in doing the appropriate due diligence to ensure there is accuracy before they end up writing stuff. I’m hoping that’s the case.
MT: Do you think that their response now being a bit more receptive is because of your continuous lodging of complaints? Were they receptive at all in the beginning when you initially started this campaign?
MV: So, I think that there are different people who had different responses. Some have been very receptive from the outset and the managing editor of the Mail on Sunday is an example. He’s someone who I have spoken to and from the beginning whenever there was a problem, he seemed to be very receptive in terms of solving a problem after it happened at least. That is one example. But there have been many where they’ve tried to be receptive initially, but when I continued making complaints, I think their expectation was if they give me a seat at the table with them, that will placate me and I will shut up because I’ve got some element of sitting at the table and get some respect or something like that. That wasn’t sufficient for me because I don’t believe in just getting respect or anything like that. What I want is them to stop doing bad things. There was one paper, I’m not going to mention their names, one paper where I created a relationship in part because of the complaints I was making. They recognized that. They talked to me. But when I continued highlighting the concerns I had, they said, “Sorry, we’re not going to speak to you anymore; we’ve found someone else within Muslim communities who we are speaking to.” That’s a different response by another managing editor. There have been others where almost I had to threaten to take them to the regulator; I had to use that as a lever to have that relationship and meeting. For me what matters is not just a correction. What I do see is a willingness to try and find a way around it. Sometimes they’ll try and just say, “Okay, fine; we’ll correct it.” For me, nowadays, that’s not good enough. I don’t want you to just stop — to correct an article, if you have no relationship with me and I have no way to know that you actually care about this topic.
MT: You want to establish a relationship with them so they actually have institutional change and aren’t just making off-handed corrections, just basically say[ing], “Oh yeah, we made a correction; that’s it.”
MV: Exactly. For me, a correction in it of itself is not good enough. I can get a correction through the press regulator without a relationship with the newspaper. What I would want is a recognition of the situation and the fact that there’s something which is allowing this to happen. That requires a level of a relationship where the managing editor or someone senior within the organization has a conversation with me, understands where I’m coming from and therefore looks at it and says, “I need to take action to help make things better.” I’m not asking for the world. I’m asking for sensible journalism. What happens is when you don’t have journalists represented within these media organizations at all levels, including decision-making levels, that means that these things still slip through. Sometimes that slipping through is really bad journalism. I think that’s something that we need to turn around. I am someone who is a passionate advocate of journalism. Journalism for me is one of the most important ways that those who are voiceless, those who are minorities in a majoritarian state, in a democracy, in any place where there are a minority, are able to have a voice. I think what I’m trying to do here is recognize that when minority communities aren’t well represented in these media outlets, there needs to be a recognition that that sometimes leads to unintended, sometimes or even intended consequences. But I think there is a clear, unconscious bias at the very, very, very minimum. I think that’s the real challenge we need to get past, and to ensure that we can move close to those ideals of democracy.
MT: So basically just at the core of it, sounds like it’s getting journalists to really be accountable to their own journalistic integrity when covering a story, when right about a topic. I think you touched on this when speaking about your interactions with journalists and editors. Why do you think newspapers, in general, get stories involving Muslims wrong so often? Why do you think the inaccuracies printed are consistently the same anti-Muslimi tropes and stereotypes we’ve had in society arguably for centuries? Some say, you know, it’s [from] a lack of knowledge, but is it really that, or are there other factors at play?
MV: I think there are a number of factors here that drive it. Some element is what they call clickbait: If you have Muslim or a Muslim-related word in the title then on social media things like that share better, which means there are more clicks, which means there’s more money coming in. In an environment where money is a challenge within elements of media, or when junior journalists need to get clicks and views to demonstrate that the stories that they’re pushing out are very good for the newspaper or the media outlet, then that creates an incentive which is worrying that populism is the driver for it. You see that when the Express, for example, did a story with the headline saying, “Bank is issuing a £5 note but it’s withdrawing that because £5 note is halal.” You wonder where is this coming from. I mean any Muslim with half a brain would understand that the banknote is not going to be halal or not, that’s not really how the way things work, and not a single Muslim group made a concern about this. Actually, some Hindu groups have made some representations in part because there were elements of cow meat within or cow gelatin — I can’t remember the exact term — within the note. There was nothing to do with Muslims at all but they put halal in the headline. You think what’s driving that: It’s fear. What was driving it was they wanted more people to read and click the article because it wasn’t true; it was false in every sense and they got corrected and everything like that. But how did that happen? Part of it is obviously religious illiteracy. One might argue that they didn’t know the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim, maybe. Really what seems to have happened is that there was a clickbait culture that they wanted to encourage people to share and that was the case. I think that was probably under the old editor of the Express rather than the new one who seems to have turned a corner.
Then there are the more insidious articles, ones that seem to be far more challenging, almost doing something intentionally to stir up hate. I think that’s the one I’m more worried about. Let’s say for example the front-page story saying, “Christian child forced to Muslim foster care.” That story and different examples of it were on the front page for four days within that week on the front page of The Times. You start to wonder: What’s driving this? What are the things that are happening? You see that this is actually a culture. For example, Tom Newton Dunn, who’s The Sun’s political editor, I believe, was on Sky Press Review and he was talking as if: Just imagine if this was happening the other way around, in terms of Muslim children being forced into Christian foster care. He had no idea that actually thousands and thousands of Muslim children go into Christian foster care and there isn’t such an outrage. There’s always this assumption that Muslims get things better than everyone else. When you look at this story in particular and the journalists who propagated the story, there has been a full report which has looked at the fact that this journalist was aware of a lot of information before this story was published and chose to hide that information in his story, demonstrating unequivocally that this was something that was framed, created, to basically demonize. I mean, there’s no other way of putting it. The journalist in question chose to not disclose it in creating hatred on a front page, but not a tabloid newspaper, but The Times, and not once but four times.
MT: Was the journalist sacked or was there a repercussion?
MV: No repercussions for this journalist. This journalist is the chief investigator reporter of The Times, has done a number of anti-Muslim stories since, one of which had to be corrected because it was another lie. The reality is this type of journalism is often rather than being something that would hurt your career, seems to be something that almost supports and strengthens these people’s careers. This is about holding journalists to account on their basic standards that is expected of any journalist.
MT: What impact do you think having representative newsrooms, meaning newsrooms that reflect the broader British society, having members of marginalized communities in these rooms, could have on public discourse?
MV: I think we need to have everything in our society representative of the societies that they serve. I think [the] media, given the influence it plays in shaping and in reporting the news in every way, is very important. I think that it needs to be also in decision making. It’s not just about journalists themselves; it’s all the way up to the decision-maker level. What you want in the newsroom when the editor is talking about the stories for the day: You need there to be diverse people who can say, “Hey, that’s not right, that doesn’t make sense, that’s not the right angle, we shouldn’t be doing this.” I know of journalists who find it very difficult even though they come from a Muslim background, even though they are Muslim, and they are in these rooms; they don’t want to be pigeon-holed as only complaining about Muslim issues. They don’t want to be ‘the Muslim journalist.’ They want to be a journalist like anyone else. It’s hard because there’s almost that extra level of responsibility that’s almost unfair to put on journalists who happen to be Muslim that they sometimes have to stand up on these issues. Unfortunately, that’s where we live right now; that’s where we are.
MT: Recently the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) launched a new project called the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), of which you are the executive director. The launch of the Centre coincided with the release of its first report on the media’s role in promoting Islamophobia. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Centre, its goals and some findings from the report?
MV: What was very important to me was [that] the work I was doing to correct individual stories was in and of itself not good enough. Given the scale of this and given the impact that it has on Muslim communities, it was very important that I change that. We got together as someone who had been in journalism for 20 and 30 years, including in broadcast, different types of journalism, including investigative journalism, someone who had been at a national newspaper at a junior level, and we have an academic who’s been involved in different spaces to do with Islam and Muslims, and someone who’s been involved in community. We put them together and that’s the team that’s been put together for the Centre for Media Monitoring. The role that it has is to help ensure fair and accurate reporting about Islam and Muslims. How it’s going about doing that is, firstly, tracking and monitoring media far more consistently and holistically than I ever did. We’re talking about ten thousand, eleven thousand, if not twelve thousand articles in a three-month period. That’s the type of level of things. Each one of those is assessed and from that, [and] you start getting themes. You see the types of things that are going on. You see which publications are doing the worst. You’re seeing which publications are doing the best, fortunately. What are the drivers of things that are getting worse? Who are the perpetrators of this negativity? I think one of the biggest Islamophobes in the world was introduced in the Today program as an expert and still that happens in the flagship BBC program, which has probably the best researchers compared to anywhere else and still that happens at that level. How do we make this better? We need to have those conversations and we wanted to facilitate making that happen whilst at the same time engaging with Muslim communities on the ground, try and get those good news stories out there, to ensure that Muslim communities feel comfortable engaging with local and national news more effectively and more impactfully. It’s not only about everyone else; it’s also about Muslim communities ourselves.
Our first report was looking at Quarter 4, 2018. In that period, what happened? We showed that a significant proportion of stories about Islam and Muslims were related to terrorism. A majority were negative. There were a large number of inaccuracies that were made during that period. When you look at all of these together, you start recognizing that maybe things need to change. When you see that a third of the articles we looked at had some sort of misrepresentation or generalization about Muslims, you see a real challenge. But, I also want to emphasize positivity. We saw that broadcast news was better than press-written press, and regional news was better than national news. The report lays out a whole range of interesting and different findings and you’ll see some sort of report coming out every quarter forward. We’ll definitely be tracking them as we go along; we’ll definitely have annual reports. We’ll also have themed reports looking at how reporting on certain issues, like how to report on terrorism, for example. This Centre for Media Monitoring is really aimed at institutionalizing, from our perspective, the accountability of those who are propagating inaccuracies and irresponsible reporting about Islam and Muslims and creating that evidence base to demonstrate that’s happening and working with journalists and communities to make it better. That’s the key thing we’re trying to do.
MT: What’s been the general response to the launch of the Centre and report from editors and journalists? What was their general reaction to it?
MV: Some of the managing editors who we have talked to have been quite positive. One of the managing editors talked to us and said, “You know what? What we need is a chat afterward the summer period to see how we can improve the way we report things because I’m trying to get it better.” Others were saying, “Let’s try and understand why did we do so badly in the table and we looked like we’ve done quite a lot of bad things.” Other people ignored it entirely. I think there’s always going to be that range of responses. What our role is, is to keep holding people to account and demonstrate that this is the reality, and here’s the evidence base that proves it. The more journalists that become aware of this, the more journalists that have access to this and realize this, that’s going to move things in the right direction not the wrong one.
MT: In addition to the launch of the Centre, MCB has also called attention to the widespread problem of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and has called on the government to carry out an independent inquiry? Why do you think there is a reluctance to acknowledge that there is a problem, especially given that it’s actually been well-documented? What do you hope an inquiry would achieve?
MV: I think that there needs to be an acknowledgment of the reality that Islamophobia is really quite prevalent within the Conservative Party, both in terms of at the level of membership, voters even of the Conservative Party, all the way up to real representatives. If there’s not an acknowledgment that there is a problem in the first place, we’re going to be a long way from trying to resolve it. I think the reason that we want to have an independent, I mean truly and independent inquiry into this, is because there seems to be an unwillingness to listen to Muslims when it comes to issues in the Muslim space. The ideal would be that there is a recognition that they need to listen to Muslim communities on issues related to Muslims, but if they’re not willing to listen to Muslims, perhaps they might listen to an independent inquiry which looks into this. It’s a second step because they’re not willing to [listen to Muslims directly. When that second step has to be taken, let’s look at all the evidence. I mean what’s really fascinating, if not disturbing, is how polling which has been done on Conservative Party members, or Conservative Party voters has highlighted a real plethora of disgusting Islamophobic views which are there. They are showing how endemic these views are within elements of the Conservative Party. We know that over a hundred members have engaged in Islamophobia within the party, dozens if not more than that of councilors. The majority of members believe that Islam is a threat to the British way of life. Forty-three percent would prefer to not have the country led by a Muslim. These are Conservative Party members holding these clearly Islamophobic views and they’re the ones who are choosing our Prime Minister and driving it. Pandering to these views is likely to be politically useful within the party itself and that’s not useful for our society when being racist is valuable politically. That’s one of the reasons why it was such a value that Goldsmith lost the mayoral election because he ran a racist campaign and it was very important that racism lost. Unfortunately, it seems that lesson has not been learned and racism is still being used by elements of parties to try and whip up extra support for them in the base. For me what is really important is that there is an inquiry that looks into this, that recognizes from case study examples, that shows the views that are clearly endemic to the party because polling shows it, and demonstrates actually the party’s done nothing about it. In our society, this type of hate and racism that has basically become so prevalent within the governing party of this country has just not been taken seriously and it’s a real worry.
One of the issues that we haven’t talked that much is that Islamophobia is really a type of racism. It’s not something that is just targeting individual Muslims. It’s institutional; it’s a structural issue. We had a situation where if you’re Muslim, you’re less likely to be able to get a flat, you’re less likely to be able to get a job, you’re less likely especially if you’re a woman to be able to get a job. If you’re a Muslim, you’re less likely to be able to pass through interview stages. There are problems institutionally and structurally in the country that are almost a ramification of some of the views that are held. Half the Muslims in this country live in the ten most deprived areas. Socio-economic issues affect Muslims more. These are real issues that need to be looked at. Until and unless we recognize that how Islamophobia is really that type of racism that is so endemic in so many different institutions, we’re not going to be able to solve it. Islamophobia is far more pervasive, far more worrying, and it’s something that we need to have real action to tackle it.
Conclusion: To stay informed on this topic and other issues related to Islamophobia, follow The Bridge Initiative’s research on its website, bridge.georgetown.edu. If you liked what you heard today be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Voices on Islamophobia. Thanks for listening and tune in next time.