For British Muslims, the outlook for 2020 is continuing racist abuse from the press
'I speak for myself,’ the outgoing IPSO boss Sir Alan Moses told the Financial Times, ‘but I have a suspicion that [Muslims] are from time to time written about in a way that [newspapers] would simply not write about Jews or Roman Catholics.’
So, after five whole years in charge of what was laughably billed at its launch as ‘the toughest press regulator in the western world’, Sir Alan is left with 'a suspicion’ – though only ‘speaking for himself’ – that ‘from time to time’ our national press is a bit unfair to Muslims. Well bravo.
At any time in those five years he could have ordered an investigation which, if pursued with any rigour, would have put his ‘suspicions’ beyond doubt. It could have looked, for example, at the coverage of terrorism, where Islamist violence is treated in a far more sensational and more critical fashion than violent white extremism (though the latter is more common).
It could have considered the referendum coverage in 2016, which was awash with anti-Muslim racism. It could have scrutinised the nakedly anti-Muslim 'journalism' of Andrew Norfolk of the Times. And it could have reflected on the evidence that all of this feeds and encourages hate crime, which continues at record levels. (There is abundant academic work in this field: see for example here.)
Though Sir Alan (on the left above) was often urged to conduct such an investigation, he chose never to do so. His creepy handwringing in the FT – ‘it is wretched if you are part of the group that is under attack’ – was no more than an admission that he had failed to address a problem he can’t deny.
He complains about how difficult it all is, and asserts – a popular press canard – that without interfering unacceptably in ‘the freedom of the press’ it is impossible to prevent this abuse, even though (as in the case of Norfolk's recent work) it frequently involves manifest falsehood and unethical conduct.
In the world of Sir Alan Moses, therefore, it is sad that Muslims pay the price of press freedom to lie and bully, but there is just nothing to be done about it.
A scandalous appointment
Sir Alan gave the FT interview because he was stepping down, so can Muslims expect better from his replacement, Lord Faulks? On the evidence, alas, the answer is no. Indeed it is fair to assume that he got the £150,000, three-day-a-week job as chair of IPSO precisely because there was no danger of him altering press conduct.
The shamelessness of his appointment was breathtaking. After a decade in which every national newspaper editor and proprietor was guaranteed to suffer a very public fit of the vapours at the merest thought of political involvement in press regulation, they put a Tory politician in charge of IPSO.
Faulks (that's him on the right, above) is a former Conservative justice minister and a long-time working Tory peer of exemplary loyalty. That he resigned the party whip the day he landed the job, we are asked to believe, is proof of his independence, but in truth this is a return to business as usual for the press.
IPSO's predecessor, the discredited Press Complaints Commission (1991-2014), normally had a Tory peer in charge, and although, after the Leveson Inquiry, the newspaper industry was urged to exclude politicians formally from any involvement in IPSO, it bluntly refused. Any doubt about the reason is now removed: the press is most comfortable when its complaints body is run by a senior Tory. In other words, despite all their fine rhetoric they simply do not believe the press should be free from political influence.
Where does this leave British Muslims? Bear in mind the tone set by our Tory prime minister in his Telegraph columns, writing of Muslim women as bank robbers and letterboxes. And bear in mind the refusal of his party to confront anti-Muslim attitudes in its own ranks (even after its leaders publicly promised to do so). There is clearly no chance of Faulks’s party seeking to restrain press abuse of Muslims.
As for the papers, we saw in the election that they do not believe in restraining themselves. Their perverted notions of press freedom include the freedom to persecute Muslims as and when they wish, so any idea that IPSO might be reformed so as to give their victims a reasonable chance of redress is pure fantasy.
The opinions of Lord Faulks
And what about Faulks? The auguries are bad. It may well be that what attracted the press bosses to him in the first place was an article he wrote last spring about Islamophobia. For the most part this was party-political stuff that could have been written by any Tory, associating Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan with Islamic extremism. But it also adopted ideas and language that are beloved of the press.*
The article concerned a definition of Islamophobia proposed by a cross-party parliamentary group. This definition was unnecessary, Faulks wrote, because the problem of racism is ‘catered for in existing law’. But it was also a threat, he asserted, because it would inhibit challenges to, and criticism of, British Muslims, and many people are already too frightened to raise such matters for fear of being called racists.
He painted an alarming picture of the consequences. ‘Key planks’ of Tory policy would be branded Islamophobic, including anti-terror programmes, education and foreign policy. Other minorities would be alienated if Muslims received this special protection. And then he came to the press:
“There is another no less serious dimension here; free speech and our free press. Adopting this definition with full legal effect could leave our media muzzled. Think of the crucial investigative journalism that might not have been possible under this Islamophobia definition; corruption in Tower Hamlets, the 2014 Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, and exposure of grooming gangs in places like Rotherham.’
This was alarmist nonsense consistent with decades of press wolf-crying, and Faulks made no attempt to justify it. Bear in mind that our national press has a history of rampant law-breaking – they are not effectively deterred by actual Acts of Parliament any more than they are by a code of practice written by their own industry. The idea that a mere definition would suddenly silence them is laughable.
Faulks continued, perhaps most revealingly:
‘Acceptance of the definition would pit Conservatives against their supporters in the mainstream media. How is that in the party’s interest? Rightly, the press would not soon forgive the government responsible, nor those senior ministers involved.’
Here we see the party politician, pure and simple: the interests of the Conservatives must come first. And as for the press, look at that word 'rightly': in the view of Lord Faulks, newspapers would be justified in conducting vendettas against ministers who failed to toe their line.
No wonder the press bosses chose him. In this article Faulks revealed himself as another mouthpiece for the cause of white victimhood at the hands of British Muslims – a dishonest staple of modern opinion pages. For good measure he even threw in a disparaging remark about the Muslim Council of Britain.
'That is racism'
Let’s be clear. Much of the discourse of our national press is hostile to Muslims because they are Muslims. That is racism. It takes the form of discriminatory language, misrepresentation, distortion and plain lies, all perpetrated by journalists acting with the blessing of editors and proprietors. And this racism has grave consequences for ordinary Muslims. Some individuals are direct victims with no means of redress, while many others suffer simply because they are Muslims.
IPSO under Sir Alan Moses washed its hands of this. It does nothing, or worse, it defends the abusers in the interests of ‘freedom of the press’, absolving member publications of all responsibility for the consequences of what they publish. (The infinite flexibility of this 'freedom' is ably exposed in Jonathan Heawood’s recently-published The Press Freedom Myth.)
Under the Tory peer Lord Faulks, who seems to believe that the victims in today's society are not Muslims who are attacked, insulted and spat upon but powerful, privileged white people like him and his press friends, IPSO will be no better. And by the way, don’t be fooled by promises of 'guidelines' on reporting these issues: IPSO newspapers pay little enough attention to their supposedly binding code of practice, so they will merrily ignore any voluntary guidelines, should they ever see the light of day.
* See for an analysis: 'Norfolk, the Times and "political correctness"', Professor Julian Petley's contribution in UNMASKED: Andrew Norfolk, the Times newspaper and anti-Muslim reporting – a case to answer.