How Tabloids Get Away with Islamophobic Front Pages

In the wake of the terror attack outside a mosque, we asked experts how seemingly unethical decisions can be made while hate crime against Muslims is on the rise.
20 June 2017, 7:30am

Over the last decade in British media, we've had the Daily Express' "Now Muslims demand: GIVE US FULL SHARIA LAW" headline; The Sun's "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis" front page; and the Mail's relentless othering of Muslims both online and in print.

Last year, in a report on rising racist violence and hate speech in the UK, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance singled out The Sun and Daily Mail, finding that some British media outlets – particularly tabloid newspapers – used "offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology". It cited The Sun's "1 in 5 Brit Muslims" front page, which was ultimately debunked, concluding that "in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent Isis-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety."

While these headlines continue, so too does an increase in hate crime. In 2015, Islamophobic crime was up 70 percent in London on the previous year. After the London Bridge attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased five-fold. Take that – and yesterday's terror attack at a mosque in Finsbury park – into account, and it's chilling that some newspapers aren't being properly held to account for the way they talk about Muslims.

We spoke to VICE's media lawyer, Jade Allen, and the Independent Press Standards Organisation's (IPSO) Niall Duffy about how and why publications are allowed to print headlines that foster hate and division.

VICE: What are the actual repercussions of IPSO condemning a headline, or an article, or some wording that you believe to be discriminating against Muslims, for example? Do papers get a certain amount of warnings?
Niall Duffy, IPSO: If we decide, following complaints from the public and a standards investigation, that a publisher has not upheld the expected standards, we can: require a member to publish an adjudication, which may include a requirement to address the concerns raised; impose a fine on the member of up to £1 million; require the member to pay the reasonable costs of the investigation; [or] terminate the member's membership of IPSO.

What are the weaknesses of print regulatory bodies when it comes to preventing these types of headlines?
Jade Allen, media lawyer: The issue is that the IPSO editors' code doesn't really delve into this issue. They've got to be careful of "inciting hatred" under that, but that's not very specific. The headlines about Muslims we're talking about here are usually quite general, rather than being specific. A lot of the time they'll take the risk of getting a slap on the wrist. The issue is that their risk of repercussion is far lower because they're not defaming one person: it's a broad group of people. If it's one person, they're likely to get backlash and have to pay damages. It's far more financially risky for them.

So what exactly would these papers be more worried about?
Jade Allen: Papers will be more concerned with committing a criminal offence under actual criminal law – it could be a racist or religious crime. There are all sorts of thresholds. However, these lines and definitions are all quite specific. If they did fall short they'd probably get taken up for a criminal offence. However, the publications are staying sufficiently vague that they don't fall within a category of an actual offence, so that's the thing with media law – it tends to drift into criminal law. Under criminal law, you can't be found [guilty of] intending to incite religious hatred, however hatred is a very strong word. Quoting from the handbook: "There is a freedom of expression defence enshrined in the new law that means it cannot be used to prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism, antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of a religion or its beliefs or practices. So it will be more difficult to prosecute for inciting religious hatred as opposed to racial hatred (for which the standard is already properly high)."

Is it the same across all media?
Jade Allen: No. It's unfortunately a bit more vague in terms of print media with the editor's code. The television landscape is much more regulated. If this was TV there'd be very specific regulation; for example, if you were broadcasting someone doing a hate speech and you've included a tiny bit of direct audio of directions to go out and hurt Muslims, that would not be allowed. There cannot ever be a specific call to action.

How many complaints has IPSO had in 2017 so far about the way the press has talked about Muslims?
Niall Duffy: We don't collect statistics thematically. Rather, we do so by Clause of the Editors' Code, by publication or by publisher. However, I couldn't tell you how many breaches or frequency there have been [about Muslims]. And that's even without the challenge of trying to define what a "Muslim" complaint might be, or indeed a complaint about the coverage of any religion. Having said that, some of the articles that have generated the most complaints over the last 18 months have certainly involved issues where faith has been to the fore. The two that immediately spring to mind are Kelvin McKenzie's piece about Channel 4 and Fatima Manji [in which The Sun writer argued it was inappropriate to have a Muslim newsreader present coverage of the Nice truck attack] and The Sun's front page headline "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis" that you refer to. We had 1,900 and 3,000 complaints respectively on them, and the rulings can be seen here and here.

I suppose the only other thing I might add is that, while of course IPSO gets criticised when we don't uphold complaints on matters relating to faith, there are voices that take an opposite view. In the case of the Kelvin McKenzie article, for example, where there were many who disagreed with our ruling, the National Secular Society and the Index on Censorship both issued statements supporting it, and Simon Kelner wrote about it in the i.

Why are they not concerned about some of the information literally being wrong, as with the "1 in 5 Brit Muslims" headline?
Jade Allen: A lot of it's about the PR issue and whether they'll take a risk. Technically speaking, they shouldn't be publishing factually incorrect information, but that risk-taking is the nature of those types of publications. They're trying to push the boundaries a bit. With an IPSO finding, the main risk to business is other publications saying: "Well, you're not factually accurate, you're not balanced in your opinions." But from a PR angle, those tabloids aren't worried about those sorts of things – they have a lot more freedom. Their readers might not care so much if they're not completely factually accurate, for example. These publications know that their audiences are already really right-wing. That's their angle for selling newspapers. They're financially driven in their decision-making, rather than somewhere like the BBC, who have to be extremely careful with guidelines and must prioritise upholding their reputation of being impartial. A lot of the time it depends on what that organisation wants to be known for.

What is IPSO's stance on the fact that papers surely must know they'll get complaints but run risky headlines anyway?
Niall Duffy: We have a free press and, within the law, they make editorial decisions every day that may or may not result in complaints – just the same as VICE. Whether they "surely know they'll get complaints" is something you'd have to address to individual publications.

Is it all tied into freedom of speech and freedom of press and newspapers having the right to have an unsavoury agenda and weight their content towards negative news about Muslims, for example?
Jade Allen: Yes. Article 10 freedom of speech is most often balanced against Article 8 – right to a private life – and this type of content isn't targeting private individuals, as I say. It's a wider group of people. To summarise: these newspapers are only going to be worried about breaking the law or having to pay a hefty fine. If they can stay away from those areas and they want to grab headlines and cater to a particular group of people – heavily right-wing people – they'll push the boundaries. They're making sure it's not too specific. They actually do have a surprising amount of freedom.


More on Islamophobia:

Tragically, the Finsbury Park Attack Was Always Going to Happen

Residents of Europe's No-Go Areas Talk About Life In the Danger Zone

Checking In With the Woman Who Faced Down the EDL