Thursday, 27 January 2011

'Face the Facts' on media coverage of Muslims

Today's Face the Facts on BBC Radio 4 looked at Islamophobia and asked:

Are sections of the British press increasing tensions within communities by publishing negative stories about Muslims?

...why are newspapers publishing distorted, islamophobic stories that provoke far-right extremists? Should the Press Complaints Commission impose tougher sanctions? Or do editors need to take more responsibility for the consequences of what they print?

It is an excellent investigation by John Waite that debunks Winterval (with help from Kevin Arscott), the extractor fan and swimming pool stories, the Muslim plots (that weren't) against Coronation Street and the Pope, the smearing of Inayat Bunglawala and the tale of 'diktat' to change school lessons because of Ramadan.

It also includes an interview with the PCC's Stephen Abell.

But were any of the newspapers that pump out this rubbish willing to defend their 'stories'?

Neither the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Star or Sun wished to appear on the programme today, and the editor of the Express was simply 'too busy'.

What a surprise.


  1. This programme does show that the PPC is a toothless "watchdog". Stephen Abell was trying to defend the indefensible.

  2. You are talking about a non-existent phenomenon. No section of the British press is "increasing tensions within communities by publishing negative stories about Muslims". None whatsoever. It is completely beyond the power of the British press, or any other media, to increase tensions within a society.

    This blog and other similar blogs are based on an absurd premise, that the media possess a vampire-like power to hypnotize and transform people. They don't.

    And even if it were true, then surely there is no political problem. The government could simply pay the tabloids to hypnotize people into being friendly multiculturalists. And saving energy and cutting carbon emissions, and not smoking and eating healthy food, and so on.

    There is no evidence for the alleged powers of the media, and no internal logic in your claims either.

    It is also very doubtful whether the newspapers can "provoke far-right extremists". They usually don't need any provoking, to issue hateful violent and racist statements.

    There is indeed a whole string of Muslim scare stories, that are recycled by the media - you forgot the piggy-bank ban, for instance. But the press don't cause them and don't invent them. In fact such stories are older than the mass-circulation newspapers, and can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages in Europe. They were often, but not always, directed at Jews.

    What you are presenting is itself a myth, an urban legend, a conspiracy theory. It has an academic name, indeed several: powerful media theory, hypodermic needle theory, magic bullet theory, see Hypodermic Needle Theory.

    Islam, national identity, migration, racism and xenophobia are major issues in Britain and other EU countries. They deserve attention, but instead you are promoting a myth that tabloid werewolves / vampires / zombies are infecting the population.

  3. Hello Anonymous,

    "There is no evidence for the alleged powers of the media"

    That is total rubbish.

    There is a lot of well-researched evidence pointing to the existence of such phenomena as the availability and affect heuristics, attentional bias, the bandwagon effect, clustering illusion, etc. All of which are affected by the patterns of what stories are selected for publishing and/or how those stories are told.

    That the potential or real influence of media coverage is sometimes exaggerated, does not mean it isn't real. If it wasn't real, advertisers would not spend the billions they do.

  4. Dear anonymous
    If the media is so unimportant in shaping public life and people's attitude to public life perhaps you could explain:
    why every company, organisation and even some wealthy individuals finance a huge industry called PR which is designed solely to promote a positive reputation in said media;
    why wealthy individuals are so keen to own media outlets - even though most are loss-making;
    why politicians quite openly base their policy decisions almost entirely on how they will play in the media (rather than what will work);
    And why it is that people are pursued day and night just to fill up column inches and airtime - often to the point of harrassment?
    I could go on for a very long time - but if you think being portrayed as a murderous extremist to the whole world while entirely innocent and far from extreme is a trivial matter of folksy myth-making, I can only assume you have taken something illegal before putting finger to keyboard.

  5. Clearly "Anonymous - 14:00" has never heard of the concepts behind advertising or propaganda.

    As for the show itself, it was possibly wasted on the audience whom tuned in. Surely there are other stations (I'm looking at you TalkSPORT) whose listeners would have benefited more from hearing another side of the stories.

  6. If the Daily Mail managed to convince enough people to complain about the Russel Brand and Jonathan Ross phone call thing and numerous Top Gear episodes without those people even seeing the material in hand then why is it so hard to think that that same paper (and others) can mould readers opinions to hate certain groups of society too?

    If people only buy one paper and rely on that for all of thier news input and said papers are constantly badmouthing certain types of people then those readers are only going to have that one sided view to go on. It is obvious that when papers distort and sometimes just plain lie and get away with it then those readers will have false views because of what they have read and will think nothing else of it.

  7. Anonymous (18:33) - I was just about to reply mentioning 'Sachsgate' myself. If Anonymous (14:00) thinks the media has absolutely no influence ever on what people do, think and believe perhaps s/he could explain how the Brand/Ross calls only generated a few complaints from people who heard the show, but a couple of weeks later, after being widely publicised in the Mail on Sunday and other media outlets, tens of thousands of complaints were made.

    MOK - Agree it was probably preaching to the converted - the problem is, the people who need to hear it probably wouldn't listen.

  8. @Anonymous (14:00)
    Google: "Julius Streicher" and "Der Stürmer".

  9. Citing a year old blog entry as evidence for Hypodermic Needle Theory? Not convincing. Especially as that entry mentions the famous Orson Welles War of the Worlds hoax as an example of how the mass media can change beliefs.

  10. It is this blog which is promoting the Hypodermic Needle Theory, and indeed the comments are examples of it. According to these comments, the Daily Mail simply has to print a story, any story, and people will simply take it as true and act accordingly. That's the theory: the media just have to present information, and the public will react in the desired way. The theory attributes an immense power to the media, which decades of research have failed to find.

    I know who Julius Streicher is, and indeed he and Goebbels believed strongly in the power of the mass media. The problem is, if the German media were indeed so powerful, then why didn't the old political elite (who controlled them before Hitler came to power) simply use those media to crush the Nazi movement?

    It's the same with all these examples. If the Daily Mail can make people complain about any issue, simply by giving it negative publicity, then a few anti-capitalist stories would unleash the revolution. All these plausible examples collapse, if you think about them for 30 seconds.

    There is no scientific evidence of the immense power, which this blog attributes to the media. There is no evidence of such powerful advertising either. In reality advertisers must spend millions on long campaigns, to shift a few points on brand shares.

    There is absolutely no evidence of what this post is suggesting, namely that UK tabloids can shape people's attitudes to Islam, and even make them join the EDL. That is absurd: the media simply do not have that power.

  11. The idea that these stories have no influence is just plain wrong. Anyone who reads newspaper comments pages will know that these stories are trotted out every time "muslims" or "islam" is mentioned - and sometimes when they're not. Every time one of these stories appears it is spread around every right wing blog and forum in the world instantly. Whereas any explanation, apology, nuance is not.

  12. You did not mention halal food stories in the media, and they illustrate the problem. The story is either that an institution (school, company, hospital, prison) is offering halal food, or that a store is offering halal products for sale without labeling them as such.

    In most cases these stories are true. The halal products are sold without labeling so as not to antagonise non-Muslims, but the halal status is on the producers website, and made available to Muslims via lists of halal products.

    So the press have not invented the story. What's more, they did not originate these stories at all. They have picked them up from anti-Islam blogs and forums. They are merely replicating them.

    And the media have in no way generated the negative reactions. Those reactions simply follow from the facts. Halal food exists. It is Islamic. It is served in places. It is offered for sale. It is not always labelled as such.

    The halal food issue will probably become more prominent, and you will see more stories in the media. That does not mean that they have created the issue out of the void, or that they are hypnotising non- Muslims into taking offence at halal food. The social issue is the presence of Islam and the reactions to Islam, not the mysterious powers of the tabloids.

  13. Anon (13:10): I'm not sure why you keep returning to these blogs with the same comments time after time, or why it seems to be only the ones concerning Muslims and Islam you feel the need to comment on. If you are adamant in your opinion that the media (including posts such as these) cannot influence people's opinions, attitudes and beliefs, why do you feel moved to respond? If your intention is to influence people so that they stop highlighting misleading and sensationalist newspaper articles about Islam and Muslims, it doesn't seem to be working very well, since the bloggers continue blogging.

    The effect newspapers can have on the public was quite clearly shown during the (unrelated to Islam or Muslims) MMR scare, which was based on what has now emerged as fraudulent research.

    Following widespread and sensationalist media coverage, uptake of the vaccine fell from 92% to 73%, well below the 85% required for 'herd immunity'. In this case, the press affected not only people's attitudes, but also their health.

    Anyhow, having seen how you operate several times now, I'm not going to waste my time continuing attempts to engage you in debate.

  14. Anonymous - There's so much wrong with your comments, it's hard to keep up.

    But the 'whataboutery' of your reply to the point about Sachsgate is a classic diversion and doesn't answer the question at all. The example does not collapse just because you says it does.

    So I will ask, nicely, one more time to see if you can answer this question clearly (and briefly, if possible) - if you say the media has no power at all to influence people, can you explain how thousands of complaints flooded in well after the Brand/Ross calls were originally broadcast and only after being widely publicised in the Mail on Sunday and other media outlets?

    Also - 87th on Amazon's bestsellers list is the book about that sodding meerkat. Presumably, this also has absolutely nothing to do with advertising or people being influenced by things they've seen on TV?

  15. What Anon is trying to claim is that when the papers state something as fact, no-one will believe them.

    So, Anon, as well answering MacGuffin's question, could you please explain why the Mail had to pay out £80,000 to a Tamil who went on hunger strike who they reported as cheating on his hunger strike, resulting in him being harassed for eight months of his life and not being able to leave his house for fear of his own safety?

  16. Stories about Halal labeling on food etc may well be true, but the fact is that these papers only report them to get a reaction. Certain news outlets only ever report anti-islamic stories or stories which can be used to display muslims (and other minorites) in a bad light.

    These papers, such as the Sun or Mail will never have a front page story that puts these same people in a positive light, any that do are tucked away in the darkest corners of the newspaper, even if said story is far more news worthy or important than some crap they printed on the front page.

    This constant bombardment of stories badmouthing certain sections of society is obviously going to have a negative effect on peoples attitudes and in some cases behaviour.

  17. Late last year, government minister, Eric Pickles asked people to 'ditch Winterval and remember that Christmas is about the birth of Christ'. Since Winterval was abandoned by Birmingham over 12 years ago, how can something be ditched that already has been ditched? If Eric Pickles is influenced by the lies and distortions of the media, surely thick Mail and Express readers can also be influenced by them too?

  18. You are claiming that the media caused them to complain, but you have no evidence of that. More than likely they were the same people who complained about something else last year and will do so again next year.

    I am not saying the media have no effect whatsoever. If a local newspaper publishes a first story on a planned large new mosque in a small English town, then if will trigger a wave of aggressive reactions. What you are claiming is that these people had no problems with mosques before, no problem with Islam, and that merely by reading a news story their fundamental beliefs are radically transformed. I am saying that they were all anti-mosque beforehand, and that had nothing to do with such a story in the press. It would simply localise their reaction.

    And yes, it is indeed about Islam, immigration, national identity, and to a lesser extent gay issues. To sum it all up very simplistically, you are blaming the existence of the right on the right-wing tabloids. Its the other way around.

    Specifically you and similar bloggers suggest that anti-immigrant and anti-Islam attitudes are caused by the British tabloid press. You are obviously firmly convinced of this. So far as I know, this category of blog is a UK phenomenon. I certainly never saw them link to an equivalent in another country. If you can't think of any yourself, you could try asking the people at Islamophobia Watch, if they know of similar blogs with similar themes in other EU countries.

    Which leaves the question: might there be some explanation for the popularity of blame-the-tabloid-ism in the UK? I suspect it has something to do with shifting the blame from where it predominantly lies. Again, people in other countries (with similar issues) seem to have less difficulty in pointing the finger.

  19. To Anonymous - As others here have asked you, are you really saying that the things we read/see/hear have no effect on our thinking and resulting attitudes? If this is the case, why would anyone bother to spend money to advertise anything? Of course, the media does not have the power to instantly and totally change peoples thinking (no one here is claiming that). But to suggest that they do not have any power is ridiculous.

    You also mention that the stories in the tabloids are true. This site does not pretend that the tabloids completely make up stories, but instead exposes the often poor way in which they are reported. It is very ignorant to think that a story can only ever be true or not true. The way in which facts or stories are (or indeed are not) reported has a big influence in how we interpret it.

  20. Anonymous (21.11) - You claim I am 'blaming the existence of the right on the right-wing tabloids'.

    Simply not true. Completely, utterly, totally untrue.

    And I note in the many, lengthy comments you've left, you've never linked to where I have said such a thing.

    For the final time, I don't believe that, and like all the other things you keep saying I believe, I don't actually believe it.

    After several posts where you said the opposite ('no evidence', 'urban legend' etc), finally you admit the media can have an effect. At last! I knew we'd get there in the end.

    And you say there's no evidence re Sachsgate. Once again, you are confusing 'things you don't (want to) believe' with 'things there is no evidence for'. There is clear evidence. Take a look at the timeline. First eight days after broadcast: 2 complaints. Two days after Mail on Sunday and other media covered it: 10,000 complaints. Your explanation, like much else you write, is woolly and completely unsubstantiated.

  21. Anonymous talks about the "mysterious powers of the tabloids" as though something supernatural is being proposed. Actually it's pretty straightforward and obvious: lots of people believe what they read. Spreading lies can only be harmful and correcting them can only be a good thing. What's to argue with?

  22. Anon, we aren't trying to say that the media magically changes people's opinions, but it DOES change their perceptions of the world they live in, and thus the opinions they hold on that world, and there are endless examples of how certain world views are strengthened and legitimised on the basis of complete and utter lies.

    Why else would Anne Widdecombe slam a film she hasn't seen based purely on what the Mail said? Why would Eric Pickles lambast changing Christmas to Winterval, despite it a) taking place, once, over a decade ago and b) not actually replacing Christmas at all, that in itself being a tabloid myth?

    What about the endless parade of people moaning on message boards and in letter sections every Christmas about their 'culture being eroded', despite there being literally no difference to the yearly Christmas routine forced on me nor anyone I have ever known? What about the EDL, who were formed as a knee-jerk reaction to something they saw in the paper and later turned out to be bollocks?

    People are free to have whatever opinions they want, but those opinions are worthless when they are based on lies and non-existent phantoms, and when the EDL, an organisation born and sustained entirely by tabloid headlines, causes riots and violence wherever it goes and threatens to attack councils that don't conform to THEIR view of British culture, then those lies become dangerous.

  23. Another example if the Jean Charles De Menezes story.

    Even now members of the public still believe, amongst other things, that he was in the UK illegally (a comment above mentioned Talksport, which is where I most recently heard a caller mention this misinformation), and that his conduct was highly suspicious.

    Is it a coincidence that every tabloid story about him contained these lies, and people believe such things to be true?

    A simple Google search will show the tabloid stories, and the comments underneath which discuss the "facts" of the stories, where the misinformation is clearly whipping people up and altering their view on the matter.

    Why, then, Anonymous, does this not apply to factually incorrect stories concerning muslims?

  24. Re Anonymous.
    I don't think this blog is saying that all racist opinion is caused by the press, just that it is exacerbated.
    Some people are indeed already racist before reading invented stories in the press.
    However, you admit that the press has some power in people forming opinions, therefore these opinions/feelings can be made worse by the stories in the press that this blog blogs about.
    That's all the blog is doing, highlighting where the press is making things worse.
    It's not so much about absolutes

  25. I wonder if Anonymous listened to the Face the Facts episode in question as many of his/her comments are not particularly relevant. If you take the time to listen to this program I think you will find it very hard to say that "It is completely beyond the power of the British press, or any other media, to increase tensions within a society."


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