British Media: Friend or Foe?

One of the key aims of the media is to inform and educate the people. But in recent years there has been a debate on whether the media is fulfilling its role as the fourth estate of the realm. Critics of the media such as Noam Chomsky, Robert W McChesney, John Pilger and other experts have pointed on the role the media has been playing not in promoting good causes, but by serving as the mouthpiece of governments and corporate interests. This leads to the question whether the media in Britain or elsewhere around the world is a friend or foe?


In his recent documentary, The War You Don’t See, John Pilger explored the role of the media in reporting conflicts around the world, from the First World War to the War on Iraq. John Pilger framed his documentary within the context of a public relations war employed by various governments and corporate agencies to misinform the public in order to achieve the objective of going to war. Two examples from the documentary on the war on Iraq, and the plan to attack Iran will be relevant here. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the then BBC’s political editor Andrew Marr was shown in front of Downing Street claiming that even the critics of Tony Blair now have to give him credit, for he stands vindicated and will therefore stand as a stronger prime  minister.

The second example also involves Andrew Marr who runs a show in the BBC called the Andrew Marr Show. Guess whom he was interviewing in the show, it was Tony Blair again. In the interview Andrew Marr asked Tony Blair about the threat posed by Iran in its attempt to possess weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair responded by saying that “”I think it is wholly unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons capability. I think we’ve got to be prepared to confront them, if necessary, militarily.”[1] During the interview Andrew Marr keeps emphasizing about the military option until Tony Blair stated it clearly that he is in support of military action. Here the journalist who should be the defender of truth is guiding the interviewee to mislead the public once again.

This is classical example of how journalists fail in their duty to hold leaders to account. If Andrew Marr was doing his job properly, the direction of the interview should focus on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which Tony Blair told the world was the reason for the attack on Iraq. The interview should have focused on the damages done by the coalition forces in Iraq, the end result of which was what the former UN arms inspector Hans Blix called the ‘weapons of mass disappearance’. In a world where journalists do their work by holding leaders to account, Andrew Marr should have asked Tony Blair about the number of people lost and continued to be lost in Iraq. And if the answer to these questions about Iraq disproves the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, why should the media provide another platform to Tony Blair to repeat the same lies about the possible existence of these weapons in another country. As such it is in order to ask whether the media in Britain is a force for good or evil?

Why do journalists echo the official line?
Why are journalists ready to be used as propaganda tools to promote lies and distort reality? We can identify three reasons for this. The first is what I will call “establishment journalism”. Many journalists are obsessed with establishing friendship with senior politicians, military commanders, and corporate tycoons. The friendship comes with a reward, which is access to information. The journalist-source relationship has been explored in detail by various scholars including Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s work on propaganda model (2002), and Bob Franklin’s Packaging Politics (2004). Journalists are proud to boast to their colleagues for having dinner with the prime minister or the foreign secretary the night before. In Britain the relationship between journalists and their sources reached its peak when Alastair Campbell was the director of communications at Downing Street. Mr Campbell used his position to establish a strong relationship with journalists, and punish those who refuse to toe the government line by starving them of information. So when it came to the attack on Iraq, the media was simply echoing the views held by Alastair Campbell and his principal Tony Blair.

Unfortunately for journalists, they work under intense pressure from their editors to get the scoop.  And as long as a journalist can get the story, confirm the sources of the story, it matters little whether the story is true or not, especially if it comes from highly placed sources. Here it is important to discuss the suggestion by Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News, a book that should be read by anybody who wants to understand how the media work. Davies explains the difference between “Accuracy” and “Truth”.[2] According to Nick Davies journalism today is more interested in the accuracy of the information than the truth it contains. According to him, if a prime minister tells journalists that “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”, as long as the journalists got the remarks in quotation marks, they have done their job; the emphasis is to quote your sources accurately. But the truth according to Nick Davies is to ascertain whether there are weapons of mass destruction or not. This example by Nick Davies brings to light the culture of journalism being practiced whether in Britain or elsewhere that produces what Nick Davies himself calls “distortion”, “falsehood” and “propaganda.”

The second reason why journalists misrepresent Islam is their ignorance of other cultures and deliberate mischief on anything Islamic. I once heard a newscaster describing the recitation of the Qur’an as a song that Muslims normally observe during ceremonies. To illustrate this point further let us bring some examples on how some concepts in Islam have been used in the news media. For instance the word “Fatwa” which implies  an advisory opinion suggested by Muslim scholars who have a sound understanding of Islam as well as the circumstances that necessitate the need to provide solution to problems affecting the Muslim community. These issues could be in terms of economic matters. For instance it is clear that Riba (usury) is prohibited in Islam. But to own a house in many countries where there is no Islamic alternative to mortgage requires dealing with Riba. So for the Muslim community living in those countries it means they will perpetually remain as second class citizens because they couldn’t own houses; while Islam preaches life in dignity and self esteem, so the scholars can look into the circumstances of the Muslims in these countries and issue a fatwa (religious verdict or opinion) advising on the circumstances under which Muslims can take mortgage, and the “Fatwa” can change as their circumstance changes as well. Other issues that may require a fatwa can be the involvement of Muslims in politics or the issue of how to address inheritance where they are a minority and there are no shari’a courts to address their needs.

But what we see in the British media is the appropriation of the word fatwa and used only in negative stories, many times associated with death, bad behaviour or criminality. Take the following example from the Daily Mail newspaper:

“The historian, his wife and a mistress living under fatwa” (Headline 8th February 2010).  The text of the story suggests that “With their close ties to David Cameron and illustrious careers in ac
ademia and publishing, they were a formidable couple. But last night it appeared that the 16-year marriage of celebrated historian Niall Ferguson and former newspaper editor Sue Douglas has ended. The Harvard professor has left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a glamorous Somali lawyer threatened with death for scripting a film critical of Islam.”

As you can see from the text, the story was about divorce, but because it is a story that fits the bill of the “Muslim stereotype” it was linked with the word fatwa in the headline to attract the attention of the readers of the newspaper by reminding them how bad Muslims are?

Other examples in the newspaper includes “Dial-a-fatwa that bans naps, raffles and tattoos: Muslim scholars issue 350,000 decrees in 2010” (Headline 28 December, 2010); “’Fatwa on your head?’ Controversial adverts that help Muslims abandon Islam appear on New York buses” (Headline 27th May, 2010).

These kinds of headlines and stories are not restricted to the Daily Mail. A search through BBC’s website also reveals that stories about Fatwa are related to punishment, crime, death or terrorism. For instance on 12 May, 2011, BBC’s Asia website carried the following headline “Bangladesh lifts fatwa ban but forbids enforcement” with the text of the story explaining that “The Bangladesh Supreme Court has ruled that clerics can issue fatwas – Islamic religious edicts – but said that they cannot be enforced. A high court ruling 10 years ago banned fatwas altogether after several women were sentenced to brutal punishments”

Even the liberal Guardian newspaper is no different when it comes to the use of the term. A search through the Guardian website also suggest that the use of the word is restricted to stories about Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses, stories about terrorism, punishment etc in fact sometimes even using the term satirically to mock the Muslim community. An example of that was a commentary written by Mai Yamani on Monday 29th October, 2007, the comment entitled “War of the fatwas: Saudi Arabia has unleashed its ultimate weapon in its battle against terrorism: Wahhabi clerics armed with fatwas”. Yamani suggested in the article that “What the kingdom claims to offer is a lead in the “war on terror”. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s rulers have rallied to the cause, deploying their ultimate weapon: a barrage of fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by prominent Wahhabi clerics”.

An analysis of the above text will help us to understand the intent behind it, first of all the headline was framed within  the context of war discourse; the words and phrases used are unleash, weapon, battle, and  terrorism. This was made even clearer in the text with the use of phrases like “clerics armed with Fatwas”, a “barrage of Fatwas” etc.  Although the average reader of the Guardian is seen as educated, middle class and liberal, how many of them do understand the meaning of a “fatwah” as it affects the daily lives of Muslims, let alone distinguish it from its negative portrayal by the news media in Britain or elsewhere around the world? The words Jihad (striving in the path of God), Madrasa (school) and sharia (Islamic law and a guide on how a Muslim should lead his life) have almost lost their Arabic meaning in the global media because of the way their use has been distorted.

The third reason for the negative portrayal of Muslims is purely ideological. Since the fall of communism, the West, United States in particular was looking for an enemy. The next formidable force that fits the bill is Islam. As such with the contribution of political scientists like Samuel Huntington and other right wing scholars, Islam took centre stage in the media. Stories about Islam and Muslims provide a selling point. This picture was complicated further by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Since then Islam and Muslims have been classified as the enemy which has taken the place of communism. This picture has more or less become a guiding principle in different news rooms. When a reporter sends a story, or a commentator contributes an article about Islam or Muslims, be assured that once it gets into the hand of the editor, the stereotypes “extremist”, “fundamentalist”, “terrorist” will be inserted. Unless proved otherwise, any violent attack within the minute it occurs, pundits will be invited into the news room to confirm that it is the work of “Islamic fundamentalists” or “terrorists”. A recent example is the Norwegian attack by Anders Behring Breivik. Within minutes of the attack the media rushed to blame Muslims as the alleged perpetrators. Later it was discovered that it had nothing to do with Muslims, but with a Christian right wing activist. And suddenly the framing of the story changed completely.

For instance on 24th July 2011 the BBC stated that “the lawyer representing Anders Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian man charged with Friday’s shooting spree at a summer camp and bomb attack in Oslo, has said his client has admitted responsibility”; The Guardian on 23rd July, 2011 reported that “The killer began just after 5pm; it was two hours before 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, wearing the uniform of a police officer and protective earplugs against his own deafening gunshots, apparently ran out of ammunition and was arrested by police Swat teams sent from Oslo.” As for the Daily Mail newspaper, it reported on 24 July 2011 that “the 32-year-old Norwegian man arrested for gunning down children on a holiday island and detonating a car bomb in Oslo has been named locally as Anders Behring Breivik.”

So in both the BBC which claims to be impartial, the Guardian with its liberal approach as well as the Daily Mail, Anders Behring Breivik is neither a terrorist nor an extremist, he is simply a 32 year old Norwegian man. If Anders Breivik had been a Muslim, how will the story be framed? You know the answer.

Of course not all journalists in Britain or in the West accept the use of stereotypes. The exceptional work of journalists like Robert Fisk who writes for the Independent newspaper and one of the few journalists who have an in-depth understanding of the Muslim World comes to mind. John Pilger is another exception with his decisive and informative contribution on how the news media becomes a tool in the hand of the corporate world and politicians eager to mislead the public. In the academia the works of researchers like Dr John Richardson author of (Mis)Representing Islam: The Racism and Rhetoric of British Broadsheet Newspapers, Dr Elisabeth Poole author of Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims, Professor David Miller, author of Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq; and many more have contributed in unearthing the bias of the media in representing Islam and Muslims. Despite the contribution of these great minds, they still remain lonely voices, so when the question is asked on whether the media in Britain is a friend or foe? The examples cited earlier will help you to answer the question.

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An earlier version of this piece was  presented at Creating Hope Conference organised by the Muslim Association of Britain, New Bingley Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom. 17-18 December, 2011



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