Last month, journalist Rod Liddle claimed in his Sunday Times column that suicide bombers should blow themselves up in east London’s Tower Hamlets borough, which he described as being “a decent distance from where the rest of us live”. Last year, Katie Hopkins, then working for MailOnline, tweeted: “Call me racist. I don’t care. I will stand up for white women being raped because you’re scared to offend Muslims”.
Both are extreme examples of the barrage of prejudiced vitriol about Muslims which can be found in the British media. Research has shown how hateful views about Muslims and Islam have become mainstream and commonplace. But equally dangerous is the number of journalists presenting incorrect information in stories about Muslims.
This is where Miqdaad Versi steps in.
Versi is the Muslim Council of Britain’s head of Media Monitoring, now well known by editors in the UK. He challenges factually incorrect stories that deal with Muslims and Islam in mainstream British media. The depth of the problem is evident: over the past 18 months, he has been able to elicit over 50 corrections from national newspapers.
“It is completely legitimate and right to report on challenging issues, on difficult issues, on controversial issues, but there are serious consequences to reporting, and perpetuating, far right myths which are incorrect – like child abusers being all Muslims,” he says.
While press must be free and offending words are an intrinsic characteristic of a free press, there is a debate to be had about the responsibility of the media to avoid lazy journalism, easy stereotypes, ‘othering’ rhetoric and fear-mongering. Versi thinks bias must be challenged, but the goal of his project is to stop inaccuracies.
“We are in a situation where hate against Muslims is widespread within certain sections of society, and when mainstream newspapers and senior columnists get these basic facts wrong it impacts Muslim very powerfully and it demonstrates an underlying problem of insufficient due diligence and worrying bias,” he explains.
His work has resulted in so many retractions, journalist and former Sun political editor Trevor Kavanaugh wrote in the paper “It is impossible to write about Muslims without catching the eagle eye of MCB assistant general secretary Miqdaad Versi”. Kavanaugh was defending an article about sex grooming gangs where he used the term “Muslim problem”, which drew widespread criticism. He later apologised but accused critics of a “concocted explosion of Labour and Islamic hysteria”.
Daily Mail columnists Peter Oborne told the Guardian, “He’s making a big change, because it’s very painful for papers to admit they made mistakes,” he said. “If you write a story like that now, you’ll get a letter from Miqdaad, and your managing editor will go ‘Fuck!’ and you’ll have to go through the whole process and the humiliation of the apology.”
Versi sounds pleased when he says that the aim of his fact-checking is precisely so journalists check their sources and information before publishing. He now has a team working with him on this project, but admits getting corrections from newspapers can be arduous.
“Anyone can do it with some support and in the long term, you don’t want the fact checking to rely on one organisation but the reality is, it can be difficult,” says Versi.
When he contacts editors about factual errors, some immediately act upon it but others don’t react well. In those cases, he takes it to IPSO, the main press regulator. “It can be off-putting, sometimes there is a back and forth of five page letters to get a correction.”
It may seem an endless, thankless task but Versi is adamant about its importance.
“When you separate broader society from Muslims, when you are building the idea that Muslims are different, that’s when hate becomes easier to manifest and it is important these inaccuracies are dealt with quickly and properly.”.
Versi focuses on British mainstream press but when fake stories creep in from other countries, international contacts help him fact check it. “We had one story about a gunman in a Spanish supermarket shouting Allahu Akbar and shooting but that was just a lie. He wasn’t speaking Arabic, he didn’t say Allahu Akbar and he didn’t shoot anything up. It was a far-right fake news story that none of the mainstream Spanish press took up because they knew it was wrong.”.
The National Union of Journalists demanded an IPSO inquiry on press racism earlier this year. There is a number of potential explanations for why mainstream newspapers get their facts wrong, ranging from time pressures through to subconscious bias and sensationalism, but Versi agrees it is not always malice.
“But that is never an excuse for factual errors, if you’re not sure about something you shouldn’t report it,” says Versi with a tinge of exasperation. “I think there’s this idea where someone just assumes it must be right because it’s Muslims – I’m not saying it’s intentional malice, they just have set ideas about what Muslims are and how they behave.”
Sometimes, the malice is real. The Leveson inquiry found several cases where journalists were made to rewrite stories with an anti-Muslim line. The journalist Richard Peppiatt, who quit the Daily Star in 2011 over its “hatemongering” against Muslims, told Leveson that the newspaper knowingly published made-up stories and quotes.
One error that is hard to explain, such as a four-day front page splash by The Times last year about a “white Christian” girl becoming distressed after being placed with a Muslim family. The story became the focus of a political and media storm, with far-right provocateur Katie Hopkins tweeting: “Which individual at Tower Hamlets was responsible for the abuse of this little girl?” and far-right activists sharing the story widely.
“What we found out was that there was sufficient information at that stage to know that the story was problematic on a factual basis,” says Versi. “It was a mixture of the story being wrong and someone choosing to frame it in a very negative way.”
A court judgment issued after the investigation shows that the entire premise of the story was wrong, as was the Times’ frontpage claim that the child was moved as a result of its coverage. The paper has not, at the time of writing, issued any apologies, aside from an IPSO adjudication. The reporter, Andrew Norfolk, and the editor, John Witherow, have not issued any statements either.
In the words of Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik: “When a paper that is not a tabloid, and which has a respectable investigations team, publishes four erroneous front page stories and makes no effort to explain itself, what is it left with? Are these people still journalists? If you cannot meet basic standards of honesty and accuracy, which is your actual job, nor make amends when you do not, are you still a journalist?”
Currently, retractions are often hidden deep within the pages of newspapers, in small, easily-missed, boxes. Two years ago a petition was launched that pushed for newspaper apologies or corrections to be the same size as the original, erroneous story. The petition failed, but the idea has merit.
Although some claim to simply reflect public opinion, newspapers have a significant role in forming and shaping it. There needs to be a strong deterrent to publishing false statements and there is no bigger deterrent for newspapers than prominent retractions. “The stronger the deterrent, the more diligence there is in getting the facts straight,” says Versi.