The shameful Islamophobia at the heart of Britain's press

When a tabloid newspaper reports that a 'Muslim hate mob' is daubing abuse, can we believe them?

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The Independent Online

On the morning of 7 October 2006 The Sun newspaper splashed a dramatic story across its front page. The story – billed as exclusive – concerned a callous and cynical crime committed by Muslims. A team of Sun reporters described in graphic detail how what the paper labelled a "Muslim hate mob" had vandalised a house near Windsor. The Sun revealed that "vile yobs hurled bricks through windows and daubed obscenities. A message on the drive spelled out in 4ft-letters: 'Fuck off '."

One Tory MP, Philip Davies, was quoted venting outrage at this act of vandalism. "If there's anybody who should fuck off," Davies was quoted as saying, "it'sthe Muslims who are doing this kind of thing. Police should pull out the stops to track down these vile thugs".

The Sun left its readers in no doubt as to why the outrage had been committed. Local Muslims were waging a vendetta against four British soldiers who hoped to rent the house on their return from serving their country in Afghanistan. The paper quoted an army source saying that: "these guys have done nothing but bravely serve their country – yet they can't even live where they want in their own".

But there was one very big problem with The Sun story. There was no Muslim involvement of any kind. It is true that a house had been vandalised in Montagu Road, part of the comfortable and prosperous Windsor suburb of Datchet – as The Windsor Express had reported the previous day. It also looks very likely that the attack was connected with the potential arrival of four household cavalry officers.

The average house price in Montagu Road is around £600,000 and there is an air of almost rural tranquillity. As far as we could discover, no Muslims lived in the area. To all intents and purposes Montagu Road was a white, gated community. The Sun claim that a "Muslim hate mob" could have arrived unnoticed and committed vandalism without being observed was nothing short of preposterous. Furthermore, the police denied any Muslim connection.

In his article for The Windsor Express the previous day, local journalist Paul Pickett had written a far more scrupulous piece. He reported that the local army barracks had received three anonymous phone calls the previous week. They were not from Muslims, however, as The Sun reported. They were from local residents. Pickett reported that the anonymous calls objected to the presence of soldiers because they would lower property prices in the road. He also reported that around 40 local residents had signed a petition, objecting to the soldiers moving in.

We spoke to Jamie Pyatt, one of The Sun team of journalists who wrote the "exclusive" and he stood by his story. He told us that the police were being politically correct by not admitting that Muslims had carried out the crime. According to Pyatt, his contacts were under no doubt as to who vandalised the house. He claimed that there are lots of Asians on the road who could easily have seen British soldiers looking around in their combat gear. This was certainly not our impression. In fact, we did not see a single man, woman or child who looked remotely Muslim.

Eventually, even The Sun was forced to admit that there were problems with its story. Some four months after it appeared, under pressure from the Press Complaints Commission, a four-line correction was published. It read: "Following our report "Hounded out" about a soldiers' home in Datchet, Berkshire, being vandalised by Muslims, we have been asked to point out no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or religious group was responsible for the incident. We are happy to make this clear."

The Sun never retracted the sensational assertion that a "Muslim hate mob" had vandalised the house and, to this day, the original "Hounded Out" story can be found on The Sun website.

But Islamophobia As this pamphlet will illustrate, it can be encountered in the best circles: among our most famous novelists, among columnists from The Independent and Guardian newspapers, and in the Church of England. Its appeal is wide-ranging. "I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it," writes Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, then writing for The Independent. "Islamophobia?" The Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle rhetorically asks in the title of a speech, "Count me in." Imagine Liddle declaring: "Anti-Semitism? Count me in", or Toynbee announcing that she was "an anti-semite and proud of it". This just wouldn't happen and for very good reasons. Anti-semitism is recognised as an evil, noxious creed and its adherents barred from mainstream society and respectable organs of opinion. Not so Islamophobia.

Channel 4 Dispatches commissioned the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, to examine reporting of Muslim issues. The team analysed some 974 stories and found that approximately two-thirds of all "news hooks" for stories about Muslims involved either terrorism (some 36 per cent of stories); religious issues such as Sharia law, highlighting cultural differences between British Muslims and others (22 per cent); or Muslim extremism, concerning figures such as Abu Hamsa. These stories all portrayed Muslims as a source of trouble. By contrast only 5 per cent of stories were based on problems facing British Muslims.

Here are some more false stories concerning Muslims in Britain. Some were pure inventions, others contained a grain of truth but were distorted.

"Muslim Sickos" Maddie Kidnap Shock' – Daily Star, 28 April 2008. The story did not, as readers might have inferred from the front-page headline, reveal that Madeleine McCann had been kidnapped by a Muslim "sicko". In fact, it refers to a website on which claims were made that Madeleine's parents were involved in her disappearance.

"Hogwash: Now the PC brigade bans piggy banks in case they offend Muslims" – Daily Express, 24 October 2005. The story claimed that NatWest and Halifax had removed images of piggy banks from their promotional material in an effort to avoid offending Muslim customers, since pork is forbidden in Islam. The paper quoted observers calling such action "barmy" and "bonkers", thereby stirring up a huge response from the public.

After the story's publication, the Halifax drily noted that it "has not withdrawn any piggy banks from branches" and noted that in fact it had not used piggy banks in its branches for a number of years. The NatWest press statement noted that: "There is absolutely no fact in the story."

"Get off my bus I need to pray" – The Sun, 28 March 2008. This was the story of a Muslim bus driver ordering his passengers off his bus so that he could pray. The Sun story, along with footage of the bus driver praying, was widely circulated around right-wing blogs. Dhimmi Watch, the right-wing blog on the site Jihad Watch that catalogues perceived outrages committed by Muslims, even included The Sun story in their "ever-expanding You Can't Make This Stuff Up file". Well, actually, you can. The bus had been delayed, so in order to maintain frequency the bus company had ordered the driver to stop his bus and allow passengers to board the bus behind. Tickets and CCTV evidence show that all the passengers were on that bus within a minute.

The so-called witness, a 21-year-old plumber, who recorded the bus driver praying, had not been on the bus, and had arrived after the incident to find a small crowd outside a bus.

"The crescent and the canteen" – The Economist, 19 October 2006. There was no truth in the article's suggestion that Leicester University had banned pork on campus. In actual fact, the university Student Union had made just one out of the numerous cafes on campus halal, in a decision which had as much to do with economic factors as cultural sensitivity as Leicester has a large number of Muslim students. The other 26 cafes on the campus, including the main canteen, were still serving pork as usual.

We should all feel a little bit ashamed about the way we treat Muslims in the media, in our politics, and on our streets. They are our fellow citizens, yet often we barely acknowledge them. We misrepresent and in certain cases persecute them. We do not treat Muslims with the tolerance, decency and fairness that we so often like to boast is the British way. We urgently need to change our public culture.

This article is edited from the pamphlet 'Muslims Under Siege: Alienating Vulnerable Communities' by Peter Oborne and James Jones. It is linked to tonight's edition of Dispatches, 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim', Channel 4, 8pm

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