As the political editor of Sky News, Faisal Islam is now one of the most recognisable figures on British television. But even he suffered the indignity of being stopped and searched repeatedly by Metropolitan Police officers seeking terrorism suspects.
Islam, 38, has been singled out on four occasions by police operating random searches under anti-terrorism legislation. The broadcaster believes he was the victim of “racial profiling” as the Met responded to public anxieties in the wake of the 7 July attacks.
However Islam, who succeeded the veteran Adam Boulton at Sky News in 2014, bears no malice towards the police. He accepts they were simply doing their job and has been able to raise his experiences privately with the Met Commissioner.
“In the years after 7/7 I got stopped and searched four times,” Islam told The Independent. “Obviously at that moment it annoys you. Then I researched it, as you would as a journalist, and found it just wasn’t a sensible use of police time.”
The use of stop-and-search powers increased dramatically after the 2001 attacks but only around 1 per cent of all searches led to arrests and none for terrorism offences. Powers which allowed any police force randomly to stop and search any person or vehicle on suspicion of terrorism were struck down by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010. Black and Asian people were three times more likely to be searched than whites under the powers.
“They weren’t going to catch any bad guys,” Islam said. “I got stopped outside King’s Cross. I think at that point they were profiling me. It happened more than you would think. I kept all the paperwork.
“I don’t begrudge officers just doing their job. The third or fourth time of course, I was the nightmare person with all the statistics of how many people were caught which I think was zero.”
The appointment of Islam, a former economics editor at Channel 4 News, struck a blow for diversity at the top echelons of news television. The stop-and-search experience “was a helpful one” he said, since it gave him a “different experience to other political editors”.
“I rationalised it as a form of ‘show’ for other people, it was a form of marketing – ‘look what we’re doing’. If it could be proved to be effective I’d be happy wasting my time but it was ineffective and a waste of police time too. Now police search tools have evolved in a more interesting way.”
Islam is confronted by racism on a daily basis. A keen exponent of social media as a communication tool, with 116,000 Twitter followers, he was shocked by some “incredibly nasty” messages he received since joining Sky. “I fully welcome viewers holding us to account but there’s also a lot of anger out there. It’s remarkable what people will say under their real names even on Facebook.”
The Cambridge graduate will put his head above the parapet again this week when he delivers the University of Kent’s annual Bob Friend Memorial Lecture, named in honour of one of Sky News’s original anchors. Islam will use the speech to reveal a new consumer analysis tool being pioneered by Sky News – a nationwide panel which allows the channel to gauge reactions to stories on an hourly basis.
“My idea when I came to Sky was to mimic what the political parties are doing to track evolving opinions by demographic,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to say ‘Middle England thinks this’. Politics has become atomised. It just so happens Sky is owned by a very big consumer company with an amazing data operation.”
Islam said the rolling sample of 1,000 participants had allowed Sky to identify “the most Ukip-friendly pub in the UK”, by tracking “Kipperish tendencies” down to precise postcodes.
The data established that “Land of Hope and Glory” would be the most popular new English national anthem when the issue became a recent news story and gave the Sky News team consistent insight that the Liberal Democrats would be wiped out at the 2015 election, months before the poll.
Islam explained: “We’re getting midday responses to a headline in the morning. We test opinion throughout the day. We’re getting a flavour of public opinion and that puts us on the side of the viewer wanting to communicate their message to Parliament rather than just the other way round. We can do things no other organisation can with these tools.”
After hours filling in for viewers, waiting for David Cameron to emerge with a Brussels deal designed to keep the UK inside the EU, Islam was informed by the instant data response that the Prime Minister’s package had left voters disappointed.
The referendum is the next battleground where what Islam calls in his lecture a public “rage against the political machine” will be vocalised. “We’ve reached the end of a political cycle where the established rules of politics stayed roughly the same from Thatcher through to Cameron’s election,” Islam said. “If both sides in the referendum project fear about economics on the one hand and fear about immigration on the other, I don’t think that will do much for public discourse.”
Spin doctors for the Leave and Remain camps are poised to pounce on any suggestion of partiality. “Boris Johnson talked about remaining or leaving ‘Europe’ rather than the EU. If I use that formulation someone from the Leave side is straight on my case saying ‘we’re not leaving Europe’. It feels like I’m being man-marked on social media.”
A proud Mancunian, Islam believes social class, as much as diversity, is a challenge for broadcasters. “I don’t see many people from the tough part of Manchester where my dad ran a newsagent making it into the media either. It makes sense to have people from a variety of backgrounds telling the story of the nation. That shouldn’t be the reason why people get jobs but it just makes for a richer, national conversation.”
Islam, who admits it took time to establish himself with viewers accustomed to Boulton’s substantial presence, offers himself as an exemplar.
“My father was an immigrant who occasionally paid my school fees in bags of one pound coins. I hope my mere presence makes people realise there’s a lot more going on in the British Muslim community than they sometimes might feel.”
Faisal Islam delivers the Bob Friend Memorial Lecture at the University of Kent, Historic Dockyard, Chatham, on 3 March, at 7pm
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