A new report titled ‘British Media’s Coverage of Muslims and Islam (2018-2020)’ has explored how the British media portrays Muslims and Islam in its reporting, opinion pieces and television coverage.
Commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring (CFMM), the report is based on the analysis of over 48,000 online articles and 5,500 broadcast clips. The report has concluded that 60 percent of the articles and 47 percent of the video clips misrepresented Muslims and showed them in a negative light. The report has also presented 10 case studies of Muslims’ stereotypical profiling, defamation and misrepresentation. Publications such as the ‘Mail on Sunday’, ‘Christian Today’, ‘Jewish Chronicle’ and ‘The Spectator’ were scrutinised by the Centre for Media Monitoring which found them to be carrying material that could be interpreted as antagonistic and biased towards Muslims and Islam.
The report also identified a pattern running through right-wing publications that contained a “higher percentage of articles either demonstrating a bias against or generalising or misrepresenting Muslim belief or behaviour.” Interestingly enough, national-level news organisations and broadcasters were found more prone to demonstrating bias against Islam and Muslims than regional ones.
The analysis of the content found that some news agencies – AP, Reuters, and AFP – were major contributors to the generalisation and misrepresentation of Muslims. This trend has picked up pace with the advent of new media.
One of the more profound ways to understand the Western media’s treatment of Muslims is through the lens of discourses it has shaped around asylum seekers and immigrants. During the last couple of decades, the number of asylum seekers has increased manifold. Muslim refugees have fled their countries in hundreds of thousands to escape war, political repression and conflicts in search of safety and survival.
The Western media’s unsympathetic portrayal of refugees has raised concerns at a massive scale, besides hardening public opinion. There is a direct relationship between media coverage, the formation of public opinion and the subsequent policy response towards asylum-seeking.
The issue of asylum seekers has deepened political schisms within the EU as well as the US, Australia and Canada. Immigration is one of the critical factors that have encouraged the rise of nationalistic and right-wing political parties in the West that have campaigned for power based on immigration issues. The approach of those segments of public opinion that emphasise policies based on democratic values, liberal ethos and human rights in their treatment of asylum seekers has been confronted with more enormous challenges, particularly from far-right politicians.
The crisis of asylum-seeking before 2001 was marked by a high number of refugees, their impact on the economy and jobs of receiving countries, and the effect that globalisation has on cultural identity. These factors were said to define the future direction of asylum seekers in Europe. The culture of uncertainty so bred with regard to immigration and refugees has been a defining feature of the years following 2001. It also shaped political discourses on asylum-seeking in the West.
Media portrayals only reinforced the prevailing narratives of the far-right political elite and strengthened the impression of asylum seekers being ‘deviant and dangerous’. There has been little critical appraisal of these anti-immigration discourses, which fail to contextualise the issue of immigration and asylum-seeking within a proper framework. This lack of the media’s role as a watchdog has been pronounced, which resulted in increasing the animosity of domestic audiences to ‘boat people’.
The UK media has consistently portrayed asylum seekers negatively. This fact has had a direct link with the punitive policies adopted to deal with the problem of immigration. There is enough evidence to suggest that before the 9/11 attacks, asylum seekers were framed as dangerous and a security threat to the West.
One noticeable impact of the coverage of asylum-seeking issues is that British media, particularly on the right side of the ideological equation, has constructed a narrative that British citizens were exploited by refugees. The situation was further compounded by the media's framing of asylum seekers as inflicting an economic cost on the country. This economic lens, coupled with the security threat perception, only highlights how media in the UK has given prominent coverage to immigration and asylum-seeking issues.
Media and politics enjoy an intimate relationship since they feed off each other. The situation becomes all the more dire when the resultant political discourses are shaped by information that is, at best, biased and subjectively prioritised and ‘selectively sequenced’.
Post 9/11, media representations have largely shaped public opinion about asylum seekers. These negative portrayals have been based on the interaction between media reporting, public opinion, and policy formulation. There is a need to change the equation and nature of the interaction between these actors to moderate media hostility towards refugees. This requires a significant change in the media representation of asylum seekers. To win brownie points, Western right-wing political parties have invested heavily in framing anti-immigration narratives that are quite popular with a segment of the electorate. So in order to sustain people’s expectations of a ‘hard approach’, these political parties have chosen to continue with their rigid and maximalist positions on asylum-seeking.
Given the available research, it is hard to conclusively determine if public opinion is at the heart of fashioning public policies on asylum seekers or vice versa. This certainly is a complex process involving the interaction of different variables.
Despite a few rare and mildly positive portrayals, media representations, public opinions and policy responses have generally been hostile towards Muslim refugees. From dehumanising and degrading their humanity, the news media and their public representations have termed asylum seekers as security threats whose presence will alter the very fabric of host societies.
Not much research is available that may determine the impact of the presence of asylum seekers upon Western culture, values, and the way of life. There is little academic debate on how these changes can alter public opinion, media representations and the contours of the overall debate in line with the ethos and spirit of the Western values of inclusion and integration.
One way of changing the perceptions and terms of the debate could be to facilitate journalists to access diverse viewpoints that give a more holistic and broader picture of the events involving asylum seekers.
At the same time, while media portrayals and political discourses focus on everything negative about asylum seekers, few studies explore the expectations and circumstances that force asylum seekers to take the most challenging journeys – often at the cost of their lives. Probably, detailed research into these factors can help rehabilitate their ‘degraded’ humanity and go a long way in changing perceptions and consequently leveraging policy changes about asylum-seeking and immigration.
The predominantly negative messaging that the Western media resorts to vis-a-vis refugees also raises questions about the universality of the Western notions of liberalism and humanitarianism. To frame Muslim asylum seekers as ideological challenges also has negative implications for the prospects of interfaith relations. The challenges associated with asylum-seeking are way more complicated than what is highlighted by the media.
The Western media’s representation of Islam and Muslims exposes the West’s limited and narrow understanding. Today, Muslims are much more diverse and dynamic culturally, politically and religiously than their monolithic and static portrayals by the Western media.
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex
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