Long Read: Should some media outlets take responsibility for the surge in hate crime like the brutal attack on Reker Ahmed?

Reker Ahmed was left fighting for his life after being brutally attacked by some 30 people in Croydon. Reports on the incident note the 17 year old was asked where he was from and when the assailants established he was a refugee – they left Reker with a fractured skull and a blood clot on the brain.

Whilst the severity of the attack is exceptional, the rationale underscoring the attack is unapologetically unexceptional. 2016 figures released by the National Police Chief’s Council revealed that “hate crime” has increased significantly in the UK following last year’s Brexit referendum. Many third sector practitioners, like Andy Elvin, chief executive of the fostering organisation, Tact, which looks after hundreds of asylum-seeking children across the country, have recently suggested hate crime manifests as a result of prevalent and disparaging public discourse around immigrants and other arrivals to the UK. For example, Andy told the Guardian that such attacks are “linked to the environment that has been created by the public discourse about people coming to this country from overseas. Asylum seekers are all seen as bogus – not as children, not traumatised, not in need, just freeloaders coming here to take advantage of the system.”

The question is, who or what is shaping said discourse?

Of course, people receive information from a multitude of sources but one of the most prevalent, in spite of their decline, are national print editions of newspapers. It is true the media has a duty to highlight aspects of society which may otherwise go unnoticed and a free and independent press is essential to any vibrant democratic society. And whilst debate exists about whether coverage causes or simply reflects the views of its audiences in an ‘echo chamber’ (see Boyd 2008), it is largely accepted that the media is good at setting the agenda and influencing public narratives (Chong and Druckman 2007). Mainstream media can therefore impact society in a myriad of ways, from voting behaviour to access to knowledge. For example, a 2002 YouGov Poll indicated that over 60% of people acquired what they knew about Islam from the media whilst The Sun proclaimed to have won the general election for the Conservative Party.

And so it is from this standpoint, starting from the media’s capacity to influence public narratives and people’s perceptions of society, that the question of whether some elements of the media must take some responsibility for the rise in hate crime like the near fatal attack suffered by Reker.

The research evidence
Whether it is Muslims, migrants, immigrants, refugees or other, elements of the media are largely and consistently negative about people from different backgrounds. For example, researchers at Cardiff University’s Journalism School conducted a study to examine how the refugee and migrant crisis was being reported in the press in different European countries and found that the United Kingdom was the most negative and the most polarised. Amongst those countries surveyed, Britain’s right-wing media was found to be uniquely aggressive in its campaigns against refugees and migrants.

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford also found that when British newspapers describe immigration in some additional way over the 2006-2015 period, about 15% of the time they explicitly use the word ‘mass’. This is closely followed by ‘net’ and ‘illegal’. In their 2013 report, they noted that headlines like “Eight-fold increase in the number of illegal migrants entering Europe” were typical. It is perhaps unsurprising then that a poll conducted by Ipsos MORI revealed that the average Briton thought 31% of the population were immigrants of which 21% were refugees. In reality, however, immigrants constitute just 13% of the UK population and refugees a mere 0.18%.

Moreover, the word “failed” was often the most common descriptor of “asylum seekers”, while in order to describe the security concerns and aspects of legality of migration, words such as “terrorist” and “sham” were most commonly used. This is in spite of a 2016 UN report which found “little evidence” that Isis and other terror groups use refugee flows or that asylum seekers are prone to radicalisation.

There is a clear and stark difference between mainstream representation of migrants and the facts, and subsequently people’s perceptions of migrants and reality.

This kind of language criminalises migrants (also known as people) who often cross borders in vulnerable circumstances whilst instilling fear into readers. With regards to Muslim communities in particular, a University of Cambridge/ESRC Roundtable held at the House of Lords concluded that mainstream media reporting about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain. Research shows that press coverage relating to Muslims and Islam in British national newspapers has increased by approximately 270% over the preceding decade, of which 91% of that coverage was deemed negative (INSTEAD, 2007). As an aside, a significant portion of this coverage links Muslims to terrorism. Interestingly, there have been 16,000 terror attacks between 1970 and 2015 according to the Global Terrorism Database and if we were to attribute all attacks to Muslims (which is absurd) it would still account for less than 0.00001% of all Muslims worldwide and just 0.0059% of all Muslims in Britain. Of course there is a legitimate debate to be had about additional support for these attacks amongst some sections of the Muslim community, but the fact remains – these people still form an absolute minority. Headlines such as the above, then, simply fail to accommodate the majority of Muslims who strongly condemn Isis and all forms of terrorism and who are in fact active and productive citizens of Britain. Researchers have argued that coverage of this nature is likely to be a major barrier to successful Government community cohesion policies and programmes and is unlikely to contribute to informed discussion and debate amongst Muslims and non-Muslims about ways of working together to maintain and develop Britain as a multicultural, multi-faith democracy (INSTEAD, 2007).
To be clear, it is not posited that the media is solely responsible for hate crime, far from it. But the evidence is clear and categorical in that it is, at one end of the spectrum, fueling hate and, at the other end, simply failing to provide a balanced picture of migrants. After all, returning to migration more generally, according to the 2016 ONS report, about two-thirds of Europeans already have job offers when they arrive and some 192,000 of the 600,000 net immigrants (this includes British returnee’s from overseas) are in fact international students – facts that are rarely, if at all, mentioned. As for refugees, according to the British Red Cross, 17,495 people entered the UK. Compare this to Lebanon which has secured sanctuary for over 1.2 million Syrian refugees alone and Germany, which registered 964,574 new asylum seekers in 2015, raises questions about those who proclaim “swarms” are flocking to the UK for the NHS and other services.

Simply put, it is about time we had a conversation about some of the more damaging and divisive elements of mainstream media in our society. The evidence shows that elements of the press are fueling hate and are exacerbating divisions along ethnic and religious lines. This is putting people’s lives, like Reker’s, in severe danger. Such coverage is clearly and unequivocally an abuse of power and more action must be taken to hold those responsible to account.

Recommendations:

  • The prominence and weight of corrections/ confessions on newspapers following misleading articles are often unbalanced. Corrections should take up equal space than the initial erroneous print, and appear within the first four pages of said edition
  • Corrections must include reasons why such mistakes were made, how said newspaper will refrain from making similar mistakes in future reports and then clearly present the actual facts
  • Bodies such as the Independent Press Standards Organisation should make an annual table readily available to the public, listing newspapers annual number of complaints received and annual number of corrections made
  • We call upon government and press regulators to inform and equip people with the necessary knowledge and tools to make valid and informed complaints


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