Bigotry and blasphemy [updated]

Charles Moore writes:

Hours before the Paris atrocities, Al Arabiya news reported a speech by David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. In it, he said that because some mainstream media were ‘grossly irresponsible’ in their coverage of Muslim issues, Ipso, the press standards body, ought to consider making it possible for an entire religious group to bring a complaint about coverage.

Mr Anderson is an able and distinguished lawyer. Surely he knows that the entire history of this subject is that mainstream Muslim bodies are constantly trying to criminalise hostile remarks about their religion.

Should groups as well as individuals be able to bring collective complaints against the press? Whatever you think about this question, Muslims’ concerns are certainly not limited to ‘hostile remarks about their religion’.   The tabloids are notorious for souping up stories about Muslims to draw in readers – the ‘Muslim toilets’ fiasco is a familiar example:

“I was tasked with writing a gloating follow-up declaring our post-modern victory in ‘blocking’ the non-existent Islamic cisterns of evil,” Peppiatt wrote. The Press Complaints Commission later ruled the story was inaccurate and misleading.

Here’s a particularly daft recent example from the Daily Mail.

A father who took his family out for a KFC meal was left ‘disgusted’ when a halal-only branch refused to serve him a BBQ Bacon Box deal.

Steve Mitchell, 45, was left furious when he had to drive an extra four miles to another branch of the fast food restaurant.

He had travelled to the KFC in Derby for a ‘treat night’ on Saturday after his daughter Chelsea, 18, spotted an advert for a BBQ Bacon Boss Box Meal.

But he was stunned when he was told the meal was not available due to the Foresters Park branch being halal-only and did not serve bacon.

etc etc

How is this even a story? I am sure many businesses publicise offers or ranges which aren’t available from all their stores.  This was the most popular comment:

Halal should not be served in mainstream food chains of any description. Halal and Kosher are for minority religions only and should be kept as such as the method of killing the animals this way is against our laws!!!!!

Here’s  a reminder of another story – about ‘Muslim gangs’ –  which eventually forced an apology from the Mail.

There are many other examples in the tabloids – sometimes complete non-stories, sometimes potentially serious issues which are misreported.

But, although I think it’s reasonable for David Anderson to express concerns about such coverage, Charles Moore’s irritation was not completely misplaced for Anderson then went on to muddy the waters:

David Anderson QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said some mainstream media have been “grossly irresponsible” in their coverage of Muslim issues.

And while IPSO can pursue complaints of discrimination against an individual, it cannot act when an entire religious group is attacked, he told a conference in London.

“It’s more difficult if there is a derogatory comment about Islam. And it seems to me that this is one thing that the press standards authority ought to think about,” he said.

Admittedly it can be difficult to disentangle ‘Islam’ from ‘Muslims’.  But analysis of Islam – of its history, of its relationship with extremism – should not be the concern of the press standards authority whether or not some people find that analysis ‘derogatory’. (Remember the responses to Tom Holland’s documentary about the beginnings of Islam.)

Now I’m sure Anderson wasn’t thinking of Tom Holland when he referred to derogatory comments. But the danger in expressing concerns about bigotry in terms of ‘Islam’ not ‘Muslims’ is reflected in the Al Arabiya report’s swift turn from Anderson’s comments to blasphemy legislation.

Keith Vaz MP, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya News that he would have “no problem” with blasphemy laws being reintroduced, under certain conditions.

You can read more about Vaz’s worrying (albeit apparently confused) attitude to blasphemy legislation here.

Anti-Muslim dog whistles in the tabloids help both the far right and the Islamists who can weaponise prejudiced reporting to stir up fear and resentment.  There are good reasons not to stifle freedom of the press, but we should still speak out against bigoted reporting, rather than leave it to those who would like to reintroduce blasphemy codes (either through legislation or through the back door).

Update I think the main counter-argument to the Sun’s alarming headline is that ‘some sympathy’ may imply a kind of horrified sympathy for being so misguided as to go off to Syria.  This response from the Mirror doesn’t strike me as fully convincing.

Update 2: Thanks to Bob from Brockley for drawing my attention to this better response to the Sun poll.

Update 3: It’s useful to have a bit more information about what ‘some sympathy’ can mean:

None of the people I polled who responded to the question with the ‘some sympathy’answer supported jihadis. One woman gave me thoughtful, considered answers to every question. She thought that David Cameron would probably be right to bomb Syria, and that Muslims did have a responsibility to condemn terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. But she also had some sympathy with young British Muslims who joined fighters in Syria. “They’re brainwashed, I feel sorry for them,” she said. And so I ticked the box, “I have some sympathy for young British Muslims who go to join fighters in Syria.”