Calls for UK inquiry into 'anti-Muslim media bias'

Sixty signatories to letter calling for review of way tabloids concentrate on stories about violence and crime involving Muslims.

LONDON // A campaign is under way for a public inquiry led by a judge into the way some British media whip up Islamophobia by "distorting and even fabricating" stories about Muslims.

Politicians, academics, lawyers and Muslim community leaders were among 60 signatories of a letter to The Guardian this week demanding an inquiry similar to the one now being conducted by Lord (Brian) Leveson, a senior judge, into phone hacking and media standards.

Supporters of the inquiry said the media, particularly the tabloid press, concentrate on stories centred on violence and crime involving Muslims, so-called honour killings and the activities of extremists, while rarely showing the community or religion in a positive light.

Although she is not backing the call for an inquiry, Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi, Britain's first Muslim woman cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party, highlighted the problem last year when she said in a speech that prejudice against Muslims had "passed the dinner-table test" and become socially acceptable in the UK.

She blamed the media for creating an atmosphere where anti-Muslim prejudice was seen as normal among so many Britons.

The letter to The Guardian points to a survey conducted by the ComRes polling organisation last year that indicated that a third of Britons believed the media was responsible for "whipping up a climate of fear in Islam in the UK".

"The Leveson inquiry has so far failed to adequately address unfair media coverage as it relates to less- prominent cases, including those relating to Muslims and Islam, focusing as it does on the effect of phone hacking on celebrities and other high-profile individuals," said the letter.

"An alternative inquiry is necessary to investigate what many regard as widespread and systematic discriminatory practices in reporting on Muslims and Islam in the British media."

Signatories include the heads of two on the country's largest Muslim organisations - the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain - civil rights activists Bianca Jagger and Jemima Khan, Lord (Navnit) Dholakia, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, two rabbis, several journalists and leaders of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The original call for the inquiry came from the Islam Channel, a satellite broadcaster based in London that itself has been censured by Ofcom, the UK's broadcasting watchdog, for failing to show impartiality in its coverage of Middle East affairs and for programmes that appeared to support marital rape and violence against women.

Alana Lentin, professor of sociology at the University of Sussex and one of the letter's signatories, said that reporting of Muslims had become so slanted that most people "simply believed it's natural for Muslims to be inclined towards violence or more inclined towards sexist actions".

She added: "I think [a public inquiry] would be a really good opportunity to look at the way the media has participated in creating a campaign against Muslims in this country and, indeed, globally."

Ahmad Thomson, a leading barrister and co-founder of the Association of Muslim lawyers, who is also supporting calls for an inquiry, said he believed that most members of the public were unaware of the "depth of the vilification of Muslims" in the media.

"I think the thing is that [an inquiry] will make people think and, if it gets on to the mainstream media, people will look at it more closely," he said.

"In the long term, the object of this exercise is to raise standards of reporting in whatever form of media, as well as heightening public awareness of this issue. Maybe they would look at their fellow human beings in a much more favourable light if only the media would let them."

The campaign has been launched as nine young British Muslims are due to stand trial in London on Monday over an alleged plot to blow up a number of buildings in the capital, including the US Embassy and the London Stock Exchange.