How the media spread Islamophobia
Mainstream media reporting of Islam and especially of “security threats” linked to Muslim actors are often criticised for their bias and the way they encourage Islamophobia. But why is this? A new report titled Islamophobia and the European Media, explains how the media play a key role in Islamophobia but that it is subservient to the main power holders in society.
Every study of media reporting of Muslims and Islam shows to one degree or another that the mainstream media all across Europe is routinely biased against Muslims and is implicated in spreading Islamophobic ideas, especially the alleged relationship between Muslims and extremism and radicalisation.
Why is the media racist?
But what causes this? The new report of which I am a co-author looks in detail at the factors which cause the widespread anti-Muslim media reporting. By and large, academic studies agree that reporting is influenced by advertising and marketing pressures, the political orientation of editors, and especially of media owners. Another key influence on reporting is the dependence of journalists on a narrow range of seemingly authoritative sources.
The dominance of “official” sources
The research shows that these “official” definitions of the “problem” of “radicalisation” and “extremism” dominate the media. The actors that promulgate these views can be referred to as “primary definers” of the issues. The phrase was coined by Stuart Hall and his colleagues in the 1970s. It sees the media as “secondary” definers, standing in “structured subordination” to the “primary definers”.
But who are these “primary” definers in the case of Muslims? Firstly, the state counter-terrorism apparatus; police, intelligence services, and a wide range of other “counter-terrorism” officials. Supporting them are neoconservative and counter-extremism lobby groups and think tanks.
The report examined how Islam was treated in the press in five European countries the UK, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. A long sample period of twenty years was able to pick up changes in reporting and whether they were related to policy changes, to verify/falsify the thesis that official sources were the most important influence.
The evolution of counter-terrorism policy
The UK adopted a “Prevent” policy on counter-terrorism in 2003. This was quickly followed by the EU and the Netherlands in 2005. France (2014), and Spain (2015) took another decade to introduce similar policies. Only Italy did not adopt a “prevent” style policy at the time of the study. One nearly passed in 2016/7 but the government collapsed before it was enacted.
Coverage of “extremism” and “radicalisation” in Europe
The earliest significant peak in coverage of “extremism” in the UK came in 2005-2006. 2005 was the year of the 7/7 London bombings, after which PM Tony Blair famously said “the rules of the game are changing” and at which point the “Prevent” policy was already in place. A second peak from 2011 onwards corresponded to a subsequent iteration of “Prevent”, which was a significant move in a neoconservative direction.
French reporting shows an increase in attention to “radicalisation” from 2012 as policy discussion on radicalisation started to emerge, followed by an exponential rise in 2016. This process preceded the attack in France on Charlie Hebdo (January 2015) and the Bataclan (November 2015) and relates more obviously to the launch of the new anti-terrorism strategy in April 2014.
The Spanish data shows coverage beginning later and peaking in 2017, a year after that in France. The beginnings of the increase can be traced to the discussion about and then the launch of the new counter-terrorism strategy in January 2015.
The Italian data shows the relationship inverted, with reporting of “extremism” always higher than that of “radicalisation”. Given that the term “radicalisation” is particularly associated with official counter-terrorism policy, this trend possibly reflects Italy’s relative lack of such a policy. The start of the rise in “radicalisation” in 2014 coincides with the publication of neo-con think tank reports, with an exponential increase during the attempted passing of the “Prevent” bill.
Which official sources are cited in the media
But which sources were cited in the twenty-year sample? In the UK, data showed the prominence of intelligence agencies. MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, and MI6 the foreign agency were prominent. Together they totalled nearly 6% of total citations of the top hundred.
Think tanks were prominent in the UK, with the Quilliam Foundation, often criticised for its proximity to the British state, and the Henry Jackson Society, often described as “Islamophobic”, regularly featured.
Civil rights organisations such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission – at 96th place - or Cage - not in the top 100 - were cited very little. This reflects their critical position on the UK government's counter-terrorism policy and approach to “radicalisation”.
France – Intelligence led coverage with Muslim groups captured by the state
In France, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI), the domestic intelligence agency was cited the most. Its external equivalent - the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) featured at 28th. Government ministries ranked relatively high and overall were more widely cited (with 26% of citations) than either the EU (17%) or the UN (8%).
Muslim civil society groups were relatively prominent with 6% of citations in total. On closer inspection, each of them was effectively a government mouthpiece. By contrast, genuine Muslim civil rights organisations such as “Le Collectif Contre l’islamophobie” en France did not feature in the one hundred most cited groups.
Spain – Official sources and neo-con think tanks
In Spain, the Ministry of the Interior was the second highest cited organisation. It is noteworthy that the neoconservative think tank Fundación Real Instituto Elcano was one of the most cited organisations, featuring higher up than think tanks in the other countries. The neoconservative Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES), also ranked highly, receiving more citations than any Muslim civil rights organisation in Spain. The President of FAES is Jose Maria Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain. Aznar is also a director of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, responsible for a string of Islamophobic news outlets worldwide, as well as being involved with a number of Zionist groups.
Italy – a lack of Italian official sources
In Italy in contrast to the other countries, the highest Italian ministry to be cited was the Ministry of the Economy and Finance (11th). It was cited less often than six international governmental organisations: The European Union, United Nations, NATO, Europol, and the European Commission. This shows that if the Italian state did not push the perspective of “radicalisation”, the Italian media would turn to other international official sources. The US intelligence agencies - the CIA and FBI - were cited more than the domestic Italian intelligence agency, Dipartimento delle Informazioni per la Sicurezza (DIS) which does not feature at all in the sample. The Italian data also included a few citations of neoconservative organisations.
Official sources as power holders
Overall, the role of the security state is absolutely central to the way in which the media operate on issues to do with Muslims and security. In each case, we examined it was this, as opposed to media factors such as ownership, editorial control, or “reality” - events in the world - which provided the main impetus of the direction and tone of coverage.
Changes in anti-Muslim reporting were traced to the adoption of “Prevent” style policies. This reflects the crucial role of official sources, specifically governmental institutions associated with the counter-terrorism apparatus and intelligence agencies in determining what is reported and how. This was particularly key in the predominance of intelligence sources in French and British reporting. The role of neoconservative and counter-extremism think tanks was also significant as outriders for the security state, for example in Spain and the UK.
The “primary definers” of Islamophobic news media coverage are – therefore - the central institutions of the security state in relation to which the media stand in structured subordination as “secondary” definers.
In policy terms, the conclusion is that issues of media racism or bias cannot be solved just at the level of the reform of the media. Reform of the state – and of counter-terrorism policy - is necessary too.
The full report: David Miller, Tom Mills, Tom Griffin and Samir Seddougui Islamophobia and the European Media: the role of the state as “primary definer”.
To get a printed copy of the report go to the Spinwatch Bookshop.
A special video to accompany the report which is available on the Spinwatch Channel on Youtube.