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Editorial: Ownership is the elephant in the room of media reform

REPORTS alleging that a senior reporter at The Times showed a pattern of irresponsible reporting which “presented Muslims as threatening,” encouraging an existing trend of rising hate crime towards Muslims, illustrate the corrosive social effect of an unaccountable media.

Though the evidence presented by Brian Cathcart and Paddy French in their report Unmasked is extensive, the Times will no doubt insist that its reportage was accurate. But the rights and wrongs of one reporter’s work are hardly the point. 

The demonisation of Muslims is standard fare across a range of British newspapers and the effects can be documented. As the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) briefed the Independent Press Standards Organisation, polls show almost a third of British children between 10 and 14 “believe Muslims are taking over England” and a majority of citizens say Islam is a threat to “Western liberal democracy.”

The influence of the monopoly media is diminishing. As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn noted in 2017, the unrelenting onslaught against Labour that dominated the press and broadcast media during the last general election only appeared to increase the party’s support.

Scandals like phone-hacking undermined trust in the press, and the flagrant abandonment of objectivity in political reporting after Corbyn came to lead the party has perhaps dealt an even more serious blow to the industry’s future; for hundreds of thousands of politically engaged young people, the “official” press is nothing more than a propaganda arm of the British Establishment. 

But even a press waning in influence can have an enormous impact on public opinion.

As the TUC revealed as far back as 2013, constant scaremongering stories about benefit cheats had created an entirely misleading picture of the benefits system: on average people believed that 27 per cent of benefits were claimed fraudulently when the real figure was 0.7 per cent, for example.

The same process is at work when it comes to Britain’s Muslim communities: the MCB reports that the average Briton estimates that Muslims make up 15 per cent of the population (it is less than 5 per cent).

The consequences of this misinformation can be deadly. The demonisation of benefit claimants has resulted in a sustained rise in hate crimes against disabled people, including disabled children, over the years of Conservative rule.

Last year saw a record number of anti-Muslim attacks and incidents of Islamophobic abuse, the victims disproportionately Muslim women. 

It is clear that media organisations have a duty to behave responsibly when the consequences of journalism that promotes stereotypes and scaremongering are so serious.

But solutions which merely involve further regulating the press are a clumsy instrument when dealing with the abuse of power that stems from ownership of the press by a privileged few.

Where conduct can be found to flout rules, penalties should be imposed. But it is unlikely that Britain’s wealthiest media tycoons will be cowed by a justice system where access to the best representation depends on the size of your wallet.

Worse, allowing giant corporations themselves to decide how to police their content risks shutting out critical voices and further concentrating control of information: if progressive pressure induced Facebook to ban far-right hate-mongers like Tommy Robinson, there is equally ample evidence that the online giant has been censoring the views of socialists, feminists and left campaigners.

Its decision to close the account of former Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa — when his page had 1.5 million followers — is a case in point.

The answer to rising Islamophobia cannot be regulation alone. A better answer is a media which has no interest in spreading hatred and division — a media in which reader-owned co-ops like the Morning Star and democratically accountable public service journalism replace newspapers as weapons of the rich and powerful.

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