Earlier this month, MailOnline brought us another dispatch from the colonised towns of the UK. Muslims, we were told, had turned several towns into “no-go areas” for white people. Less than a month before, one of those particular areas – Didsbury, in Manchester – had been described by the very same newspaper website as a “posh and leafy suburb”, a popular “hotspot” for homebuyers. If you are wondering which story to believe, then perhaps I can help by telling you that the no-go areas story, long and detailed as it was, was not based on original reporting, but on a book by an ex-Islamist in which he makes several controversial claims that support his thesis of a divided Britain.
Some suggested that perhaps this laughable portrayal wouldn’t have slipped through if MailOnline had had greater geographical diversity among its reporters. Reporting from the ground is, of course, the only way to get at the truth. But where does reporting get you if the story you’re investigating is based on a preconceived view of the world?
There is a saying popular among journalists criticising false balance in the media: “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the window and find out which is true.” As sound as the logic of that statement is, it still doesn’t quite cover the scale of the problem when it comes to our information ecosystem. The media are often not the impartial observers that this scenario assumes. Sometimes, the journalist looks out of the window, finds that it is dry, but ends up giving the impression that it is raining anyway.
There are certain stories that are teased into headlines based on exaggeration and a loose relationship with the facts. In another example of narrative-first journalism, we were told last week on a newspaper front page, that there was a clamour to “axe” the Queen herself because some Oxford students in a common room had taken her picture down. The story that should catch our eye here is not what Oxford students did or did not do, but the machine that continues to churn out such inflammatory interpretations.
It’s a claim that put baldly can sound too vast and conspiratorial to be credible, but there are some parts of the British press that, for a long time, have not simply reported the news, but done their bit to create it, so that it conforms to a pre-existing narrative.
It is not the first time that claims about “no-go areas” or unpatriotic students have been made by the press. It’s hard to escape the idea that the purveyors of such stories have an interest, both ideological and commercial, in convincing the public that Muslims are patrolling Britain’s streets and young people are on a campaign to erase British traditions via its most treasured symbols.
But we continue to make the mistake of engagement: of either taking these accounts at face value, or becoming embroiled in fact-checking them. Cornered on LBC last week, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, reflexively defended the Queen against her “cancellation”, without pausing to think or question the source. He delivered perfectly the sort of line that these stories are meant to embed in the public’s mind: “These kinds of gestures are getting a bit out of hand. We all should respect the Queen.” The gestures are “divisive” he added. On Muslim-dominated no-go areas, I have already had one invite from a prestigious BBC programme to discuss this allegation, and others, with the author of the book on which MailOnline’s extensive article was based.
This is how we become numb to the extent of the distortion, and its dangers. Once the account is made respectable by publication and then discussion, it passes into the realm of “difficult truths” that must be addressed. It puts on a different, more respectable shirt. The no-go areas tale become not a perennial story that the papers have been pushing for years, it becomes a “row”, a “controversy”, a “debate”. Something spontaneous and organic, rather than manufactured and recycled.
This is also how these narratives are shorn of the motivation behind them, which makes them harder to challenge. The frequency and spuriousness of the allegations against Muslims often amounts to defamation. Last year, the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express all had to pay libel damages and publish apologies to a Muslim Scout leader for false extremism allegations. The Times separately paid and apologised to a Muslim advocacy group for defamation. And these are just cases that I have the space to mention and whose victims had the stomach to sue. Is it any wonder, then, that something like a third of British people believe in the no-go areas myth, that Islamophobia has replaced immigration in fuelling far-right movements in the UK, that the Conservative party’s anti-Muslim prejudice stirs not a hair on the public’s head? Some journalists in those very papers are beginning to tire of the intensity of conflict over race, gender, language and history, but still fail to make the connection with real-life consequences. That there is a high incidence of hate crime against Muslims is entirely to be expected, or, if one takes a look at the deluge of hostile false allegations in the press against anti-racism movements, it’s not surprising that people are booing footballers taking the knee. These aren’t mysteries, they are inevitabilities.
But still we will not treat these provocations as what they are. No politician should dignify them with comment and the rest of us should not legitimise them with debate or even with fact-checking. It’s unpleasant to contemplate the idea that important institutions in our cultural landscape may be shaping the narrative in harmful ways. There must be another explanation: naivety, London-centrism, or misunderstanding. But we are naive ourselves if we believe that. Any puzzlement about intolerance in this country needs to start not with vox pops on the streets or in the football stands, but with questions about the bad-faith actors in our media who fuel bigotry, and the good-faith ones who, in their responses, unwittingly perpetuate it.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist