Perhaps this is not a huge assumptive leap – since the use of language in the media’s reporting on terrorist acts that are committed by Muslims stand out to say the least. They reach the headlines regularly, and often lead to misperceptions and confusion surrounding Islam.
But then again, rightly so...if someone has committed a crime, the media should be able to report on it fully in the critical manner that they see fit.
However, on the flipside, there are clear inconsistencies in reporting on the basis of what appears to be a Muslim/non-Muslim criterion. On 3rdSeptember it was reported that Paul Smith who had a “bomb workshop”, including two pipe bombs found by police earlier this year, was allowed to dismiss this as a “hobby”.
More shockingly, he was given a 10 year ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) despite the explosives found being described as “sophisticated”. Instead it was accepted that Smith had the bomb-making equipment as a ‘hobby’, like stamp collecting. Police added “he even received a bomb shaped cake for his birthday”...and so it settles the matter.
The comical stance taken is in stark contrast with cases like that of Dhiren Barot who was found guilty of conspiracy to murder, which has come with a minimum 40-year tariff. Part of the evidence used in proving Barot’s plans were a ‘weapons notebook’, which also included poison recipes. Judge Butterfield described the plans as ‘determined, sophisticated and deadly, despite the prosecution conceding that the police had not found any evidence that materials or weapons had been acquired to carry out the plans.
Surely then, an individual with readymade bombs - that required an Army bomb disposal team to remove it from his premises - should be given more scrutiny in the eyes of the law. Also, this irregularity shows in the Police response: Mr Smith was found “not to have any intent to harm anybody”, whereas through Barot’s conviction the British public were able to “see for themselves the full horror of his plan”.
One can’t help but wonder how a news story would read, had a Muslim individual had such a bomb workshop, and whether they would have equally received an ASBO. And what the public opinion would be if a Muslim who made bombs ‘for a hobby’ was given an ASBO?
This is not a one off example. The default thinking that is being reinforced here is that if the individual is Muslim the presumption is guilty, if they are non-Muslim; there is leeway to consider other alternative reasons as to why such a situation has arisen. So apart from the fact that Mr Smith was in possession of explosives, Detective Chief Inspector Steve Hibbit from Humberside Police still asserted that “We never found any evidence that Mr Smith had any intent to harm anybody, either as a group or an individual.” In contrast, Munir Farooqi was given four life sentences, and a minimum of 9 years without parole, for preparing for acts of terrorism, soliciting to murder, and dissemination of terrorist publications. This is despite Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Porter, head of the north-west counter terrorism unit, saying: "This was an extremely challenging case, both to investigate and successfully prosecute at court, because we did not recover any blueprint, attack plan or endgame for these men. However, what we were able to prove was their ideology.” These cases show the varying scales used for convicting terrorists, where thought is considered far more dangerous than actual possession of dangerous weapons. Or rather that being Muslim is far more dangerous.
Similarly, the recent case of Michael Green was presented as a bit crazy and slightly comical, but not a serious threat to the public. Green walked into the HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicles) Office on Tottenham Court Road in London with what was believed to be gas canisters strapped to his body, threatening to blow himself up, as he had failed to get his HGV licence. He also took several people hostage.
The Metropolitan Police from the outset stressed that this was not a terrorism-related incident, and no counter-terrorism officers were involved. Thus, this leads to the question of what the Police define as ‘terrorism’ – particularly as an Army bomb disposal unit, a special-forces team and the RAF’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare group were all on standby. The reporting by the media also had an absence of the word ‘terrorism’, and Green was described as a ‘man’ or ‘suspect’. Not ‘terrorist’ or someone employing terrorist tactics. Rather the focus was on his mental instability or the fact that he was escorted out of the building topless. This is particularly strange, as he was later revealed (not by the Police) to have been a former Parliamentary candidate for the BNP, yet his actions were not discussed in reflection of this.
Another example is the case of former BNP member, Robert Cottage. Cottage was convicted in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals in his home. At the time of his arrest, police said it was the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country, including an explosive-making manual, ball bearings, air pistols and crossbows. Yet was not charged under the vast anti-terror legislation we have in the UK. Instead he was arrested and charged under the Explosive Substances Act 1883. The day after Cottage’s arrest, a Mr David Bolus Jackson was also arrested, as rocket launchers, chemicals, BNP literature and a nuclear biological suit were found in his house. The Prosecution also stated that the two men had “some kind of master plan”. Mr Cottage during trial said that he “believes it is everyone’s God-given right to defend themselves and their families if they are attacked”.
These cases went severely unreported in the national press, with the BBC showing almost no coverage of the arrests. The Socialist Workerquestions what would have happened had the man been of Asian origin: “it would have led every news bulletin”.
Both men were cleared of conspiracy to cause explosions, and Cottage was only convicted for possessing chemicals unlawfully. As he had already been in custody for a year, the two-and-a-half-year sentence was drastically reduced. Cottage was classified as a low risk re-offender by the Judge, despite his vast stash of explosives, and his clear thinking that he needed them to protect against the threat of civil unrest, which would come about as the result of the “evils of uncontrolled immigration”.
More importantly, the impact this has is that terrorism begins to be discussed in terms of a Muslim problem. Whilst it cannot be denied that a handful of Muslims have carried out acts of terrorism in this country frequent, sensationalist reporting, with virtually no reporting on the other, does not help; rather, it works towards alienating a whole section of society. A 2011 Pew Research Poll found that 40% of US adults think that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions. It is inevitably obvious that the media has its stake in propounding this thinking.
This distorted viewpoint is proven incorrect with statistics such as those from a Europol annual study of terrorism - where it is shown that 99.6% of terrorists’ attacks in Europe were by non-Muslim groups, with only 0.4% of terrorists’ attacks from 2006-2008 being attributed to extremist Muslims. About 85% of attacks were from groups completely unrelated to Islam.
Therefore, the impact language in reporting has on public opinion is huge, and should not be used to create mass-fear in the place of reporting that is accurate and well researched.
Upon coming across such inconsistencies in press reporting, or pointing out any inaccuracies or mistakes, don’t remain inactive. Write a quick email to the editor, blog about it, comment on the article, write to the Press Complaints Commission.