Skip to main content

10th December 2015

Tabloid terrorism: The unreported menace

The tabloid press wield power and influence in this country and often direct it at the wrong people for the wrong reasons

The aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 13th November have seen the so-called Islamic State, and current issues in the Middle East, dominate the media. Many news outlets worldwide have condemned the attacks, though some have used the atrocity to bare its teeth towards Islam in Britain. The Sun’s headline on the 23rd of November claimed “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. Other headlines weren’t so explicit, yet still possessed an unhealthy influence.

The survey in question by The Sun was conducted by telephone, questioning ‘1,500 Muslim surnames’, with 1,003 agreeing to respond. Those contacted were asked “How do you feel about young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria?” The results claimed to show how 21 per cent of UK Muslims showed sympathy with jihadis, with 5 per cent showing “a lot of sympathy”. It then described those who had “no sympathy” as possessing “moderate” views, suggesting other views were radical. Since the results of the poll have been published, reaction has been critical to say the least. Many took to Twitter to voice their frustration before the newspaper had even hit the shelves through ‘Tomorrow’s papers today’ and the hashtag #1in5Muslims mocked the results of the poll, listing other things ‘1 in 5 Muslims’ believe.

The wording of the question in the poll has been the focus of a lot of criticism. Respondents were asked whether they have “sympathy” with young Muslims who leave the UK for Syria. This does not mean that they agree with the motives of those who go to Syria to fight. I can have sympathy for somebody but not share their emotions and motivations. I am sure many people have pity for people that have been misled and who have followed the wrong path. Along with this, the question didn’t mention the word ‘jihadi’ or have any mention of IS. It should also be noted that young Muslims have gone to Syria to fight against IS in the Middle East, such as those who have joined Kurdish forces. The response to the question is open to manipulation, as proved. The Sun has taken the poll and distorted the interpretation to form a sensationalist headline.

The analysis of the results also drew criticism, with the fact that such an exact conclusion of the attitudes of British Muslims was produced. The poll does not highlight the flipside of the argument—almost 71.5% had no sympathy for ‘fighters’ who go to Syria. A Sky News poll in March found a similar result from non-Muslims too, with 14% agreeing that they had some sympathy. A similarly explicit headline did not follow.

The Sun did express an apology on the issue, albeit through The Times‘s Corrections and Clarifications section, three days later. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done, and for an apology to appear hidden away 36 pages into a newspaper with an entirely different readership is appalling. If the apology were to be printed in the exact same space as the original article, then it would perhaps be more suitable. Sadly, the perceptions of many readers of The Sun will have already been influenced and a correction will not be seen.

The production of such headlines by tabloids is an example of a camouflaged radicality within our own borders. Terrorism is defined as “the unofficial or unauthorised use of (violence and) intimidation in the pursuit of political aims…Terrorist groups seek to cause widespread disruption, fear and intimidation.” The tabloids form generalisations and sweeping statements about minority groups to try to scare the public to back up their political position. The threat of Islam, in this case, is suggested. This is the same type of reporting used to alienate other minorities from the rest of society, rather than forming solutions to the problem. UK tabloids must not stoop to the standards of news outlets such as Fox News in the USA. Such reporting inhibits healthy debate and creates a vast division between either sides of the argument. Not to mention that it has created an outcry and continues to weaken the integrity of journalism.

The Guardian reported in August how research had suggested that sensationalist coverage of terrorist attacks can result in an increase in such attacks. “Terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear and recruit followers.” Sensationalist coverage provides terrorists with a free media platform. IS aim to create division within the West between Muslims and non-Muslims. These sorts of headlines add to fuel to IS’s claims that Islam is not welcome in the Western world. Britain and other Western nations need to unite across religious boundaries and heal any breach within society. IS will otherwise benefit from a break in unity between Muslims and non-Muslims and continue to perform such attacks.

The headlines seen in the aftermath have been dangerous and do not help British Muslims to fit into British society. Headlines are mocked by some but to others will be a source of genuine influence. The reports will create a backlash aimed at Islam and other faith groups. Groups like Britain First continue to use it as propaganda and influence their 1.1 million followers on social media. An increase in hate crimes against Muslims has been seen in Scotland—more than 60 since the Paris attacks. This included an arson attack on a mosque just three days after Paris. A London mosque was the victim of an attempted arson attack on 27th November, too. I am not one to say that the two are directly linked, but it possesses parallels. The Sun, with the highest readership of the tabloid newspapers, should have more integrity and should share more responsibility for creating a healthier attitude. It has a significant accountability for aiming to form a more welcoming society rather than to alienate minorities. The newspaper has done little to separate Islam and the terror organisation that is IS. Muslims are victims of IS attacks. A reminder is needed that British Muslims are British people, working in ‘our’ hospitals, schools and contributing to vital services. 1.6 billion Muslims exist across the globe, with 2.7 million Muslims in the UK, and their name has been tarnished by a terrorist minority claiming to be Muslim. Islam does not teach the behaviours of this terrorist group. The Sun cannot claim to support community cohesion when it continues to publish such sensationalist headlines.

Similar sweeping headlines are seen by tabloids on other issues: The Daily Mail with an alarmist claim of the ‘Risk of having a weekend baby’. The study in question found that an average of one extra death per 1000 babies born on a weekend occurred, something that the Daily Mail considered a ‘significant’ risk. It did not care to mention that the highest likelihood of death was on a Thursday, or mention a similar study in Scotland that found that between 2000 and 2013 the risk during a weekend was lower. Neither of these two headlines would push Jeremy Hunt’s agenda for a 7 day NHS, though. Such headlines have been found to be the reason that some patients are not attending hospitals at weekends, for fear that their level of care will be inadequate, putting their lives at risk. This is another example of a dangerous and irresponsible headline by a tabloid newspaper.

The response to the article by The Sun by other areas of journalism and on social media has done something to show how Britain actually feels about faiths like Islam. This will not provide British Muslims with a full feeling of security, though. The Sun’s irresponsible journalism has made it more difficult for sensible debate to occur with regard to the issues surrounding IS. Explicit reporting has created fear and added to the growing hostility within the UK. Right now we need unity, not division.

Of course, I am sure all those reading this will remember the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters and the response that followed. The consensus was that freedom of speech should be protected and that journalists should be able to publish their own opinions. I agree with this, too, though I think that there is a difference between what is deemed to be fact and what is opinion. I do not think that press needs to be regulated, but an improved approach and basic decency towards such issues is required. Journalists should be able to report stories without fear, so by the same token, the public should be able to read stories without unnecessary fear.

More Coverage

The post-diss bliss…or is it?

The promise of post-dissertation freedom was quickly squashed by essay deadline demands, and the desire to do anything but re-open my laptop is taking over

200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni

As the University of Manchester prepares its bicentenary celebrations, it’s time to address the less-celebrated alumni, and question why these individuals have received less attention

Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?

The ‘women who have it all’ narrative is alive and kicking in 2024, but instead of being empowering, it’s a patriarchal trope designed to pit one against another

Stick or twist: Why do students choose to stay in the south of Greater Manchester?

The universities along Oxford Road churn their students into Manchester city centre, and south of the city. As students turn into graduates, why do we disregard North Manchester and stay in the same southern areas?