In March and April, there was constant BBC coverage of Labour’s problems with antisemitism. One piece, in March, talked about a ‘saga’. I have no general problem with this coverage. Labour does have a problem, so it should be covered by the BBC. However there has been far less coverage of the problems the Conservative party has with Islamophobia. Is there an objective reason to justify this?
The antisemitism story was notable for two important reasons. First religious organisations had publicly complained. Second these complaints had been supported by prominent Labour figures. However exactly the same applies to Islamophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have called for an inquiry, as have other leaders and groups. Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chairman of the Conservative party, has repeatedly called for more action (the latest here).
But to suggest equivalence between the two stories is misleading. The Conservatives’ Islamophobia problem is a much bigger issue for two reasons. First, the senior Conservative Sajid Javid has attacked the MCB for harbouring members with unacceptable views on extremism and not representing Muslims. In contrast Labour leaders have not attacked the Jewish organisations in the same way (by saying, for example, that their views come from a pro-Israel stance), and have met directly with them. Whatever the truth of Javid’s claim about extremism, the charge that they are unrepresentative is rather undermined by an organisation affiliated to the Conservative party, the Conservative Muslim Forum, also calling for an inquiry. (Letter to Theresa May here.)
Second, while Labour has never to my knowledge run an anti-Jewish campaign to win a general or mayoral election, the Conservatives did exactly that against Sadiq Khan who is now mayor of London. David Cameron even libeled an ex-Imam in his attempts to link Khan to Muslim terrorism.
Thus on any objective criteria, the Conservative Islamophobia problem has been a more serious story than Labour antisemistism. Yet the balance on the BBC has been the other way around, with far more coverage of the latter than the former.
What is the source of the bias? One may be that BBC News tends to ‘follow the story’, which invariably means following stories in the press. Corbyn has few friends in the major press titles, whereas the Conservatives are openly supported be much of the press. Another, I’m afraid to say, is that the BBC is very reluctant to criticise the government on its own account, something that goes back many years.
Case studies such as these are critical in establishing that the media has a clear bias against the current Labour leadership. (There are others: this is rather fun, and also academic research: here for example) The BBC itself, which is deluged with criticism from all quarters, seems to find it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. The classic line that because they get criticism from both sides they must be doing something right is nonsense. The political right in particular, because they know the BBC is sensitive to criticism, puts a lot of resources into criticising the BBC, and it will continue to do so whatever the BBC’s output.
All this presumes that Islamophobia and Antisemtism are viewed as equally bad. I personally think they should be, but unfortunately terrorism and Western wars in Islamic countries may have confused many people. Here is Sajid Javid again:
“All communities can do more to try and help deal with terrorists, try and help track them down. But I think it is absolutely fair to say that there is a special burden on Muslim communities because whether we like it or not these terrorists call themselves Muslims. It is no good for people to say they are not Muslims, that is what they call themselves. They do try to take what is a great peaceful religion and warp it for their own means.”
The idea that Muslims bear a ‘special burden’ has been the excuse used by the right wing press for consistent Islamophobia. When a member of the ‘non-Muslim community’ kills Muslims outside of a mosque, and says when arrested that he wanted to kill all Muslims, he is described by the Times as a mentally troubled lone-wolf, as if to emphasise that there is no special burden there. As in so many things, the irresponsibility of the right wing press has influenced sections of society for the worse. Perhaps it has also influenced the BBC.