Islam in the British media (1) By Muhammad Jameel Yusha

One of the key aims of the media is to inform and educate the people. But in recent years there has been a debate on whether the media is fulfilling its role as the fourth estate of the realm.

Critics of the media such as Noam Chomsky, Robert W. McChesney, John Pilger, and other experts have pointed on the role the media has been playing not in promoting good causes, but by serving as the mouthpiece of governments and corporate interests. This leads to the question whether the media in Britain or elsewhere around the world is a friend or foe?

In his recent documentary, The War You Don’t See, John Pilger explored the role of the media in reporting conflicts around the world, from the First World War to the War on Iraq. Mr. Pilger framed his documentary within the context of a public relations war employed by various governments and corporate agencies to misinform the public in order to achieve the objective of going to war.

Two examples from the documentary on the war on Iraq, and the plan to attack Iran will be relevant here. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the then BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, was shown in front of Downing Street claiming that even the critics of Tony Blair now have to give him credit, for he stands vindicated and will therefore stand as a stronger Prime Minister.

The second example also involves Mr. Marr who runs a show in the BBC called the Andrew Marr Show. Guess who he was interviewing in the show? It was Tony Blair again. In the interview, Mr. Marr asked the Prime Minister about the threat posed by Iran in its attempt to possess weapons of mass destruction.

“I think it is wholly unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons capability. I think we’ve got to be prepared to confront them, if necessary, militarily,” Mr. Blair responded [1].

During the interview Mr. Marr kept emphasizing on the military option until Mr. Blair stated it clearly that he was in support of military action. Here the journalist, who should be the defender of truth, was guiding the interviewee to mislead the public once again.

This is classical example of how journalists fail in their duty to hold leaders to account. If Mr. Marr was doing his job properly, the direction of the interview should have focused on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which Mr. Blair told the world was the reason for the attack on Iraq.

The interview should have focused on the damage done by the coalition forces in Iraq, the end result of which was what the former UN arms inspector Hans Blix called the ‘weapons of mass disappearance’.

In a world where journalists do their work by holding leaders to account, Mr. Marr should have asked the Prime Minister about the number of lives lost in Iraq. And if the answer to these questions about Iraq disproved the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, why would the media provide another platform to Mr. Blair to repeat the same lies about the possible existence of these weapons in another country.

As such it is in order to ask whether the media in Britain is a force for good or evil?

Why do journalists echo the official line?

Why are journalists ready to be used as propaganda tools to promote lies and distort reality? We can identify three reasons for this.

The first is what I will call “establishment journalism”. Many journalists are obsessed with establishing friendship with senior politicians, military commanders, and corporate tycoons. The friendship comes with a reward, which is access to information. The journalist-source relationship has been explored in detail by various scholars including Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s work on propaganda model (2002), and Bob Franklin’s Packaging Politics (2004). Journalists are proud to boast to their colleagues of having dinners with the prime minister or the foreign secretary the night before.

In Britain the relationship between journalists and their sources reached its peak when Alastair Campbell was the director of communications at Downing Street. Mr Campbell used his position to establish a strong relationship with journalists, and punish those who refuse to toe the government line by starving them of information. So when it came to the attack on Iraq, the media was simply echoing the views held by Alastair Campbell and his principal Tony Blair.

Unfortunately for journalists, they work under intense pressure from their editors to get the scoop.  And as long as a journalist can get the story, confirm the sources of the story, it matters little whether the story is true or not, especially if it comes from highly placed sources.

Here it is important to discuss the suggestion by Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News, a book that should be read by anybody who wants to understand how the media works. Davies explains the difference between “Accuracy” and “Truth”.[2]

According to Mr. Davies, journalism today is more interested in the accuracy of the information than the truth it contains. According to him, if a Prime Minister tells journalists that “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”, as long as the journalists get the remarks in quotation marks, they have done their job; the emphasis is to quote your sources accurately.

But the truth according to Mr. Davies is to ascertain whether there are weapons of mass destruction or not. This example brings to light the culture of journalism being practiced whether in Britain or elsewhere that produces what Mr. Davies calls “distortion”, “falsehood” and “propaganda.”

The second reason why journalists misrepresent Islam is their ignorance of other cultures and deliberate mischief on anything Islamic. I once heard a newscaster describing the recitation of the Qur’an as a song that Muslims normally observe during ceremonies.

To illustrate this point further let us bring some examples on how some concepts in Islam have been used in the news media. For instance the word “Fatwa” which implies  an advisory opinion suggested by Muslim scholars who have a sound understanding of Islam as well as the circumstances that necessitate the need to provide solution to problems affecting the Muslim community.

These issues could be in terms of economic matters. For instance it is clear that Riba (usury) is prohibited in Islam. But to own a house in many countries where there is no Islamic alternative to mortgage requires dealing with Riba. So for the Muslim community living in those countries it means they will perpetually remain as second class citizens because they wouldn’t be able to own houses though Islam preaches life in dignity and self-esteem.

So the scholars can look into the circumstances of the Muslims in these countries and issue a fatwa (religious verdict or opinion) advising on the circumstances under which Muslims can take mortgage, and the “Fatwa” can change as their circumstance changes as well.


[This column continues next Tuesday, April 24, 2012]


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