For three years, Miqdaad Versi has waged a quixotic – and always scrupulously courteous – campaign against the endless errors and distortions in news about British Muslims. But can a thousand polite complaints make a difference?
News about Muslims in the British press is rarely positive, but it is never scarce. Consider these stories, published across a typical month towards the end of 2016. In the Times on 9 November 2016, an article announced: “Islamist School Can Segregate Boys and Girls.” On the Daily Express website, nine days later: “Anger as less than A THIRD of Muslim nations sign up to coalition against Isis.” In the Sun online, on 1 December: “SECRET IS SAFE: Half of British Muslims would not go to cops if they knew someone with Isis links.” On the Daily Express site the day after: “New £5 notes could be BANNED by religious groups as Bank CAN’T promise they’re Halal.” On ITV News, the same day: “Half of UK Muslims would not report extremism.” Two days later, in the Sunday Times: “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75% Muslim.” The Mail on Sunday, that same day: “Isolated British Muslims are so cut off from the rest of society that they see the UK as 75% Islamic, shock report reveals.” And another version, in the Sun online: “British Muslims are so cut-off from society they think 75% of the UK is Islamic, report reveals.”
No other community in Britain receives such regular torrents of bad press. But that is not the most shocking thing about these articles. Every single one of them was misleading. And they were not just lightly dotted with inaccuracies. The chief premise of each piece – the premise articulated in the headline – was dead wrong.
In each case, the newspapers corrected, retracted or rewrote their work. There was no evidence, for instance, to suggest that only Muslim groups were concerned about the composition of the new banknotes, as the word “Halal” suggested. The tales about “isolated Muslims” who are “cut off from society” were all inaccurate. In fact, a government report had found exactly one secondary school whose overwhelmingly south Asian students, when surveyed, believed Britain’s population to be 50-90% Asian, “such had been their experience up to that point”. Contrary to the headlines, the report found no Islamic “enclaves”; actually, no references to religion at all.
These fabrications can all be found in an Excel spreadsheet maintained by Miqdaad Versi, an amiable, animated, sartorially rumpled man who has made it his personal mission to confront, very patiently and politely, the Islamophobia of the British press. Versi lodged formal objections to the errors in each of these articles with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), a regulator whose rulings most British publications have agreed to abide by. Ipso processes led the newspapers to amend all of them.
Versi’s spreadsheet of shame runs on and on, holding such a quantity of complaints that it becomes difficult to believe the errors are all coincidental. In its scrolling entirety, the document is a cold account of how flagrantly British papers get their news about Muslims wrong, and how often they reuse the same stereotypes. We all recognise these: the Muslim disloyal to this country; the Muslim so conservative he is practically antiquated; the Muslim swarming into Britain; the Muslim pushing his way of life upon others. The most permanent residence of these Muslims is not Brick Lane in London or Small Heath in Birmingham, but the pages of Britain’s newspapers.
Versi is an assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella organisation of hundreds of mosques, charities and other religious bodies. As his full-time job, he also helps run a travel agency near Hendon Park in north-west London. In the little spare time he has, he wages a quixotic campaign of complaint, ever ready to tilt at sloppy reporting, bias, or wilful sensationalism in the British press’s coverage of Muslims. In his spreadsheet, an inaccuracy resolved or amended, like the one about the halal banknotes, merits a pleasing green shade. A majority of the 100-plus entries have been left white; either they remained unresolved, or Versi’s complaint was rejected. In some cases, in a column titled “Notes”, Versi has written: “Appalling ruling in my opinion,” and highlighted the cell a livid yellow.
Versi keeps another spreadsheet that is even more revealing: a rough daily reckoning of every British newspaper article to mention Muslims, beginning in August 2016. Each of the 24,750-odd entries is slugged “Positive”, “Negative” or “Neither” according to the impression that he believes it conveys of Islam. In the version he sent me, updated until May, he had judged 14,129 stories negative. (Other academic studies have found the proportion of unfavourable articles to be far higher. A 2007 study found that 91% of articles about Muslims and Islam published in a single week were negative. A 2011 study by the University of Leeds, surveying four newspapers over three months, put the number at 70%.) Versi can only fume privately about most of these articles. He can’t file grievances about their slant; press regulators only address issues of factual precision and relevance. Still, his patient pointillism reveals the larger problem: that newspapers have, for years now, relentlessly demonised Muslims, setting them up as the implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, British and civilised.
When Versi does complain, purely on grounds of accuracy, he finds a varied taxonomy of offenses. It includes the gratuitous identification of criminals – welfare cheats, say, or sexual assaulters – as Muslim, even when their religion has no bearing upon their crime. It includes misquotes of Muslim figures of authority and elisions of fact that portray the Muslim community as dogmatic and unknowable. It includes journalistic laziness, as in the automatic billing of the Manchester United star Romelu Lukaku as Muslim, because he doesn’t drink – he’s actually Christian. It includes xenophobic op-eds. And it includes sheer fiction. In one column of his spreadsheet, next to many headlines about a gunman in a Spanish supermarket shouting “Allahu Akbar”, Versi has plaintively written: “Just not true.”
Among journalists, Versi has found relatively little acknowledgment that the press constantly exhibits a strain of Islamophobia. Academics and press regulators and government committees see Versi’s point, but no one can agree on how to tackle it. There is a lot at stake. The press must be free; offence must be distinguished from hate speech; the media is shaped by the society in which it operates. These are heavy issues, which sit like boulders across any road to action. Versi has identified and quantified a problem, only to be told that it is too big to solve.
Versi’s approach – polite, factual complaints about one article at a time – can feel tame, or perhaps altogether misbegotten, as if he were nagging a battleship. Some of the forces that feed hostility towards Muslims are so titanic they are remaking every cubic inch of our world: terrorism, for instance, or the geopolitics of the Middle East. Stories detonate on Twitter and spread everywhere in minutes. Even if an apology or a correction is wrenched from a newspaper, it arrives weeks after the original article, often in a small box on an inside page, tucked out of sight. To roll back the damage of viral falsehoods can feel like an exercise in despair. Given this, how could Versi, armed with just his spreadsheets, possibly hope to make a difference?
The tarnishing of minorities is not just the preserve of tabloid journalism. The way stories are deformed to fit a formula about Muslims – and the difficulties of uprooting these fictions once they’ve been laid out in print – can be seen all across the media. In fact, the most vivid recent example appeared on the front pages of one of Britain’s respectable broadsheets. In the summer of 2017, the Times splashed a sequence of three stories, written by Andrew Norfolk, its chief investigative reporter. The first headline announced: “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care,” and sat atop a story about two Muslim foster families in Tower Hamlets and their alleged failure to adequately look after a “white Christian child”. The families spoke no English, the article claimed, and they tried to teach their ward Arabic and to remove the cross she wore around her neck.
“It is understood,” Norfolk wrote, “that the five-year-old has also spoken of the first foster carer having refused to let her eat a meal of carbonara because it had bacon in it.” The cultural mismatch allegedly distressed the child. The articles were ready fuel for political figures whose rhetoric relies on the deployment of just such stereotypes. Tommy Robinson tweeted them out; the far-right party Britain First released a video warning its followers that the case illustrated “what the future of this country is going to look like”. When a judge ordered the child to be placed with her grandmother, the newspaper offered itself warm congratulations. “The Times praised for exposing council’s failure,” one headline declared.
But severe errors of fact have since emerged – after Tower Hamlets council complained to Ipso about an article in the series discussing a ruling on the child’s care, and in early September, after the release of a judge’s verdict on the same subject. Her mother, one key source of these claims of abuse, was not a reliable witness; her daughter had been removed from her care after her arrest “for being drunk in charge of a child in a bar in a hotel”. Both foster families spoke English, a legal prerequisite for all such families. The girl’s court-appointed guardian found no evidence of her having been distressed in either home, nor of forced instruction in Arabic, nor of a diet wiped clean of pork. A council inquiry concluded that one of the foster families had removed the child’s gold crucifix only for safekeeping; it was large and expensive, liable to be lost by a little girl.
These errors might be attributed to weak or credulous reporting, but the real tell is to be found in the central message of the articles – that placing “a white Christian child” in the temporary care of Muslim families is inappropriate. In fact, the girl’s maternal grandparents, to whom she was entrusted by the court, are Muslims; she had already spent plenty of time with them, in their Muslim-majority country of origin, before her brief stays with her foster families last summer. The Ipso rulingsuggests that the Times knew this; before the pieces ran, the ruling explained, Norfolk “told the court [the Times] would not be publishing details of the grandmother’s religious and ethnic heritage”. The Times claimed that this restraint was designed to protect the child’s identity. But had that identity been revealed, the story’s very premise would have been scuttled. That the Times withheld these facts suggested not a slip in the journalistic process, but an evasion of it altogether.
Long before these grievous errors emerged, of course, the story was eagerly repeated in many other newspapers, some of whom added their own embroideries and exaggerations. The Daily Mail and Mail Online used a stock photo of a Muslim family for illustration, but they digitally added a veil to the woman’s face. The Sun printed a version of the piece as well.
Ipso, which was only asked to rule on the third article in the series, issued its decision in April 2018, compelling the Times to report the ruling on page six or further forward in the paper. It was reported on the front page. But the paper has not apologised; Norfolk, last year, told the BBC: “I think we did our job as a newspaper.” Norfolk declined to comment for this story, but a spokesperson for the Times told the Guardian: “Our original story on this complicated case reported concerns by a social worker and raised what the judge described as matters of ‘legitimate public interest’. Our concern at all times was to protect the identity of the child … As we acknowledged during a Home Affairs select committee hearing on hate speech, Islamophobia and the press, the story caused enormous upset and the suggestion that we set out to do that is frankly absurd.”
In the long memory of the internet, the series lives on. On the Times’ website, the first paragraph of the first article in the series still reads, “A white Christian child was taken from her family and forced to live with a niqab-wearing foster carer in a home where she was allegedly encouraged to learn Arabic” – exactly as it did last August. The story does not contain a link to the adverse Ipso ruling about the third article.
There is no tidy narrative arc to Versi’s life that deposited him in his role of assiduous complainant – no racist bullying in the schoolyard, no discrimination at work, no epiphany of faith, no latent hurt or anger. His motivation was far more straightforward: he simply felt dismayed at the way the media was portraying his community, and he found a way to change that.
Versi, who is 32, grew up in Harrow. His ancestors were Gujaratis who migrated to east Africa a century-and-a-half ago; his father moved to the UK in the early 1970s, to live with some of his extended family and attend secondary school. He became an engineer; Versi’s mother, also from an east African Indian family, was a nursery teacher. From them, Versi learned never to be defensive about his place in British society. “Their attitude was: ‘We’ve come here, we’re working, we’re equal just like everyone else.’” They enrolled Versi and his brother into the best private schools they could find; education was their highest priority. “At one stage, my dad was made redundant,” Versi said. “He borrowed money from my grandfather and then worked two jobs, just to make sure we could keep going to these schools.”
At Oxford, Versi studied mathematics, but he also discovered a passion for Islamic jurisprudence; he spent a year in Damascus, polishing his Arabic and studying the derivation of Islamic legal principles. Back in England, he worked first for Oliver Wyman Financial Services and then for the Royal Bank of Scotland. The travel agency where he now works as financial director sits across the road from the Brent Cross shopping centre, and whenever I went to see him, we would walk to the mall and sit in a cafe to talk. During one meeting in late May, the middle of Ramadan, although Versi was fasting, he talked for hours on end without pause. His speech has a quick, gurgling quality, and when he is agitated, he doesn’t quite finish one sentence before beginning the next one: “What the hell is … I mean, if foster parents … That picture was just wrong … ”
Versi was attuned to anxieties about Islamophobia among Muslims long before he joined the MCB in 2014. In a 2011 speech, for instance, prime minister David Cameron had criticised multiculturalism in Britain, saying that by tolerating “segregated communities” of Muslims, the country was enabling extremists to thrive. Versi read that and felt a judder of shock. Government rhetoric, he noticed, was increasingly ready to set Muslims apart from the rest of society. “And when political leadership appears to be pushing in a certain directions, the press frames it in the same way,” he said.
Increasingly, he met Muslims who were concerned about how they were being treated in their daily lives, about how they were being regarded as a problem. In his role at the MCB, one of his tasks was to push back against Islamophobia. “I realised that I couldn’t go out and stop people beating up Muslims. But I had this position, and I could do something with it. So I started to think: what could I do?” The MCB runs outreach campaigns to alter Britain’s perceptions of its Muslims, and these became part of Versi’s responsibility within the organisation. But tracking the press’s veracity in its stories about Muslims was his own, personal project.
The first time Versi complained about an article was in the summer of 2015, when he read a Mail on Sunday headline about a Muslim gang attacking a government vehicle in east London. He didn’t see why the phrase “Muslim gang” was relevant to the story, or even if it was a correct description, so he wrote to the paper. “Somehow that ended up with the managing editor inviting me in, and we had a chat for two hours,” he said. “It went very well.” The Mail on Sunday issued an apology and changed the headline on the website. That was an interesting outcome, Versi thought – to be able to make a difference with a single email.
He made a couple of further soft interventions in this way, but the following summer, around the time of the Brexit vote, when he thought the tenor of the coverage of Muslims had degenerated further, he got organised. One of his friends, who owns an outsourcing firm in Poland, offered to scan the websites of British newspapers, prospecting for a dozen keywords that Versi provided: “‘Muslims’, ‘Islam’, and so on.” Five times a week, Versi began to receive a spreadsheet from a Polish woman named Sandra, who sorted these articles by the impression they conveyed of Muslims. (This work is done more robustly now, he said, by a small team he has assembled for the purpose.) He sat up late into the night reading through the collated articles, appraising them for prejudice or inaccuracy. He could do much of this through simple internet searches, although occasionally he has had to behave like a journalist himself, making calls to confirm facts. When he caught a newspaper citing a rightwing Spanish blog, he asked a friend in Spain to check the source. “He called back and told me: ‘This has been debunked here and here and here.’ It was really that easy to do.”
Instead of fulminating about media bias, Versi fixes pragmatically on points of accuracy. It is difficult to prove that journalism is discriminatory (which would be a violation of the Ipso editor’s code) or that it constitutes illegal hate speech. But a clear error of fact is indisputable; it will force newspapers to amend, to apologise. And Versi is always civil, always punctilious about following the process laid down for his purpose. The Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne, who has been a prominent critic of Islamophobic journalism, remarked that Versi plays the establishment on its turf. “He understands the game, he knows the rules of discourse,” Oborne told me. “He knows that essentially the rules are fair in this country – or, well, maybe they’re not, but there are mechanisms for confronting unfairness.”
If Versi has a relationship with a newspaper’s editors, he emails them, trying to resolve errors bilaterally. Otherwise he files a formal objection with Ipso, the press regulator that was set up four years ago. In an office suite near St Paul’s Cathedral, Ipso’s 22 staffers process the thousands of complaints – more than 14,000 in 2016 – that stream in every year. Five of Ipso’s 12 board members have had careers in print journalism, and the regulator is funded by its member publishers, so Ipso has been criticised for not being distanced enough from the newspapers it regulates. (Like the Financial Times and the Independent, the Guardian has chosen not to join Ipso; instead, complaints and corrections are addressed by an independent readers’ editor, and appeals referred to an independent review panel
Ipso was founded after the Leveson inquiry into media practices, which itself came in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, when the media’s ethics appeared to have severely degraded. Yet Sir Alan Moses, a retired judge who chairs Ipso’s board, thinks it has forever been this way: “I can’t remember which newspaper proprietor it was who, when asked the secret of his success, said: ‘I give the people somebody to hate every day.’ But that was certainly at the beginning of the 20th century.” (The statement is usually attributed to Alfred Harmsworth, who founded the Daily Mail in 1896.)
Since then, various groups have suffered as a result of such a prescription: Jews, black people, the Irish. Muslims began consistently to receive this kind of treatment in 1989, after Iran’s fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie forced him into hiding. Elizabeth Poole, a scholar who wrote a book called Reporting Islam, described how the Rushdie affair persuaded many people that “Muslims outside Britain were dictating the agenda for Muslims in Britain” – the now-familiar trope that they were less loyal to their country than to their faith. For the press, Poole wrote, the threat to Rushdie’s life indelibly linked Islam to violence, and the demands of Muslims to censor Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses felt illiberal and un-British. “It was an example of how the media was developing a whole grammar that really wasn’t there before, and that resonated very much with the tenor of the time,” said Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a Cambridge lecturer who led a research project into mainstream media coverage of British Muslims.
Until the 1980s, British newspapers had no real political imperative to write about Muslims; they didn’t make much news, and their numbers in the country ran to barely a million, as compared to around 4 million today. After the Rushdie affair, and then particularly after 9/11 and 7/7, that changed. The story of Muslims became the story of terrorism and of clashing civilisational values. The more that newspapers supplied this narrative, the more readers came to expect it, and so the more newspapers supplied it. The volume of newspaper coverage of British Muslims in 2002 was five times that in 2000, according to an analysis conducted by three academics from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies; by 2006, the volume of coverage was 12 times as high as that in 2000.
Two of the three most common themes in these articles were terrorism and religious extremism; even the third, pertaining to cultural aspects of Islamic life, inevitably obsessed over veils, Sharia law and forced marriages. Five of the most common nouns used in conjunction with British Muslims were “terrorist”, “extremist”, “cleric”, “Islamist” and “suicide bomber”. The most frequent adjectives were “radical”, “fanatic”, “fundamentalist”, “extremist” and “militant”. It was as if newspapers took the events of the time – Britain’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of terrorists who claimed to be acting for all Islam – to depict British Muslims solely by reference to their religion. The press largely fell in with Bernard Lewis’s sweeping declaration, in his book Islam and the West, that for its followers Islam “is not merely a system of belief and worship, a compartment of life, so to speak … It is rather the whole of life.”
This reductive approach casts all Muslims as stock characters, making it more likely that journalists will make mistaken assumptions, or bend narratives, or be lazy in their writing. If a train with a Muslim driver has an accident, for instance, it must have been because he was fasting during Ramadan. This habit cannot help but ingrain itself, in turn, into consumers of the media. Every secular or personal or civic act by a Muslim is thus interpreted in a narrow, presumptuous way. To be regarded, in this way, always and only along a single dimension, is to be shrunk as both a citizen and as a person.
Why do newspapers get their stories about Muslims wrong so often? One possible answer is that, in our overheated news cycle, time pressures draw out the unexamined biases of editors and writers – almost none of whom are Muslims. A second, less benign, explanation is that publications angle their coverage towards sensationalism, appealing to the worst prejudices of their readers because they suspect this strategy will be profitable.
Of the two dozen journalists, editors and other members of the press I spoke to, everyone believed that British news desks (although not necessarily their opinion columnists) hover somewhere between the first and second points on this spectrum. No one said that newspapers crossed a line into the deliberate maligning of minorities as practised by far-right websites such as Breitbart. “I mean, I would quit the British press if anyone went into that other, extreme territory,” Moses said.
In newsrooms today, the news is often made in haste. A journalist who formerly worked at the Sun described the hurried, rote nature of this desk work. Someone phones in a tip, or a wire story, or an article from another newspaper is passed on, and it has to be written up as quickly as possible. The story’s angle is nearly always dictated by an editor. At best, a desk staffer adds the opinion of a so-called expert, and the easiest way to do this for stories involving Islam is to phone a think tank – perhaps the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, which often raises noisy alarms about home-grown Muslim terrorists.
The speed of this cycle makes errors inevitable; after the story is posted online, those errors multiply through social media. “It isn’t as if we’d sit down in a conference room and the editor would stand up and say: ‘Right, we’re going to attack the Muslims today,’” the former Sun journalist said. “There were a lot of liberal, intelligent people working there, even in senior management positions. At the same time, there was an implicit awareness of the paper’s political stance, its agenda.” Working to this stance means repeating the same kinds of defective journalism over and over again, to the point that someone like Versi wonders if any of it can be deemed accidental at all.
But another kind of distortion of fact emerges regularly in coverage of Muslims. This has less to do with shoddiness under pressure; it is closer to invention. The Leveson inquiry found multiple instances in which journalists were made to rewrite stories with an anti-Muslim line. “This didn’t stop, even when I was in tears because I hated what I was being forced to do passionately,” one anonymous reporter testified. The journalist Richard Peppiatt, who quit the Daily Star in 2011 over its “hatemongering” against Muslims, told Leveson that the newspaper knowingly published made-up stories and quotes. (The Daily Star responded that Peppiatt “was only ever involved in a very minor way with such articles, and never voiced either privately or officially any disquiet over the tone of the coverage. For the record, the Daily Star editorial policy does not hold any negativity towards Islam.”) Earlier this year, the Sunday Telegraph paid damages to Mohammed Kozbar, the general secretary of the Finsbury Park mosque, for a 2016 article claiming that he championed violent Islamist extremism. The journalist, Andrew Gilligan, wrote in the piece that Kozbar had declined to comment; Kozbar said he had never been contacted. (Gilligan later told Ipso that his email to Kozbar had bounced back, and that he had discovered this only much later in his junk folder. In an email to me, he said that the Sunday Telegraph was wrong to settle, and that he stood by his story.)
Some of the media’s failings might be avoided if there were more Muslims in British newsrooms. Muslims constitute around 5% of Britain’s population, but only 0.4% of its journalists. Two Muslim journalists recounted to me how they were hired by their respective publications and then asked to cover the Muslim community. Both said they would not have minded the assignment, if their editors had not made clear their desire for only specific genres of stories: the teenager who leaves home to fight in Syria, for instance, or rogue imams – stock characters all over again.
One of these Muslim reporters recounted a newsroom episode that shocked him. After a series of coordinated terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, a Sun front page recycled an old trope: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis,” a headline read on a story purporting to detail the results of a survey. The Sun’s interpretations of its poll were fiercely criticised, even by Survation, the agency that collected the data. The actual question, “How do you feel about young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria?”, did not specify, for instance, whether this meant battling with the Kurds against Isis, or for other rebel groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad; the Sun, however, had glossed the answer exclusively as an opinion on Isis. Ipso was flooded with nearly 3,000 complaints, an unprecedented volume for a single story.
The Muslim journalist, who worked in a different newsroom, was assigned to follow up the Sun’s story. (He asked for his own name and the name of his employer to be withheld; there are so few Muslim reporters around that specifying details would identify him too easily.) “My feedback was: ‘We shouldn’t touch the story. We should allow the Sun to wallow in its misery,’” he said. He wrote a smaller article, only tangentially related – “a few hundred words, nothing controversial” – and filed that instead. The next day, when he saw his published piece, he found it had been rewritten without his knowledge. “They’d replicated the Sun story– the one in five Muslims thing – and you’ve got this with my name on it.”
After an Ipso ruling, the Sun admitted that its story about British Muslims and their sympathies for terrorists was “significantly misleading”. But for the Muslim journalist at the other paper, whose byline sat atop a rewrite he did not endorse, the damage was done. “Suddenly you are a journalist who writes bad things about Muslims, twists things about Muslims,” he said. He squeezed out half a smile. “It’s a bit crap, really, isn’t it?”
On 24 April 2018, the home affairs committee on hate crime summoned nine editors – from the Sun, the Daily Express, the Times and Metro, among other newspapers – to respond to criticism about the press’s coverage of Islam. Nearly unanimously, the editors denied that newsrooms had an anti-Muslim agenda. Several admitted that Britain is experiencing a rash of Islamophobia, but only a couple went further to describe the press’s role in it.
When they were questioned about individual stories, the editors turned defensive, resulting in interludes of verbal slapstick. Peter Wright, representing the Daily Mail, defended the paper’s decision to doctor a stock photo by adding a veil to a woman’s face, to accompany the piece about foster carers in Tower Hamlets. “The facts in that story said that she wore a full veil,” he said. Two statements from Tower Hamlets council had pointed out mistakes in the media’s coverage. But Wright claimed: “There are no complaints about the accuracy or the story from Tower Hamlets.” The piece was only based on the preliminary facts, he told Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP:
Loughton: “When those additional facts later came out – “
Wright: “We reported them.”
Loughton: “You did not make an apology.”
Wright: “Well, the original story was correct on the basis of the facts known at the time.”
Loughton: “But it wasn’t, was it? On the basis of the facts known at the time – before your journalists actually found out what the facts were.”
Editors and reporters regularly offer, as proof of good faith, the argument that no newsroom works to any ulterior agenda coordinated to vilify Muslims. Errors should not be interpreted as signs of malign intent. “When newspapers get something wrong about, say, Nicola Sturgeon, it is not automatically described as an act of ‘anti-Scottish sentiment,’” Andrew Gilligan told me. If there’s any agenda at all, he said, it belongs to people like Versi, who use Islamophobia “as a standard trope … to foster a ‘them-and-us’ narrative.” He added: “I’m not sure the balance of positive/negative coverage about Muslims is any worse or better than the balance of positive/negative coverage about anybody else.”
Of the editors to appear before the home affairs committee, only Gary Jones, then newly installed as editor-in-chief of the Daily Express and the Sunday Express, accepted that newspapers had played a role in stoking suspicion of Muslims. “Cumulatively, some of the headlines that have appeared in the past have created an Islamophobic sentiment,” Jones said. “I have gone through a lot of former Express front pages and I felt very uncomfortable looking at them. Individually, they may not present specific issues. There have been accuracy issues on some of them and some of them are just downright offensive, and I wouldn’t want to be party to any newspaper that would publish such material.” When an MP asked Jones if he thought the extant regulations were sufficient to control for accuracy and virality in the Internet age, he replied: “No, I don’t.”
The committee has not yet published its report, but it is likely to be withering about the part played by the press in fomenting anti-Muslim opinion, said Chris Frost, who chairs the ethics council of the National Union of Journalists. “There’s a little evidence that the papers are pulling it back already,” he said. “And it’s not as if all this sensationalism is helping circulation. Circulations are falling across the board.” Meanwhile, like Versi, other civil society organisations are compelling newspapers to look more closely at how they present Muslims in their pages. “They can’t ignore it,” Frost said. “The temperature is rising on this issue.”
Peter Oborne thinks Versi has found the right nerve to pinch. “He’s making a big change, because it’s very painful for papers to admit they made mistakes,” he said. “If you write a story like that now, you’ll get a letter from Miqdaad, and your managing editor will go ‘Fuck!’ and you’ll have to go through the whole process and the humiliation of the apology.” Oborne has talked about Versi with others in the industry, he said, and he can see that they are trying to be more careful only because they are “bloody annoyed” by him. “And that’s good! That’s what he’s there for.”
One evening, Versi invited me to his mosque for iftar, the communal breaking of the Ramadan fast. He had talked very fondly about the mosque and its presence in his life: its openness, its multinational fabric, its services in English, its willingness to be led by its youth and its loyalty to its broader community. When I reached the address, the mosque was not there – or at least, not exactly. The old building has been razed to make way for a one-acre complex called the Salaam Centre, budgeted at £20m; in its architect’s design, with its curvilinear form and its tessellated metal skin, it looks like a vessel that, thanks to a wrong left turn, has reached North Harrow instead of Proxima Centauri. For the moment, the mosque’s services were being held in a Portakabin. When it is completed, the new building will hold a large prayer hall, but also an interfaith prayer room, a sports court, a lecture theatre and a play area for children. It won’t just be a centre for Muslims, Versi said. “Making someone from the neighbourhood feel like they’d want to come in here – that’s quite a nice thing.”
But why was that? I asked him why – did Muslims feel any pressure to display their lives and places of worship to other Britons, so they would feel comfortable with Islam?
“Maybe. External pressures do play a role,” Versi said, and then he thought some more. “It’s just that this mosque has always been this way. It’s a small mosque, it’s agile, so we can do all this cool stuff. We can reach out to the friends we have in this area, and we’re eager to show who we are.”
In the Portakabin, about 60 boys and men were listening to that evening’s speaker: Heena Khaled, from the Open Society Justice Initiative. Khaled, who was actually in another section of the Portakabin with the women, and was being broadcast via two screens in the men’s chamber, was delivering a talk titled “When All Else Fails”. She discussed Brexit and Islamophobia. These were difficult times for Muslims, she said, and the things they saw on television or social media might well dishearten them. “If Facebook and Twitter are depressing you, take a break. Switch it off. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone.” The boys fidgeted; the men gazed at the floor; the room felt morose.
From time to time, Versi has to persuade himself that his methods are sensible and rewarding. “I don’t want to be the guy who’s always complaining, but there’s value in it if it gets me a seat at the table with an editor,” he said. He also knows the limits of what he can achieve, and sometimes they frustrate him. In the social media age, what use is a small apology on page 30 for a month-old article? How can he ever rein in the pace at which a sensational untruth heats up the blood of the public? How can these piecemeal repairs hope to transform the culture of the media itself?
In previous eras, when newspapers have lagged behind the norms of civil discourse, they have, slowly but inevitably, caught up. The words and ideas used to discuss gay people four decades ago, for instance, have been wiped from the newsroom toolkit. (No paper refers to Aids as the “gay plague” any more.) This observation, made by several editors to the home affairs committee, can be a way for the press to evade its responsibility to actually set those norms of discourse. But Versi, an unshakeable optimist, believes he’s seeing the weather turn. “At one point, everyone used the phrase ‘Muslim terrorist’, and now they use ‘Islamist terrorist’, which is still not great, but it’s better than ‘Islamic,’” he said. “How did that happen? Because an understanding developed that it was the wrong term to use. So I think it’ll happen. I think history tells us we can make it happen.”