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Broadcast bosses admit Islamophobia biases exist but accuse print of being 'far worse'

Senior broadcast journalists from the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV have acknowledged that there are problems in how newsrooms reflect stereotypes and race (in particular regarding Muslims) but have said the issues are more prominent in print which is not governed by Ofcom.

During an Edinburgh TV Festival panel discussing how to address the unconscious bias and stereotypes forwarded by broadcast newsrooms, Rizwana Hamid, director of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring, highlighted Islamaphobia as a particular issue. She said that while the UK's print titles were “by far the worst when it comes to stereotyping Muslims” broadcast media ”has its own issues” and that the impact of biased coverage affected ordinary UK Muslims “day in and day out.”

In 2018, the University of Alabama said terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims. This can broadly shape attitudes towards the group, earlier this year 35% third of Brits said they thought Islam was "generally a threat to the British way of life".

Citing recent research from the Centre for Media Monitoring that suggested stories about Muslims were predominately coverage of terrorism, she said: “There’s a disproportionate amount of coverage when attacks are perpetrated by Muslims compared to those by white supremacists or the far right. Far right attackers assumed to be ‘lone wolves’, even when that's not true – but Muslim attackers are immediately labelled as terrorists.”

Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News, said that "newspapers are far worse than the TV" for the use of negative stereotypes in news reporting, adding that a splash by The Sun concerning Channel 4 reporter Fatima Manji's coverage of the 2016 Nice terror attack was ”one of my hardest days as editor”.

More broadly, de Pear admitted failures in Channel 4's own newsroom, noting that despite the broadcaster being the first to break the Windrush scandal, “it had been happening for a year, maybe a year and a half. The story was out there. And so, while we were the first to get that story, we all missed it".

Hamid said that BAME reporters can help newsrooms shine a light on minority issues, but argued that internal culture was just as important. “If the culture doesn't allow a different perspective it is not going to happen they are just another face,” she said. 

BBC newsreader George Alagiah, on stage with fellow BBC journalist and panel host Clive Myrie, said that having more diverse newsrooms would not be enough to tackle unconscious bias. “There has been a perception that... brown journalists will know about Muslims or that black journalists will know about knives,” he said, adding that all journalists need to be better educated.

Rachel Corp, editor of ITV News, discussed the ways in which her newsroom had attempted to evolve its political coverage of Brexit, following the referendum result three years ago. "We are constantly striving to find voices that do not depict all Brexit voters as a stereotype – not necessarily northern or working-class, and not racist – and that is also positive about Brexit."

Similarly, de Pear said that Channel 4’s team had found significant blind spots in its coverage of the Brexit debate. “It helped trigger C4 moving out of London. We thought we all had to be in the same room to produce the show but we were not getting the voices that we need,” he said. 

Elsewhere at the festival, BBC 3 controller Fiona Campbell, BBC Talentworks head of development Helen O’Donnell, documentary-maker and Youtuber Amelia Dimoldenberg and People Just Do Nothing star Asim Chaudhry discussed the value of new talent pipelines into broadcasters. 

Dimoldenberg said that “There's a big appetite from broadcasters to bring digital talent onto platforms. Whether that actually ends up happening is a different thing.” 

According to O’Donnell, “There are no more barriers to entry. If you've got a creative voice you can get it to an audience quickly without asking permission from gatekeepers.” 

Earlier this month The Drum talked to The Daily Express editor Gary Jones, who claimed that the tabloid had put its days of “Islamophobic sentiment” behind it in a bid to change advertiser perceptions of the title. Jones, more than a year into the job now, appears to have succeeded in walking back such stories. 

Additional reporting by John McCarthy.

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