How incomplete context in reporting can feed bigotry about Islam

[Update – title edited. You can see the original in the filename]

This is an investigative/process piece looking at the development of a story that High Wycombe Council has spent money specifically creating a cemetary extension for Muslims, and the tensions that were stirred up in its wake. It is a piece by Alan Wilson, Area Bishop of Buckingham, a long established blogger.

I’m cross-posting it as an example of the type of narrative that bloggers can do very well, combining opinion with reporting to undermine a popular myth, and with critique of mainstream reporting along the way.

The key point I draw from the story is that a more distributed media gives a greater opportunity for “chinese whispers”, where questionable rumours to become the established orthodoxy by media sites and blogs reporting that “x has reported that y has happened” rather than going to the original source to find out if it *did* happen. Then a (dishonourable) justification is possible that “our story is accurate – we just reported what that other site was saying”.

That process also gives a deniable route for Publicists to leak claims and rumours into the public domain, and alliances of websites and blogs to promote claims which meet their political objectives. It is down to the standards of individuals, whether bloggers or reporters, how much depth of context we provide in each case.

One interesting question is how bloggers can adapt traditional journalistic values and practices in an approach which includes more elements than straight reporting. Equally, the wider media faces a similar challenge, in that opinion has become blurred into reporting in most news publications. This piece is clearly opinionated, but I think it avoids being a pure opinion piece.

This is the type of blogging that goes on day-in-day-out and doesn’t usually make the national papers, or draw the attention of the politicians or campaigning groups.

I’ve reposted the article including pictures to show Bishop Alan’s blogging style.

20100608-bishopalan-canardwycombeAt the last census, High Wycombe’s population was 92,300, of whom 10,838 were Muslim (11·7 %). If you prick them, do they not bleed? Like the rest of us, Muslims die. Therefore it can come as no surprise that there is a demand for Muslim burials in High Wycombe. The Local Authority has to meet this. Population is growing, and room running out. It would suit Hysterical Islamophobics to be able to say space had been clawed back from consecrated ground in the local graveyard; but that would be barmy because the other 88% of the population also continue to die, so there’s absolutely no sense in not extending the graveyard, and land is available.

Enter the Bucks Free Press with a story called “High Wycombe Cemetery Extension agreed for Muslim Burials.” This downpedals the fact that a cemetery extension was needed anyway, and points out that Muslims like be buried facing Mecca whilst omitting, curiously, to point out

  1. It doesn’t cost any more to bury people in new ground facing any particular direction
  2. The site in question snakes round a hillside in all directions, and where the majority orientation has been East, Mecca is basically East of High Wycombe anyway
  3. Since 11·3% of the town’s ratepayers are Muslim, they surely have the same right to be buried according to their wishes, if possible, as everybody else.

Next, as is the way with Flat Earth News, this scoop (that Muslims in High Wycombe die like everybody else – Shock! Horror!) is routed, via This is Local London, to the Daily Telegraph.

20100608-bishopalan-canardbosch56The Telegraph spins the story, by adding an anonymous local resident saying “Yet again many thousands of pounds [are] being spent pandering to the local Muslim community.” Apparently burying the dead is pandering to them.
I disagree. I don’t think High Wycombe is ready for Sky Burials quite yet.

The Telegraph also carries, final killer element, a quotation from the Bishop of Buckingham – oh, that’s me! – pointing out that people of all faiths and none are regularly buried in consecrated ground. This is hardly news, since it’s an obligation laid on the Church since time immemorial and legislated in the Burials Act 1880. The established church is delighted, of course, to fufil this basic civic obligation.

But, final link in the chain, the Telegraph story fulfils its purpose. On Saturday evening I receive a furious email from a gentleman in the North West. He had the character and decency to give his name, but can’t have expected me to use it publicly, so I won’t. I believe my correspondent is a good and decent man. This is his reading of the Telegraph:

Having just read an article where it states you are delighted to serve the Muslim community in allowing an extension of Muslim graves facing Mecca into the main graveyard in High Wycombe, Bucks. I would like to express my disgust at your support of such an action given how Christians throughout the world have and are still being persecuted by Muslims on the instruction of Islam.

I would ask you Sir, where was your support for Christians when Muslims desecrated the graveyard in St. Johns Church, Longsight, Manchester by destroying all the gravestones to make way for a mosque car park. The silence of the media and the Church on this issue, has been absolutely deafening.

By your appeasement and support for Islam you are feeding a hungry lion and when there is no more food to give it, it will turn on you, as can be seen in how Coptics are treated in their own cities in Egypt, a once Christian country. Not only are Muslims taken over our Churches they now want to invade our graveyards and the Church is sitting back and not only saying nothing but encouraging such actions.

It is an absolute disgrace and a very sad day for Christians in this once Christian country

20100608-bishopalan-canard-hatredI have to point out to him that I didn’t actually say what he thinks I did. This isn’t a churchyard so it’s none of my business who is buried there. But then my eye is caught by his tale of St John’s Longsight, which I had never heard of before, not being a recipient of Manchester BNP publicity. A video has been posted on the Internet of what I believe is called hard nogging being used as substrate for a carpark, with the strong implication that it is made up of Christian gravestones. This is the message my friend in the north West received, that Muslims have been “destroying all the gravestones to make way for a Mosque car park.”

Trouble is, the gravestones are still there. Indeed, you can see them here. The basic answer to my friend’s question (“where was my support for Christians…?) is that the whole story was a canard, a fiction designed to whip up inter-religious hatred. My correspondent, good and decent man that he is, bought the lie. The Daily Telegraph story in its sexed up form catalysed a response in him, and so the panjandrum of fear, suspicion and hatred gathers momentum.

20100608-bishopalan-canardninth-280I had to remind him, as the Christian he professes to be, that the Ninth Commandment is a Christian value. He does not care to admit that he bore false witness, although he patently did, and he goes on to suggest “the bottom line is not about this or any other story put out by the British press.”

Really?

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5 thoughts on “How incomplete context in reporting can feed bigotry about Islam

  1. Matt Wardman

    Adam

    Thanks for the comment. You can show me a link to a story about an allegedly false claim of harrassment made by a Muslim which has not yet had a verdict delivered in court. That story looks accurate – good for the Telegraph in that case. But you are taking a single example and drawing a conclusion as to both process and content, because that single example appears to match a particular view.

    I’ll raise you a false claim about ‘refugees taking local people’s places in the housing queue’ made on a leaflet in the 2009 Norfolk ByElection, and completely demolished by Cath Elliot in another example of targeted blogging, here:

    http://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2009/07/21/lies-and-the-lying-liars-who-tell-them/

    The account I’ve cross-posted shows that sufficient context is not always provided, and I’m asking the question how opinion and reporting can be integrated appropriately.

    A similar question is relevant – for example – when campaigning organisations publish “research reports”.

    Reply
  2. David Catleugh

    And other newspapers miss things out of their stories to deliberately avoid criticising Islam. I tend to get my news from a range of sources, then make my own mind up. I even force myself to read the Daily Mirror!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: links for 2010-06-10 « Onlinejournalismtest's Blog

  4. Adam Stakeholder

    Thank you for the long reply! I do agree with your post. How can opinion and reporting can be integrated appropriately? I don’t really know. I would just say the vague things like, journalist being free from pressure of profit or benefactor bias. Also I would have thought journalists need to be asking themselves hard question all the time to pursue the truth.

    Reply

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