Reading “Islam in the Media 2017”, an investigation by Sydney-based Muslim production studio OnePath Network, is like looking through the greatest hits compilation of the world’s worst band. In this case, it’s the Murdoch press.
Who could forget the Daily Telegraph’s dogged campaign against Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied? Her seven-word Anzac Day tweet – “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …)” – provoked no less than five front pages and more than 100 articles in News Ltd papers.
Or what about the Tele’s front page headline, “SAME SEX JIHAD”? It was reporting unsubstantiated claims that top Muslim leaders were delivering homophobic sermons during last year’s marriage equality plebiscite – the Tele’s own 13-year homophobic campaign against marriage equality and LGBTI activists notwithstanding.
There’s nothing surprising about Murdoch press Islamophobia. But the scale of it is shocking. During 2017, OnePath investigated five Murdoch dailies (the Australian, Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail and Advertiser).
While Muslims make up only 2.6 percent of the Australian population, OnePath found that News Ltd papers featured 2,891 negative articles or opinion pieces about Muslims last year.
Thirty-one percent of opinion columns were about Islam – and overwhelmingly negative. The worst offender was Australian writer Jennifer Oriel, who dedicated 54 percent of her columns to Islam.
The report is scathing of the Murdoch press, pointing out: “[C]overage of Islam does not exist in a vacuum of facts and objectivity. The reality is, print news is a struggling industry, and a very effective method for selling newspapers is fear, sensation, and drama”.
Some editors will go to whatever sensational lengths they can to sell papers, even if it means manufacturing a story. That was the case with an article about Punchbowl Boys High School. Despite a total lack of evidence, the Tele claimed that boys in grade five were being “radicalised” and “indoctrinated”.
There’s more to it, however, than News Ltd wanting to sell papers.
The press, whether hard right Murdoch or the more liberal Fairfax, perpetuates Islamophobic stereotypes and engages in scapegoating partly because, for almost two decades, Western governments have engaged in constant war and occupation of the Middle East. The media have played a role in dehumanising Muslims so that government military and security measures appear legitimate.
But they also do it to divide working people, to make us think that the real problem in society isn’t inequality or government attacks, but immigrants or brown people.
In 2016, Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan reported a Sydney woman’s claim that she was gang-raped by six Arabic-speaking men. He used the woman’s story to make a bolder claim: we’ll never know “the scale of sexual intimidation of women in Sydney” and that the cops refused to investigate this rape “epidemic” by Middle Eastern men.
But the woman’s story wasn’t true. There were no hospital or police records to back her claims. Then a video surfaced of a woman delivering the same story to an anti-Islam Reclaim Australia protest, only now the story was even more graphic and violent.
Whether it’s the crude conservative papers with screaming headlines about radical Islam in schools, or liberal papers evoking the age-old racist trope of concern for white women against the predatory brown or black man, the press spews Islamophobia to promote ideas – such as racism, imperialism, nationalism – that keep working class people divided and keep the ruling class ruling.