Watching Sunday Morning Live in full, with my impartiality-bound 'Is the BBC Biased?' hat on, did the programme demonstrate BBC bias as regards the 'Muslim question'?
Well, presenter Samira Ahmed's initial framing of the question 'Are Muslims being demonised?' certainly gave a fair wind to one particular side of the argument:
Bombs are being placed in mosques and a major Islamic organisation says British Muslims are living in fear. Is that because of an unfair portrayal of Muslims in the media? Are Muslims being demonised?
Still, in contrast to that, the programme's guest list hardly reeked of pro-Muslim bias. Yes, ubiquitous left-wing Muslim Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post was one of the guests, but he was balanced by Douglas Murray - a man whose willingness to criticise Islam places him as Mehdi's polar opposite. Plus the third guest was Thought For The Day regular, Anne Atkins - a bête noire of many on the religious (and non-religious) Left. That's a panel which, in principle, the Islamosceptic Right would feel much more comfortable with than the Islamophile Left.
Looking at the various online reactions (on Twitter and the blogosphere) shows the usual divergence between those who spot Mehdi Hasan and cry 'Bias!' from one side and those who spot Anne Atkins and Douglas Murray and yell 'Bias!' from the other side. Here, by dint of numbers, the bias seemed (at first glance) to tilt in one direction - my direction.
Was that counteracted though by the programme itself? Well, Samira's secondary introduction clearly gave the Mehdi Hasan side of the argument the edge:
Many in the Muslim community in Britain say they've become alarmed at what they call 'an unprecedented escalation of violence following the backlash after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in May. There has been an increase in reported hate crime and in the last five weeks there have been three bomb attacks on mosques. This week the Muslim Council of Britain wrote to the Home Secretary calling for a coordinated national response. They said it cannot be right that a minority community is allowed to be targeted in this manner. The government says it takes any such attacks very seriously but some Muslims say the planting of bombs is only symptomatic of a deeper problem in our society. Are Muslims treated differently to other minorities?
This was followed by a video report from Mehdi Hasan, reinforcing this message in the provocatively plausible way that Mehdi has made his own - plausible at least until you step back and give it a minute or so's thought. Mehdi likes to emote, in rational guise. He's a button-pusher. He's a "believe me when I tell you this" guy. Given the poll result announced at the end of the problem, Mehdi's rhetorical ploys no more worked on me than they did on most of Sunday Morning Live's viewers - which is reassuring. [Despite Samira saying it was a quarter of votes in favour of the Mehdi Hasan line, it was actually nearer one-fifth of the vote than one-quarter - a truly crushing defeat for Mehdi].
Mehdi is, I'd say, a 'heat over light' guy - the sort of guest BBC producers love. 'Heat over light' is a ratings booster - or, at least, so they seem to think. (Maybe they have Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle in mind). That's not proof of bias in itself - if the programme then balances it.
Douglas Murray then argued against Mehdi Hasan. That's evidence of balance - 1 against 1 (the latter one having, so far, been given the platform).
What of Anne Atkins? Did she make it 2 against 1 - and, if so, if which direction?
Well, Anne initially seemed to come out as being in Mehdi Hasan's camp. (You don't get to be a Radio 4 Thought For The Day regular if you're too far out from the BBC's way of thinking after all). She denounced the criticism of Muslims as racism. Later, however, she said that many people have concerns about the "firewall" Muslims seem to want to put around criticism of Islam. (Typical Thought For The Day fence-sitting! - Maybe.)
Assessing Samira's questions (one by one), I'd say they were fair and balanced, and appropriate to each of her guests. Some questions opposed the Mehdi Hasan line, some reinforced it - roughly in equal numbers. Plus she stepped in when Mehdi tried to talk over other guests and when he attempted to dominate the conversation - as he kept doing, again and again. Mehdi is a devil for doing that. [Is that demonising him by saying that?]
The 'vox pops'? Did they show bias?
First we heard from Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini who said that the British people "no longer believe the Islamist peace double discourse from British Muslim leaders." In one of those "wow!" moments that thrills the heart, Sheikh Muhammad argued that "the literalist, supremacist use and abuse of scripture by violently extremist Islamist groups...isn't so far actually different to the same kind of literalist supremacist readings of the same kind of scripture by, if you like, sort of mainstream extremist Islamist groups like the Muslim Council of Britain and Jamaat-e-Islami front organisations like the the Islamic Foundation." He went on to argue that the violent texts in Islam need to be moderated by Islamic scholars and said they should follow the example of Jewish scholars who have long moderated the texts of Deuteronomy. He then went on to denounce the "interfaith or Islamophobia kind of industry". Mehdi, you won't be surprised to hear, wasn't entirely happy about that!
Next up, and appearing in defence of Mehdi, was Fayaz Mughal of Tell Mama. Samira's first question to him [rightly] asked about the danger of exaggerating claims of anti-Muslim incidents. Fayaz said what Fayaz usually says on the BBC - that it's a big issue. He attacked Douglas Murray personally. Douglas defended himself, at Samira's invitation, and politely skewered Tell Mama.
The third 'vox pop' was Labour's Ann Cryer, a long-time voice-in-the-wilderness when it comes to voicing concerns about the treatment of the status of women in British Muslim communities. Ann said, as a Guardian reader, she never reads the Daily Mail but would condemn any demonisation of Muslims and 'Islamophobia', if they're doing it. Still, she said that she was fully entitled as an MP to defend Muslim women and to raise the issue of grooming of children by Muslim gangs, and she rejected any accusations of 'Islamophobia' against herself for so doing. (She clearly must have been on the receiving end of such accusations). Mehdi answered, not at all convincingly (from my point of view).
So, the vox pops came down (essentially) 2-to-1 against Mehdi Hasan - even if Ann Cryer was not being unequivocally on one side of the argument. She eventually tilted towards Douglas Murray's side of the argument though.
All in all, the discussion itself was fair and balanced. The initial framing and the opening video report went one way, the balance of speakers went the other way - and Samira Ahmed trod an impartially-hugging path between them.
Sorry if you wanted me to denounce Sunday Morning Live here. I refuse, however, to denounce something that doesn't deserve denouncing - and this didn't deserve denouncing.
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