Tony Charlesworth is alarmed by what he sees as crude generalisations about ‘the media’ at the recent ‘Common Ground’ event between humanists and Muslims at Conway Hall.
People are not punchbags. Mutual comprehension is always preferable to conflict. ‘Jaw, jaw’, said Winston Churchill, is always better than ‘war, war’. So the recent ‘Common Ground Dialogue’ at Conway Hall between a panel of four moderate Muslims, chaired by BHA trustee Alom Shaha, and an audience largely made up of humanists was to be welcomed. And it proved worthwhile. The panel was composed of intelligent, reasoning people with interesting things to say.
Any initiative that says we should listen in a reasoned way to people with opposing ideas, rather than shouting at each other, is always to be welcomed. The organisers and the panelists are to be congratulated. And certainly it was useful to hear about the spectrum of ideas that exist within Islam.
The speakers asked probing questions about their own Muslim faith. They spoke about the treatment of women; the deep-rooted sectarianism within Islam; and about the problems that flow from literal interpretations of holy texts. Questions from the audience shed light on matters to do with ‘faith’ schools; homosexuality; and links between Islam and violence.
Given the issues that the panel members experienced with their own faith, it was a pity that they weren’t pressed more on what it is they continue to get out of this faith themselves and what it means to them as individuals. That was an opportunity missed.
And while we’re at it, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that very many humanists don’t feel quite so sanguine about this kind of ‘interfaith’ dialogue. I should stress that I am not one of them. But as a member of the BHA, I’m acutely aware that many of my fellow atheists feel that religion must be directly addressed rather than tolerated. They would argue that it’s a highly problematic circle to square: both to live harmoniously alongside the religious, whilst also being strongly opposed to religion. But that’s a big separate discussion for another time.
So now let me come to the one major aspect of this Conway Hall event that troubled me greatly. And it’s a matter thrown sharply onto centre-stage by the recent freedom of expression discussions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair.
The panel’s niceness and reasonableness (together with the niceness and reasonableness of the humanist event organisers) flew out of the window when it came to one important group: the media. As far as the media was concerned, instead of reasoned thought, we heard worryingly loose language from the panel and organisers, as well as lazy thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and sweeping generalisations. All things I would say are unforgivable for a humanist meeting.
This isn’t merely a peripheral matter. It was precisely those kind of sweeping unthinking generalisations about groups of people that this event was intended to tackle!
Let me start with the recent article in HumanistLife which reported on this event, written by Jeremy Rodell, one of the organisers.It was headlined: ‘Common Ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’ (Jeremy, by the way, is a friend of mine and he already knows my views.)
Jeremy’s opening introductory paragraph says that the purpose of the event was to ‘get behind the media stereotypes’ and ‘beyond the black-and-white “isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric.’ But exactly what ‘media’, and which ‘stereotypes’ and what ‘rhetoric’ was he referring to? We’re not told.
He goes on to say that the purpose of the event was to ‘start to understand what real Muslims think’. But what actually is a ‘real Muslim’? What would an ‘unreal Muslim’ look like?
By simply lumping together ‘the media’ as if it were a single monolithic entity, Jeremy and his fellow humanist event organisers, together with the panelists, fell straight into the intellectual beartrap of precisely the kind of undifferentiating generalisation that they criticize others for when they lump together people as: ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘the humanists’!
Lack of evidence
I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist and TV producer for the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They differ markedly as organisations. Yet depressingly, this phenomenon of referring airily in general to ‘the media’ is something one comes across a great deal. When Jeremy and the panelists refer to ‘the media’ (and actually ‘the media’ are people too!), whom and what do they have in mind? Is it: the Financial Times? Playboy? Channel Four News? The Daily Mail? Al-Jazeera? The Sun? Charlie Hebdo? The Chinese Peoples’ Daily? Have I Got News For You? The Guardian? I could go on.
It was certainly striking that the humanist event organisers, the Muslim panelists and Alom Shaha as chair all tacitly indicated that for them ‘the media’ was a hostile force. Underlying this entire discussion was an unquestioned and untested assumption that ‘the media’ is to blame (partly or even perhaps wholly) for at least some of the current difficulties that Muslims find themselves in. A further unquestioned and for me objectionable underlying assumption throughout was that the work of ‘the media’ is somehow morally reprehensible.
At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the influence of ‘the global media empire’. I don’t recognize such an ‘empire’. It doesn’t exist. Such a phrase belongs to the most absurd kind of paranoid delusion. Yet nobody questioned it.
The evidence of reprehensible media influence adduced by the panel was pitifully weak and highly selective. The examples produced were: one interview with a radical cleric on BBC Radio’s Today programme; an opinion piece in the Spectator; unspecified headlines in the Daily Mail. We also had some fanciful speculation about how the Dr Harold Shipman case might have been reported had he been a Muslim. And a propos of nothing at all, a panelist spoke about disliking ‘wall to wall satellite news images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya’. Another panelist baldly asserted: ‘the headlines are always grabbed by the Muslims’. Really? Are they?
Thinking humanists (and thinking moderate Muslims) really need to do a lot better than this.
If none of this amounted to any kind of coherent case against ‘the media’ as a whole, perhaps most depressingly of all there was also no recognition at all given to the fair, objective job of reporting Muslim issues that professional, responsible, serious media organisations undertake in free societies.
At one point in the proceedings it was mentioned that one of the speakers had written several articles for various British newspapers. No details were given, but presumably she had been given a platform to present her views. Isn’t therefore generalized denigration of ‘the media’ a case of biting the hand that feeds?
The point is that ‘the media’ is a spectrum as varied and as diverse as any other social grouping, be it religious, political or whatever. But ‘the media’ became a convenient punchbag (a scapegoat even?) at this event. Let’s please be careful about crude simplifications!
The messenger is not the message
Media organisations in free societies in all their complex, highly varied pluralistic aspects communicate about, reflect on and report on the, often extremely shocking, events that are happening in our world. But media organisations are not the people who are actually carrying out what is happening in our world. The messenger who carries messages to and fro is not the same person as the person who is carrying out the actual events about which the messages are being communicated. Media organisations undertake communication of messages; they are not the people who decide the manner in which those messages are then received by an audience or how those messages should subsequently be interpreted by that audience.
Furthermore, it is also self-evident that, as well as reporting on world events, media organisations in free societies do a huge amount to facilitate and provide a platform for precisely the kind of open debate and discussion on current issues and problems that is needed in our world. Yet the organisers of this event and the event speakers simply chose to ignore all of this.
Just like democratic politics, the fact that we have free uncensored media is something that has been hard-won and shouldn’t be easily taken for granted. Moreover, much media reporting in authoritarian unfree places (such as we see in parts of the Muslim world), where it exists at all, is often undertaken by journalists at no small personal danger and risk. But once again, none of any of this was ever remotely acknowledged by either the event organisers or the panellists.
Shining a spotlight
I can entirely understand that moderate Muslims may feel extremely sensitive and feel under (real or imagined) threat when it appears to them that a glaring media spotlight is being shone on them personally because of the activities of extremist Muslims. Likewise, ordinary Jews, for example, may also feel extremely uncomfortable about the hostility (real or imagined) directed towards themselves because of the activities of the current Israeli government with regard to Gaza. I personally felt extremely uncomfortable when some of my French friends said that British people were war criminals because our government had approved the invasion of Iraq.
But the fact that people are made to feel uncomfortable about what they see, read and hear from media organisations should never in a free and open society be any reason whatsoever for the often very unpalatable and disturbing things that are going on in the world not to be reported fully, unflinchingly and unsparingly by media organisations. Nor should it be any reason to suppress the publication of what some might regard as unwelcome opinions.
Free expression, the mark of open democratic societies, needs pluralistic, vigorous, robust, questioning, often insolent, hard-nosed media organisations to hold people accountable and to shine a bright spotlight on what is happening in our world. It is precisely the mark of authoritarian, unfree societies that everything there is presented as officially rosy, no one is made to feel uncomfortable, and nothing is questioned or brought to light.
I’m not saying that media organisations are beyond criticism. Far from it. Appalling criminal activities, for instance, like the phone hacking and entrapment that have been practiced for so long by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press must be punished hard.
And I certainly support the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s recent call to Ofcom for the BBC to carry more humanist and specifically non-religious content.
‘We just want to be allowed to get on with our lives,’ pleaded one of the panellists. But actually where is the evidence that in Britain today, Muslim people are not being allowed to do just exactly that? A sense of victimhood can become an identity.
No one should ever be racially abused. But racial hatred is now covered by British laws – unlike in the past, as Alom described it, when people were abused in the street and called ‘Paki’. There are also defamation laws that protect attacks on personal reputation. So while we’re at it, let’s also give two cheers (three’s probably too many!) for a legal system which we (unlike certain other countries in the world I can think of) are also fortunate to possess.
It’s very easy to take our media freedoms for granted. Just like we can take our democratic political institutions for granted. But these are precious, hard-won things. Much of the world doesn’t have any of our privileges. We should be celebrating these things, not denigrating them. And as humanists especially we always have the clear duty to beware of loose language, unquestioned assumptions and sweeping generalisations wherever they are found.
Tony Charlesworth is a former journalist and television producer on the staffs of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press. He runs Tony Charlesworth Associates, a television and communications agency, and is a member of the BHA.