Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Are some newspapers stirring up trouble?

According to a controversial front page story by The Sun newspaper this week (duly copied by the Mail Online), a new poll has revealed that nearly one-in-five British Muslims has some sympathy with those who have fled the UK to fight for ISIS in Syria.

The problem with the story is that it's wrong.  Even the organisation that conducted the poll for The Sun, Survation, has had to issue a statement to say that The Sun misinterpreted their survey.  And one of the researchers who helped to conduct the survey has also published an article that The Sun's report was incorrect. 

There has been overwhelming condemnation of The Sun's story, with a record number of complaints already received by the press regulator, IPSO.

The Survation poll for The Sun asked 1,000 Muslims in Great Britain how much sympathy they had, “with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”. 

The Independent, along with other newspapers, challenged the Sun's subsequent report. 

“The problem with the Sun’s interpretation of this poll is that people travelling to Syria are not necessarily going to fight on the side of jihadis. There have been high-profile examples of British people going to fight on the side of, for instance, the Kurds, who are fighting against Isis.”

Muslims going to fight against ISIS have been described as “heroes” in the national press, and so it should not be assumed that all Muslims going to Syria are fighting for ISIS.

The Independent also questioned whether, “it is possible to accurately poll British Muslims, who make up about five per cent of the UK population, with an online poll with a 1000 person sample size.” 

Another big problem with the poll, reported the Independent, is that, “if you ask non-Muslims the same questions, they actually provide very similar responses. The same poll question, asked for Sky News in March to all GB residents – found that 14 per cent of the general population had some “sympathy” for young Muslims leaving to fight in Syria.”

The Daily Mirror also strongly criticised the Sun’s report, with a leading article headlined, “No, 1 in 5 British Muslims doesn't have sympathy with ISIS - here's why”.

The Mirror pointed out that, “The poll doesn't actually ask whether people support ISIS, or even jihadis.” 

The paper added, “What is clear is that the survey does not say what the Sun says it does.”

The Huffington Post was even stronger in its condemnation of the Sun's misinterpretation of the poll, with an article by Professor of Communication at Westminster University, Steven Barnett, stating: 

"It is a lie. Even worse, it is a shameful distortion of its own polling data, consciously designed to fuel terror and distrust of Muslims."

He added, "Today's Sun headline demonstrates that some journalists and editors have granted themselves licence to spread poisoned untruths under the cloak of 'objective' opinion research. Pollsters should not allow themselves to be willing accomplices in this propaganda fraud."

IPSO**, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, has already received a record 2,000 complaints about the Sun's story,according to the UK Press Gazette.  

But professor of journalism, Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off that campaigns for a 'free and accountable press', said he is not at all confident that ISPO will do anything meaningful with the complaints.

He wrote:

"If you want to see why dishonest editors are so attached to their sham regulator, IPSO, and why this is extremely bad for Britain, you could hardly have a better illustration than the case of the Sun’s reckless front-page treatment of a poll this week."

IPSO, predicts Professor Cathcart, will do next to nothing.  "So far as IPSO is concerned, the Sun can recklessly endanger the lives of British Muslims with dishonest headlines just as much as it likes.  This is because IPSO is a poodle and not a watchdog."

He added, "Despite calling itself a regulator it may never even consider the matter, since its rules allow it to ignore many kinds of well-founded complaints. 

"If it actually adjudicates on the case it will allow the Sun the benefit of whatever doubt can conceivably be contrived. And in the extremely unlikely event that the Sun is found by IPSO to have breached the code, the worst that will happen will be a slap on the wrist, several months hence and a correction buried on an inside page."

Fact checkers Full Fact and Channel Four's FactCheck also criticised the Sun's report and methodology.  Commented Channel Four, "There is of course always an element of doubt as to how far these questionnaires can capture the nuances of people’s views, and how honest people are being."  

And Full Fact stated, "We will be seeking public corrections from both The Sun and the Mail."

Dr Maria Sobolewska, a Manchester University academic of polling techniques, told the Independent that, “public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists”.

The organisation that carried out the poll for the Sun, Survation, said that the Sun had got it wrong.

In an online statement the pollster stated that:

“Survation do not support or endorse the way in which this poll’s findings have been interpreted. Neither the headline nor the body text of articles published were discussed with or approved by Survation prior to publication.”

The market research company added, “Survation categorically objects to the use of any of our findings by any group, as has happened elsewhere on social networks, to incite racial or religious tensions.”

Contrary to the Sun’s front page headline, Survation state that their poll actually, “shows a fall in sympathy with fighters travelling to Syria among Muslims since March, something which we would consider the most pertinent new finding…”

The pollster added that there wasn't much difference in "sympathy" expressed by British non-Muslims and British Muslims.  "When we polled the remainder of the British population in March, 4% of non-Muslims expressed 'a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria' and 9% expressed 'some sympathy', suggesting that attitudes held by the Muslim and non-Muslim populations are not that different.

YouGov, the Sun’s usual pollster, said that it had refused to do the poll for the Sun. It explained that it could not be confident that it could accurately represent the British Muslim population within the timeframe and budget set by The Sun. 

Alarm has been expressed that Survation allegedly chose respondents for their survey by simply calling people who had "Muslim sounding surnames". Other pollsters have claimed that this method wouldn't necessarily result in a "representative sample of the British Muslim population."

Writing anonymously for, a researcher claiming that he helped to conduct the Survation poll of Muslims for the Sun, expressed shock at how the poll was used. He commented:

'None of the people I polled who responded to the question with the 'some sympathy' answer supported jihadis. 

'One woman gave me thoughtful, considered answers to every question. She thought that David Cameron would probably be right to bomb Syria, and that Muslims did have a responsibility to condemn terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. But she also had some sympathy with young British Muslims who joined fighters in Syria. "They're brainwashed, I feel sorry for them," she said. And so I ticked the box, "I have some sympathy for young British Muslims who go to join fighters in Syria."'

Dr Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told The Guardian, “Many Muslims will find this poll hard to believe.” 

He said that the vast majority of British Muslims abhorred terrorism and added that, “The grand strategy of Daesh (ISIS) is to divide our communities and stoke fear between communities. We should not play their game.”

And yet the consequences of some national newspapers publishing misleading statements about British Muslims can be extremely damaging. Since the Paris attacks, hate crimes in the UK against Muslims have risen by 300 per cent. 

Furthermore, numerous reports have confirmed that ISIS actually wants an increase in hatred of Muslims (i.e. Islamophobia). 

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for — to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. 

“Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’”

“What the Islamic State wants to do is to start a civil war,” political scientist Gilles Kepel told the French newspaper, Le Monde.

Concurred an editorial this week in America’s ‘The Nation’ newspaper, “The terror group has been quite clear that its strategy is to eliminate what it calls the ‘grayzone’ where Muslims and non-Muslims live in harmony. It aims to provoke Western governments into clamping down on their own Muslim populations, the better to drive them into ISIS’s arms.”

The vast majority of Muslims have no sympathy with those who go to fight in Syria. Some 71.4% of respondents in the Survation poll said they had "no sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria." 

It cannot be over emphasised that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, loyal citizens who abhor terrorist groups such as ISIS.  It's mostly Muslims who are the victims of ISIS murders and violence, and it’s mostly Muslims who are fighting against ISIS.

And clearly it needs to be repeated: Since the recent attacks in Paris by the terrorist group ISIS, needless and unwarranted hate crimes against Muslims in Britain have soared by 300%.

Don’t the Sun, the Mail and some other newspapers realise that reckless misreporting can put lives at risk?

*The Mail Online has now removed their inaccurate story about 1 in 5 Muslims, but The Sun has not. 

** To make a complaint to IPSO about The Sun's report, go to Make a complaint

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