Comparative approaches to Islam, Security and Television News: Implications for Policy Makers and the Media

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


This proposal is based on a 3-year AHRC grant project examining Russian, British and French television news representations of Islam as a security threat. It provided the first substantive, cross-national analysis of this topic, and the only one to draw on a large corpus of television recordings. Derived from a combination of cultural studies and political science methods, the results: (i) complicate conventional wisdoms on the media's depiction of Muslims, and on the responsibilities of public sector broadcasters in areas of cultural sensitivity; (ii) challenge the notion of a homogeneous, pan-European construction of Islam; (iii) illuminate British television coverage of terrorism from a comparative perspective; and (iv) provide insights into the way in which the advent of radical Islamism has influenced diversity management policies across a spectrum of multicultural European nations. The findings have been published in journal articles, edited volume chapters and a co-authored monograph which has just passed final proof stage.

The project, conceived before the AHRC's impact agenda had been articulated, and therefore without a formal impact plan, generated unexpectedly intense interest from three specific sets of non-academic research users: broadcasters, foreign policy makers and media monitoring organisations. The aim of the follow-up proposal is, by building systematically on this interest, and by recasting the already completed research findings of our project for non-academic research users, to enhance the knowledge and understanding of key governmental, media and media monitoring organisations in respect of an issue of continuing importance: the media's representation of the Islam-security nexus. The associated objectives are to work with the three groups in order (a) to inform media practices in reporting sensitive issues surrounding Muslims, extremism and security; (b) to shape government interpretations of the way in which these issues affect domestic and foreign policy in a country of strategic importance (Russia); (d) to initiate a cross-cultural discussion by policy-makers and media practitioners of the implications of our research findings for multicultural, multi-faith societies across Europe.

We propose three outputs, to be developed in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, partners with whom we have established prior working relationships: 3 policy reports, a policy seminar, and an updated website with user forum (for more details, see under 'Outputs').

We will gauge the impact of our activities by requesting regular feedback from our partners. We will ensure that our relationships with them are sustained through knowledge exchange initiatives, via the RCUK's Global Uncertainties network and our online discussion forum, and by generating collaborative research proposals with their involvement.

Planned Impact

There are three categories of research user who will benefit from our activities as follows:

Al Jazeera English

Through our media-focused policy report broadcasters will gain insights into the challenges facing them in covering the complex relationship linking Muslim communities and the international security agenda. The report, and the related briefing, will include a set of editorial policy recommendations advising on the reporting of terrorist incidents, issues relating to Islam, and changing attitudes to multiculturalism in Europe. The comparative dimension, realised in particular via our cross-national seminar event, will sensitise these partners to their shared responsibilities, as well as to the significance of key differences in reporting strategies across Europe. We will send translations of our reports to media organisations in France and Russia

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (East European Desk)

Our foreign affairs and intelligence policy report will bring to the attention of Foreign Office analysts factors connecting domestic tensions resulting from the rise of Islamist terrorism on Russia's peripheries to its external postures towards other states. By identifying the main voices heard in the media's reporting of security and inter-ethnic cohesion issues, and the manner in which they are framed, it will now also provide a valuable yardstick against which to measure changes in the condition of public discourse in the aftermath of Putin's controversial return to Russia's presidency. Foreign Office analysts will likewise gain from the seminar discussions with Russian and other public figures on the implications of the Islam-security nexus for multicultural states.

BBC Monitoring (Caversham)
SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis

BBC Monitoring will acquire a more in-depth view of Russian media reporting than it has the resources to produce, improving the quality of its advice to its clients. Our report will deepen its understanding of Russian media-state relations; the management of diversity and inter-faith relations under Putin and Medvedev; state broadcasters' attitudes to race relations in the domestic and international arenas and their willingness to give representational voice to Muslim and anti-Muslim opinion. The SOVA Centre will gain a crucial comparative dimension on how Muslim communities are portrayed on Russian national television, and on how the rise of Islamist terrorism has affected those portrayals. The fact that Britain and Russia have both embarked on controversial 'anti-radicalisation' strategies in light of shared security concerns will help it gauge the relative success with which the Russian media are handling coverage of the resulting inter-community tensions and conflicts.

Additionally, the project activities will considerably improve the abilities of the project team to communicate research outcomes to non-academic research users. In particular, our RA will acquire vital skills in policy report writing which could be transferred to a range of employment scenarios. The events organisation, website maintenance, translation and coordination aspects of his/her role will likewise constitute highly marketable transferable skills.

The timescale within which the benefits will be realised is twofold. Short-term benefits (the dissemination of policy-relevant knowledge; the establishment of researcher-to-user and user-to-user networks) will occur within the lifetime of the project and will be monitored and recorded during that period. Longer-term benefits (tangible changes of policy and practice; more effective lobbying; the generation of new researcher-user collaborations) will be realised over a period of 2-5 years, but will likewise be systematically tracked and recorded.

1.1. Based on a corpus of research dating between 2006 and 2014 (up to and including the annexation of Crimea), but in particular on a concentrated period in mid-2013, this report sets out to assess the way in which Russian state-aligned television news reports issues relating to the threat posed within and beyond Russia by Islamist extremism. It does so in order to provide insights into tensions within the Russian political elite over how to address pressures on Russia's creaking diversity management model, and into what coverage of relevant events can tell us about the role of television in mediating government policy and popular opinion.
1.2. Focusing primarily on the output of the two main state-aligned broadcasters, Channel 1 and Rossiia, the report identifies a number of discrete but interrelated areas for analysis: responses to growing Islamist violence in the North Caucasus region and the consequences of its spread into the Russian heartlands; attitudes to the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the Middle East; the linkage of Muslim belief to non-Russian migration; competing accounts of Islam in the articulation of Russian national values; the representation of the Muslim Tatar population in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
1.3. Regarding the North Caucasus, the report found a growing emphasis on the 'Islamist' dimension to violence in Chechnia, Dagestan and Ingushetia - a marked departure from previous practice. This trend was linked to a corresponding shift away from adherence to official multiculturalist narratives stressing inter-ethnic harmony and towards a populist-inflected Russo-centrism, elided in turn with an increasingly virulent anti-Westernism.
1.4. The same anti-Western sentiments inflected foreign news reporting of the ongoing aftermath of the Arab Spring. Taking a strong stance against the dangers of jihadism in the Middle East, Channel 1 and Rossiia repeatedly connected the phenomenon to the mistakes, inconsistencies, cynicism and hypocrisy of western foreign policy. However, both channels were obliged to adopt much more nuanced and ambivalent lines on unrest in Turkey, where a secularist, west-leaning uprising was threatening the position of a conservative Islamic (but broadly democratic) regime.
1.5. The anti-migrant campaign which swept the Russian public sphere in 2012-13 displayed no such subtlety; the level of hostility, resentment and suspicion directed towards migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus in a coordinated series of programmes on all of the state-aligned television channels went well beyond the bounds of official discourse, which continued to reproduce the multicultural mantras of earlier years, whilst also highlighting new restrictions on migration and reprimands to purported migrant misdemeanours. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the almost total lack of editorial guidelines for reporting inter-ethnic issues in Russia, and the tendency, therefore, to give free reign to journalist prejudices. But it is also attributable to the way in which television is deliberately used as a platform for the more extreme, populist views that the Kremlin can then show itself both to recognise and moderate, thus adding to its authority and credibility.
1.6. A powerful anti-Islamic strand in the campaign was, however, traversed by 3 conflicting currents: an isolationist nationalism epitomised in the 'Russia for the Russians' slogan; a messianism portraying Russia as a world beacon for conservative Christian values; and a Eurasianism whose inevitable embrace of Russia's special affinity with Eastern, Muslim tradition is nonetheless sharply distinguished from the separatist radical Islamism indulged in liberal West European societies.
1.7. An opposition to the principle of 'tolerance' seen as an indication of the West's general moral decline was particularly prevalent in the first two currents (isolationist-nationalist and Christian messianic), each of which has its designated media champions. This opposition was subsumed into a wider 'civilizational clash' discourse in which Russia's political and spiritual leaders are exhorted to challenge the West's refusal to confront the behavioural deviance of (largely) Muslim migrants. With its avoidance of prejudice based overtly on biological difference, civilizational clash discourse aligns the Russian media with the 'new' or 'cultural' racism also now common throughout western nations.
1.8. In Russia, however, the ethnically non-specific nature of cultural racism means that it can contribute to a growing, more generalised xenophobia in which migrants, Muslims, political and social liberals, westerners, and people of 'non-traditional' sexuality are grouped together as part of a single, alien Other. Again, it is television personae rather than the official statements of politicians which lead the way in mainstreaming this process.
1.9. All of these trends were intensified in television news and current affairs coverage of the annexation of Crimea and its aftermath. However, treatment of the predicament of the Muslim Crimean Tatars evidenced a split between tendencies both to emphasise Crimean Tatar affinity with Islamist extremism, and with the Western-infiltrated Euro-Maidan movement, and to portray the Tatars as 'Russia's new Muslims' and prime contributors to Crimea's status as the very embodiment of Russian multicultural harmony. With Tatar opposition to Russia's actions in Crimea on the rise, it is the former tendency which currently prevails.
1.10. Throughout our analysis, state-aligned television continued to provide the site where the discursive contradictions we identified were played out. Despite the near total homogeneity of official Russian news coverage of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, these contradictions both shape, and can be detected in latent form within, that coverage, and are liable to surface again in the near future.


1.1. This report summarises the outcomes of work carried out by researchers at two institutions (the Universities of Manchester and Surrey) between 2006 and 2013. The research is based on two corpora of daily news recordings of unequal scale, the larger, and earlier, one consisting of two years of BBC1 and France 2 flagship news programmes (from late 2006 to late 2008), and the smaller, later, one of two months of programmes (from mid-May to mid-July, 2013). The primary objectives of the research were to provide a critical overview of broad trends in the BBC's television news coverage of a controversial topic of continuing, and changing, significance, and to situate that overview in a comparative context with specific reference to the French Public Service Broadcaster; to offer a comparative analysis of the implications of difficult issues relating to the reporting of events in which Islam, community cohesion and the (inter)national security agenda intersect for the BBC's commitment to due impartiality and to sustaining citizenship and civil society.

1.2. The methods were two-fold. They consisted firstly of two data analyses based on catalogues of news items for which information about factors such as running order and story length were noted, and which were coded according to their main focus. The descriptive statistics derived from this data provided the basis for an analytical overview of major reporting trends. They were supplemented by detailed analyses of a number of case studies (key stories from each period and from both broadcasters) which concentrated on how PSBs manage changing societal attitudes to multiculturalism resulting from the rise in Islamist radicalism; the role of television news formats and genres in shaping how security alerts involving Muslims are represented; differences between coverage of domestic and international event relating to terrorism.

1.3. On the basis of the evidence we examined, both broadcasters can be said generally to be fulfilling their duties to inform their viewing audiences in a balanced and impartial manner, whilst maintaining their respective commitments to upholding civic values, free speech and the fostering of cohesion at a time of significant cultural change, a rise in inter-community tensions and, more recently, dramatic transformations in the relationship between Islam and democracy throughout the Arab world. A comparison across the two periods reveals important improvements made by each broadcaster - on the BBC's part, a greater consistency in, and care with, the terminology used when referring to Islamist extremism; for France 2, a more nuanced and critical approach to official French republican values. Several of the relevant editors (the BBC's Mark Easton, Home Affairs and Jeremy Bowen, Middle East; France 2's Charles Enderlin, Middle East) consistently provided balanced and informative overviews of complex and controversial news events.

1.4. There are broad similarities between the two PSBs but also significant differences, largely, though not exclusively, attributable to the different political environments in which they operate. Each broadcaster could potentially learn from the respective strengths and weaknesses of the other, as suggested in the remainder of this summary, and throughout the report.

1.5. Both broadcasters face a dilemma over the likely cumulative effects on public perceptions of Islam of the sheer volume of negative stories of war, internecine conflict, extremist violence and fundamentalist fanaticism. The effects are difficult to mitigate against in a 'perfect storm' when multiple destructive conflicts in Muslim countries coincided with a rise in domestic incidents inspired by extreme Islamist ideologies, growing societal concerns over mass immigration and pressures on diversity management policies. They are exacerbated when individual programmes are dominated by sequences of unrelated items, linked only by the fact that the central actors are of Muslim belief. France 2 did more to redress the balance with regular news stories featuring the lives of well-integrated, successful French Muslims, including recent converts, and optimistic lifestyle features on French ex-pats living in North Africa, albeit framed from an official republican perspective.

1.6. Whilst its sampling of Muslim responses to critical incidents tended to divide a little too neatly into 'moderate' and 'extremist', with insufficient effort made to capture the complex spectrum in between these poles, the BBC consistently made available a greater range of opinion on the issues at stake than France 2. The French broadcaster frequently revealed a preference for views broadly in line with republican values. The BBC reporting style, with its ability to internalise alternative views and evaluate them on their own terms, offered a more nuanced and informed account of relevant opinion than that of France 2, which often tended to assess views from the republican perspective.

1.7. The BBC has clearly responded to shifts in the public consensus in relation to British multiculturalism that have occurred progressively over the past decade. Marginal recalibrations aside, France 2, remains largely wedded to the French integrationist model of diversity management. The BBC has thus shown more awareness of the fact that consensus is a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon. France 2 has, however, paid greater attention to the responsibilities that flow from the inevitable role of PSBs in shaping consensus. As the BBC has reflected the move away from multiculturalist orthodoxies, it has sometimes tended to downplay important diversity issues, or sublimate them within broader, less controversial, political issues (e.g. the politics of inter-nation rivalry within the UK). Its efforts to fulfil its new commitment not to avoid tackling difficult problems within minority communities have on occasion clashed with an increased sensitivity to the dangers of 'over-Islamising' such problems. One of several illustrations of the tensions between the two sides of the BBC's remit (due impartiality on one hand; a commitment to strengthening civil society and national cohesion on the other), the clash sometimes expresses itself in enduring difficulties over separating issues of race from those of ethnicity and faith.

1.8. The apparent certainty with which both broadcasters now delineate boundaries between mainstream and extreme opinion might also be challenged, given the fact that those boundaries were, until recently, drawn at different points. It could be argued that the principle of liberal tolerance (one of the democratic values PSBs claim to promote) requires a positive attitude to difference, including that which arises out of increased immigration flows, and that in reflecting a shift in the public mood against those flows, PSBs introduce a further tension into the heart of their twin remit.

1.9. The BBC has a well-developed set of consistent formats, reporting procedures, genres and sub-genres capable of handling unexpected security incidents involving Muslims in a way that does justice to the extent of the threat, whilst remaining sensitive to inter-community tensions. France 2 continues to lack such a sophisticated system (though the recent increase in incidents on French soil has enabled it to make progress in this area), sometimes leading to insensitive and clumsy reporting.

1.10. There are instances in which the BBC's elaborate system of reporting conventions contributes inadvertently to the burgeoning 'securitisation' of public discourse, a process of which, however, recent public scandals over mass surveillance have generated more critical scrutiny on the broadcaster's part. The French broadcaster, which began in our earlier recording period from a position of greater scepticism towards securitisation is now broadly convergent with the BBC.

1.11. The BBC's 'terror genre system' has been placed under strain by significant changes in the provenance and modes of terrorist attack (with the focus of attention switching to Africa, and with assaults elaborately coordinated by shadowy networks of terrorists being supplanted by more spontaneous individual or 'lone wolf' attacks). The former development has on occasion thrown into disarray the BBC's procedures for linking reporting on the facts of incidents to the sampling of Muslim community reactions (this, another instance of difficulties in articulating the race-culture-ethnicity relationship). The latter phenomenon led in the Lee Rigby murder case, to which we devoted the longest of our case studies, to inconsistency in the labelling and contextualisation of both the incident itself and the ensuing Islamophobic backlash activities (a further illustration of the impartiality/community cohesion tension). France 2's reporting of the Rigby murder, and of a parallel incident in Paris, showed greater consistency on both fronts.

1.12. The same system of conventions displays an occasional over-rigidity with respect to the reporting of the 'radicalisation' narrative promoted by successive British governments, with the impression sometimes created that the sequence leading from alienation, to conversion, to Islamist fundamentalism, to jihadist training camp, to violent intent, to domestic terrorist attack is seamless, unbreakable and incapable of interruption, or of divergent outcomes, at each stage. British Muslim contributions to the Syrian opposition's struggle with the Assad regime offer one example of ways in which the familiar radicalisation narrative is prone to disruption. Again, the French PSB displays greater awareness of the problems at stake; it adopts a more nuanced approach to the radicalisation narrative template and its use of the term 'Salafiste' may offer a more parsimonious and accurate alternative to the BBC's now ubiquitous and ambiguous 'Islamist' label (a label which, moreover, is not consistently applied). It also recognises that sudden conversion to Islam does not always imply an embrace of Islamist extremism.

1.13. The BBC's close adherence to 'presumption of innocence' principles in its reporting of the treatment of terror suspects is consistently applied (and not fully replicated by France 2). However, on occasion, the application of these principles is subverted by clashes with parallel procedures relating to the sampling of Muslim community reactions, leading to inadvertent inferences regarding the likely provenance of attacks. The growth of mobile phone footage and other eyewitness-sourced UGC also presents challenges to 'presumption of innocence' procedures and (as Woolwich demonstrated) to the equally important imperative not to provide a platform for extremist views. In the circumstances, the BBC handled the Rigby case as well as could be reasonably expected, though this is an issue deserving serious attention for the future.

1.14. The Woolwich and Paris incidents of May 2013 revealed continuing and considerable divergences in the ways that BBC1 and France 2 report events that occur on the territory of the respective host nations. Much of this divergence is to be expected, given the broadcasters' different national allegiances, but it is worth noting the striking tendency for reporting on 'international' incidents to be more oriented towards socio-economic causes and the prospects for anti-Muslim backlashes than in the coverage of 'domestic' incidents which tends to be security-focused. The incidents also revealed a contrast between the BBC's somewhat counter-intuitive preference for downplaying both the links between them, and their place within the broader international context, and France 2's preference for highlighting these connections. In general, the French broadcaster shows a greater awareness of how other national broadcasters are reporting major incidents of Islamist violence; this remains something of a blind spot for the BBC which would do well to enhance the depth of its coverage of controversial issues with more attention to how they are reported elsewhere.

1.15. The new and divergent disposition of forces within the post-Arab Spring World, and the complex re-articulations of the relationship between Islam and democracy, has provided another challenging task for European PSBs. Both the BBC and France 2 have risen impressively to that challenge, with, however, France 2 perhaps continuing to rather over-emphasise the secularist perspective, and with BBC1 remaining rather slow to accommodate the implications of the increasing prevalence of Islamist extremists within the anti-Assad forces, despite advice received in the BBC Trust's own report into coverage of the Arab Spring itself.
Exploitation Route REPORT A, which is also being translated into Russian, will be of use to the foreign policy community, providing important insights into how inter-faith issues, and in particular the impact of Islamist extremism on national cohesion, are playing out in Russian public discourse. The Russian-language version will also assist the Moscow-based human rights monitoring group, SOVA, in tracking the rise of ethnic prejudice in the Russian media.

REPORT B is aimed primarily at the BBC and was written following consultation with the BBC's Editorial Policy and Standards Department. It also covers the French Public Sector Broadcaster, France 2, however. The report will be of use to PSBs in navigating the difficult terrain around the reporting of events and issues relating to Muslims in multicultural societies under strain. The report includes suggestions as to areas in which PSBs might improve their coverage of such issues.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description Findings from the report 'Comparative approaches to Islam, Security and Television News: Implications for the Editorial Policies and Practices of Public Sector Broadcasters' are currently under consideration by the BBC Policy and Standards Department.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Influence on EU policy on human rights, demonstrated by several citations of our research in the annual report of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) of 2012
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents