Meet the man correcting stories about Muslims

“All I’m asking for is responsible reporting.”

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“All I’m asking for is responsible reporting.”

When one newspaper reported last year that “enclaves of Islam see UK as 75% Muslim” last year, Miqdaad Versi’s instinct was to challenge it. He believes errors in the reporting of Muslims have become all too common, and has made it his mission to fight for corrections.

Miqdaad Versi sits in front of a rather geeky-looking spreadsheet at the offices of the Muslim Council of Britain in east London. He is the organisation’s assistant secretary general, but the task in front of him is a personal project. The spreadsheet has on it every story published concerning Muslims and Islam that day in the British media – and he is going through them looking for inaccuracies. If he finds one, he will put in a complaint or a request for a correction with the news organisation, the press regulator Ipso, or both.

Mr Versi has been doing this thoroughly since November, and before that on a more casual basis. He has so far complained more than 50 times, and the results are visible. He was personally behind eight corrections in December and another four so far this month.

Miqdaad Versi tweets diagrams showing corrections and apologies made following his complaints.
Miqdaad Versi tweets diagrams showing corrections and apologies made following his complaints.

In the past, corrections to stories were mostly printed when individuals were the victims of inaccurate reporting, but Mr Versi is looking at a whole topic.

“Nobody else was doing this,” he tells the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. “There have been so many articles about Muslims overall that have been entirely inaccurate, and they create this idea within many Muslim communities that the media is out to get them.

“The reason that’s the case is because nobody is challenging these newspapers and saying, ‘That’s not true.'”

Mr Versi goes through some of the corrections from December. Five of them concerned a review into integration by Dame Louise Casey. The Sunday Times reported that “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75% Muslim” in a preview of the review. This was incorrect, with the review actually citing a survey of pupils in one largely Asian school who thought 50-90% of the population in Britain were Asian. The paper corrected the article, and later apologised. As the same story was reported in other publications, it led to five corrections. Mr Versi highlights another article, concerning the Muslim president of the National Union of Students (NUS). She was accused on Mail Online of refusing to condemn so-called Islamic State, when she had openly done so.

Also in December, he points out a report in the Sun on Sunday confused the identities of two Muslim individuals – one fighting against extremism and one accused of extremism.

“Quite a mix-up,” says Mr Versi.

He has met several newspaper editors and has been pleased with the quick corrections he has received in some cases. But he is concerned that these revisions are not obvious enough to the reader. “Sometimes the corrections lack a clear acknowledgement of the error they made and often do not include an apology. In addition, they are rarely given the prominence of the original article,” he says. He adds that while he is concerned with “significant failings” in the reporting of Muslims, the same issues “might also be replicated for refugee, migrant or other groups”.

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‘No middle ground’

One particularly high-profile correction in December last year – that Mr Versi was not behind – involved a 2015 article in which Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins wrongly suggested Zahid Mahmood and his brother were extremists with links to al-Qaeda, after they had not been allowed to board a plane to the US. The paper and Ms Hopkins apologised and paid £150,000 in damages.

At his home in Walthamstow, north-east London, Mr Mahmood says he has forgiven her. He now says it is not her original false accusations that he finds the most upsetting, but the public reaction. “First they were all against us when Katie Hopkins published the article, and then when she made the apology a year later – then they all turn against her. There’s no middle ground. It’s not just about Katie Hopkins, it’s the mindset of people – how they can very easily be led against somebody, or in favour of somebody.”

Zahid Mahmood says he holds "no grudge" against Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins.
Zahid Mahmood says he holds “no grudge” against Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins.

Mr Mahmood says he feels this kind of reaction is causing divisions in society, and – keen to do his bit for unity – tells the BBC he is formally inviting Katie Hopkins to his home for tea and coffee. “We have no grudge against her, and we would like her to learn and know that we are as British as she is. In fact, my wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather both fought in World War One and World War Two. They fought for the very freedom of this country.”

Mr Versi says he wants to improve community relations too. He thinks inaccurate reporting has far-reaching consequences, especially because negative stories are often widely circulated by far-right groups and then the corrections are not. Some free speech campaigners, however, are concerned about this kind of work. Tom Slater, deputy editor of Spiked Online, says these complaints could create a fear of reporting certain issues.

“I, like anyone else, want a press that’s going to be accurate… but what we’re seeing here is quite concerted attempts to try and often ring-fence Islam from criticism.”

Mr Slater says he found a recent correction to a story about a suspected “honour killing” particularly problematic. In May 2016, the Mail Online and the Sun used the phrase “Islamic honour killing” in their headline. Mr Versi successfully complained to Ipso that Islam does not condone honour killings and that the phrase incorrectly suggested it was motivated by religion. The word “Islamic” was removed from the papers’ headlines, and at the bottom of the articles they wrote: “We are happy to make clear that Islam as a religion does not support so-called ‘honour killings.'”

Mr Slater says he found that statement added by the papers “absolutely staggering”. “We all know a religion is just an assortment of ideas and principles. What these papers were effectively asked to do, and what they did do, was to print one accepted interpretation of a religion – and to me this was just like backdoor blasphemy law.”

Mr Versi, however, insists his work is about ensuring the facts are right – not silencing critics. He says there are many examples where Muslims can be rightly criticised and he is not complaining about those.

“All I’m asking for is responsible reporting.”

This post was originally featured here.