The Guardian's dismissal of Dilpazier Aslam should set off a wave of self-examination in British journalism. The newspaper ignored journalistic standards in the name of political correctnessby Jytte Klausen / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
How often do journalism trainees at major newspapers get to write opinion columns on the big issue of the day? Rarely, but on 13th July, Dilpazier Aslam, a 27-year-old trainee, got to write the Guardian’s leader on the “young Muslim” view of home-grown Islamic terrorism. Terrorism is “not the way to express your political anger,” he wrote, but he found no faults with the bombers’ motives. In the timeless style of all brands of apologists, Aslam spun a twisted story. Adding British casualties to the list of war dead slightly evened out the imbalance between the dead in the 9/11 attacks and Iraqi civilian casualties, he wrote, but he did not mention that Muslims are killing Muslims in Iraq. He wrapped himself in the flag as a “born and bred” Yorkshire lad, and pretended to speak for the “second and third generation” of British Muslims. “We rock the boat,” he – and his headline – gloated.
Soon afterwards, a blogger (Scott Burgess of the Daily Ablution) discovered that Aslam was a member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The story was picked up by journalist Shiv Malik in the Independent on Sunday and then the New Statesman, and ten days after the publication of the original article, the Guardian sacked Aslam, issuing a “correction” that identified him as a member of HT. To explain his dismissal, the paper cited Aslam’s refusal to leave HT after the paper confronted him with antisemitic material on the group’s website. Aslam never made a secret of his membership of HT, although he did not list it on his application papers to the Guardian. The editor who asked Aslam to write the op-ed was, according to the Guardian’s statement, not aware of his membership.
The real issue is that the Guardian allowed Aslam to espouse a wholesome version of Islamic extremism on its pages. His stories should have triggered alarm bells long ago. On January 25, only three months after having joined the paper as a trainee, Aslam wrote a lead story about a Muslim girls’ school in response to a statement by David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, who had claimed that many Muslim schools were providing an inferior and biased education. The story described how the girls are given verses from the Koran as part of drug education and concluded with a finger-wagging quote from the acting head of school, “It is when our children go to other schools that they fail.” The unsubtle message was that only by following the narrow path of Koranic literalism would British Muslims succeed.
In March, Aslam wrote about the case of Shabina Begum, who won an appeal against a high court decision upholding the right of her school to bar her from wearing the jilbab in class. Aslam portrayed the veiled teenager as the proper model for Muslim womanhood. The story described Shabina as “the reluctant poster girl” for the headscarf cause and mentioned that Shabina was represented by Cherie Booth. It did not mention the role of Shabina’s brother, Shuweb Rahman, who accompanied her when she first turned up at her school wearing the jilbab, and who is also a member of HT. The school’s headmistress, also Muslim, said during the court proceedings: “Since this case has been given publicity, the school has been picketed by groups of mainly young men who would appear to be from the more extreme Muslim traditions.” Getting women to wear “proper Islamic dress” is one of HT’s pet causes and after the appeal court’s decision, the group revealed that it had “advised” Shabina.
Aslam’s dismissal will—and should—set off a wave of self-examination in British journalism. The blogs are awash with rumours and counter-rumours about an HT effort to infiltrate the mainstream media. The resignation of Albert Scardino (see News & curiosities), an executive editor at the Guardian, was “entirely unconnected” with the Aslam affair, according to a statement put out by the newspaper, which also said that Scardino was only “very loosely responsible” for minority recruitment and had not interviewed Aslam for the position at the paper. With so many protests to the contrary, one has to presume significant patronage was involved. The local chapel of the NUJ voted to represent Aslam in his grievances against the paper, but for good measure also passed a resolution chiding Aslam and HT for antisemitism. Management and union have gone to great length not to address the real issue: Aslam’s passing-off of highly partisan reportage as the “minority view.”
Two years ago, the New York Times had an intern scandal of its own. Jayson Blair, a protégé of the then chief editor Howell Raines, had been promoted to the front pages as part of the paper’s diversity scheme. Blair was found to have fabricated interviews and borrowed text from other journalists. In the end, the paper published a report investigating itself, which found Blair to have been promoted by Raines over the objections of editors, who suspected problems with his work. Raines lost his job and the Times created the position of an independent ombudsman, responsible for monitoring accuracy and ethics in the paper’s news coverage.
Aslam has not been found to fabricate interviews, but there are uncomfortable parallels. In both cases, senior editors ignored common standards of journalism to promote a young journalist for reasons of political correctness. I have no quarrel with the Guardian’s objective of “engaging with the Muslim community.” Newspapers have had trouble striking the right tone when it comes to writing about minority communities, and there can be little doubt that ignorance and pre-conceived notions about who Muslims are and what they want have lead to biased news coverage. The problem is that the Guardian fell into a trap of its own making and perpetuated false assumptions by turning its pages over to Aslam’s caricature of British Muslim identity.