Ten months ago, in the paper, I revealed how Tell Mama, a project purporting to measure anti-Muslim attacks, had exaggerated the scale and nature of attacks against Muslims both before and after the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. I later revealed that Tell Mama’s public funding had not been renewed after government officials raised similar concerns about its methods.
Tell Mama’s founder, Fiyaz Mughal, said that there had been a “wave of attacks” against Muslims, with 193 “Islamophobic incidents” reported to it in the first five days (to 27 May), rising to 212 by June 1, the eve of publication of our first article.
“I do not see an end to this cycle of violence”, said Mughal, describing it as “unprecedented”. Tell Mama’s Twitter feed claimed that a Muslim woman had been “knocked unconscious” in Bolton, a claim recycled in the Guardian. “The scale of the backlash is astounding,” Mughal told the BBC. “There has been a massive spike in anti-Muslim prejudice. A sense of endemic fear has gripped Muslim communities.” According to Mughal, the unprecedented spike proved British society’s “underlying Islamophobia.” These claims, and Tell Mama’s figures, were unquestioningly repeated across the media.
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What Tell Mama and Mughal did not tell us at the time, however, was that 57% of its 212 “incidents” took place only online, mainly offensive postings on Twitter and Facebook. They did not say that a further 16% of the 212 reports had not been verified. They forgot to mention that not all the online abuse even originated in Britain.
Contrary to the group’s claim of an unending “cycle of violence” and a “wave of attacks”, only 17 of the 212 incidents, 8%, involved the physical targeting of people and there were no attacks on anyone serious enough to require medical treatment. The supposed Bolton attack never happened. There were a further 13 attacks on Islamic buildings, four of them serious.
Far from being “unprecedented,” the spike in attacks was in fact “slightly less” than after 7/7, according to the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. Far from being unending, the post-Woolwich spike in anti-Muslim incidents fell to pre-Rigby levels within days. If there was a “sense of endemic fear” in Muslim communities, it was partly created by Fiyaz Mughal himself.
Mr Mughal, as you can imagine, wasn’t best pleased when we reported all this. In a typically bullying campaign, he got his supporters to write round-robin emails to the paper accusing us of behaviour “better suited to the days of 1930s Germany,” wound up to attack us various luminaries who should have known better, and submitted what would became a 10-month, 127-page Press Complaints Commission complaint, full of the same misrepresentation and bluster that characterised his earlier media performances. At one point, he asked to withdraw the complaint – only to reactivate it several months later. This is, apparently, allowed.
Last week he was comprehensively defeated on all points. The PCC ruled that our reporting that Mughal exaggerated the prevalence of anti-Muslim attacks, that he had not had his funding renewed, and that DCLG officials had expressed concern about his methods, was “not inaccurate.”
Perhaps it helped that we could point out that the day after our first piece, Mughal himself admitted to the BBC that the number of physical attacks was in fact “quite small;” that within two months, he had quietly dropped his own estimate of the number of “Islamophobic incidents” post-Rigby from 193 in the first five days to “more than 120” in the first week; and that the DCLG, by his own admission, had demanded an “independent review” of his data. Various police officers and DCLG officials, asked by Mughal to support his case against us, conspicuously declined to do so.
Mughal does seem to spend too much of his time picking silly fights – as we also reported, he has been threatening to sue people who criticise him on Twitter. Perhaps it’s time to get back to the day job? Although anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain appears (with the exception of the brief spike after Rigby) to be diminishing, not growing, there remain, as my articles made quite clear, real and significant anti-Muslim hatred in this country, and it’s disgraceful.
The work Tell Mama does could be very valuable. Mughal is saying some good things, and making some good allies. But if it’s not done scrupulously, it fuels the very fear and distance between communities it’s supposed to be tackling.