8.1.2 Implications of public misperceptions for democracy
Deliberative understandings of democracy (Elster 1998, Dryzek 2002) stress the importance of public argument for democracy. This relies both on public access to accurate information (ensured in part by the media's willingness and capacity to question the authorities and other vested interests), and on public access to a variety of shared spaces in which a range of different voices can be heard, listen to each other, and debate matters of shared concern.
Later this section, especially in the work of Simon Cottle, we will consider the implications of new communications technologies and news media diversification for the development of such spaces, and hence the prospects for deliberative democracy in the post 9/11 media landscape.
We now turn our attention from US to British interpretations of media sources. Dr Elizabeth Poole has studied representations of Islam and Muslims in British newspapers over the last 20 years (1988–2008), and also how different groups within the British public interpret these changing representations.
Activity 29 Interview with Dr Elizabeth Poole
Read the transcript of an interview David Herbert conducted with Dr Poole below.
Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.
Interview with Dr Elizabeth Poole
Activity 30 Questions related to the interview
Once you have read the interview, answer the following questions.
- How and why did The Satanic Verses controversy (from 1988) mark a turning point in press representations of Islam and British Muslims?
- What changes followed 9/11 and 7/7?
- What does Poole’s research tell us about different groups’ readings of British newspapers representations of Islam and Muslims pre 9/11? What tentative general conclusion might be drawn from these findings?
- Poole argues that, as a result of The Satanic Verses controversy, British Muslims began to be represented as a cultural threat to British values. This is certainly one possible reading, although an alternative interpretation might be that the main change in representation was from that of passive cultural threat (mediated by representations of difference in terms of gender relations, language, dress and food, rather than religion) to one of active or militant cultural threat (symbolised by the book-burning incidents in Bradford and Bolton), and more focused on religion.
- After 9/11, the focus on representation of cultural threat was replaced by representation of physical, terrorist threat, and the volume of representations also increased greatly. At the same time though, the liberal press such as The Guardian and The Independent began to run articles examining different aspects of Muslim life in Britain, and to encourage debate about the issues raised. At this stage, the physical threat was still seen as mostly coming from abroad. However, after 7/7, the wider debate in the liberal press diminished, and the physical threat began to be located amongst British Muslims. However, this raised problems for the image still favoured by all mainstream newspapers of Britain as a functioning multicultural society, even though the idea of multiculturalism as a good thing in itself was under widespread attack. These problems were resolved by linking terrorist activities amongst British Muslims to the pathology of isolated individuals, often misled by radicals from abroad.
- Poole found that the extent to which individuals accepted the dominant negative press representation of Islam and Muslims depended on the extent to which they had access to alternative sources of knowledge. Thus individuals who had no regular contact with Muslims largely accepted the dominant press discourse. Individuals who had contact with Muslims but lacked knowledge of Islam tended to accept press representations of the religion, but held positive attitudes to multiculturalism, including their Muslim contacts. Muslims generally rejected the negative press discourses, but where the press covered events in Muslim countries they did not know, e.g. Egypt, they too tended to accept the negative press discourse.