Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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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

David Herbert
I asked Elizabeth Poole, Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Staffordshire, to explain how British press representations of Muslims & Islam have changed over recent years. Dr Poole argues that the Rushdie Affair which began in 1988, and in which British Muslims protested against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, marked an important turning point.
Elizabeth Poole
I think it’s been a gradual process since the Rushdie affair in this country which changed quite significantly, people’s perception of the ethnic other. Before the Rushdie affair, cultural values were not seen as kind of so important or ethnic minority groups weren’t seen as a particular threat to cultural values, whereas this in particular allowed Muslims to be seen as a cultural threat to the Britishness of society. And from that point and other events since then that have happened in Britain and abroad like the Gulf War, and obviously particularly since 9/11 and 7/7 and the Iraq War, increasingly there’s an idea that Muslims are as well as a security threat, a cultural threat. And therefore you get a shift toward cultural racism whereby the issues of importance to the press are things like Britishness and inclusivity and what it means to be British. So those have been the issues of importance particularly around Muslims, particularly before 9/11.
Dr Poole then explained that while 9/11 greatly increased the coverage of Muslims as a potential terrorist threat, it also stimulated broader debate, especially in the liberal press such as the Guardian and Independent. However, the breadth of debate was to narrow again after 7/7:
Initially following 9/11, you had coverage centring around three main topics, terrorism, counter terrorism and discrimination against Muslims which you mainly found in the, in the liberal press. And I thought initially and there’s been other research that’s been done in this area, post 9/11 there was a, a kind of seriousness injected into the tabloid press. And a lot of debate in the liberal press looked quite positive because there was a lot of discussion of Guantanamo Bay and about injustices against Muslims. But post 7/7 there’s been a big shift away from that really, so even in the liberal press you’ve got this kind of single narrative which dominates.
So I asked Dr Poole to explain in more detail how the relationship between representations of British Muslims and security threats had developed since 7/7.
The evidence shows that pre 7/7 this kind of security threat of terrorism was always assigned to a foreign other, even Muslims living in Britain, it was always exiles, that were engaged in activities supporting terrorism or extremism. Often the term terrorism particularly before 9/11 wasn’t used it was more extremism, fundamentalism, those kind of terms. Whereas obviously post 7/7 when you had British born Muslims who were engaged in kind of terrorist activity, that construction can’t be maintained. So then you’ve got a problem whereby you know to maintain social cohesion in society, to ensure you, that the Muslim community isn’t excluded, to ensure that Britain is still constructed or seen to be a multi cultural society. Then what we’ve seen is an individualisation of terrorism so rather than being seen as a collective, its very much been individualised and criminalized so this part is to do with the de-politicalisation of terrorism. What we’ve noticed is that very much you get the idea of the construction of the irrational fanatic who is an individual who has been misguided perhaps had some kind of psychological symptoms of psychosis and things like that beforehand, but they’ve kind of lost their way and been misled by the external other. So in that way you can still ‘other’ – you’ve still got a process of ‘othering’ going on but its still related to kind of foreign influences. Whereas the individual of the British Muslim is criminalised and individualised and that removes them from the British Muslim community. So this allows Britain to still be constructed as this kind of multicultural society, not racist because it’s removing the actions of the terrorist from the British Muslim community but still keeping it within a kind of global Muslim terrorist network by relating the influence coming from foreign Imams and groups abroad. So that’s what we’ve found since post 7/7 really.
Dr Poole summarises recent changes in British press representations of Islam and Muslims as follows:
We can see clearly that there’s been three phases in the representation of Muslims in the British press over the last ten, fifteen years that, there was a lot of variety in representation pre 9/11 although this did still centre around kind of conflict, it was to do with cultural conflict rather than security conflict. Then post 9/11 you’ve got some variety but a limited narrowing of that variety, but there’s still kind of a split representation between the dominant representation of terrorism and kind of counter terrorism. And then post 7/7 it has closed further really to a kind of single narrative.
Dr Poole also did some research before 9/11, which examined how contact with Muslim peers influenced how people interpreted media images of Islam and Muslims. The study found that while daily contact positively influenced people’s perceptions of British Muslims, they still shared the dominant and negative media image of Islam in general. I asked Dr Poole to explain more:
I took three different types of groups, Muslims, non Muslims who had a lot of daily contact with Muslims and a group that didn’t have any contact with Muslims. Fromthe findings of that research it did show that non Muslims do share the dominant discourse of the press, but it was interesting that non Muslims who had a lot of contact with Muslims, didn’t really know enough about their religious identity to be able to challenge the kind of dominant discourse of the press. So although they were very fair and liberal in their understanding of the kind of racial identity and issues they still tended to take onboard the dominant discourse of the press because they didn’t have any other kind of frameworks for interpretation. Whereas the non-contact groups very much shared the discourse of the press, but it was their particular readership of the red tops, which meant that they had very little recognition of who Muslims were really. Now I’m not saying that you know people are just influenced by what the press represents, it’s more that the press discourse fits with their preconceptions and then they use press discourse to interpret their own experiences through that. The Muslims though completely rejected press discourse on the basis of cultural bias. So its almost like a closure and not wanting to read or understand press discourse because there was an immediate sort of reaction that this is going to be biased, but where they didn’t know enough about issues going on in the world and then sometimes they fell into, just kind of following that dominant discourse as well.
In other words, people tend to accept press representations if this fits with their preconceptions, and where they do not have an alternative source of knowledge. So non-Muslims who had no contact with Muslims tended to accept the press discourse fully, having no reason to challenge it. Non-Muslims who had contact with Muslims made exceptions for Muslims they knew and to some extent for British Muslims more generally, but shared the negative view of Islam in general, lacking alternative knowledge. British Muslims rejected press discourse on Islam having an alternative source of knowledge based on their own experience; but where they lacked alternative sources of knowledge, as with some stories about Islam abroad in parts of the world with which they were not familiar, they too tended to accept the dominant negative press discourse.

Activity 30 Questions related to the interview

Once you have read the interview, answer the following questions.

  1. How and why did The Satanic Verses controversy (from 1988) mark a turning point in press representations of Islam and British Muslims?
  2. What changes followed 9/11 and 7/7?
  3. 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?


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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