Daily Mail’s bigoted and inaccurate reporting provokes more right-wing anti-Muslim hysteria

Over the past week we have seen a wave of right-wing hysteria over the case of Rhea Page, a white woman from Leicester who was assaulted by four women of Somali heritage – or a “Muslim gang”, as they are invariably described.

The version of events that has gained currency on the racist right is that the women subjected Page to a “savage beating” while screaming “kill the white slag” but escaped a prison sentence because the judge accepted the defence’s argument in mitigation that the accused were Muslims who weren’t used to drinking alcohol. The case has been presented as an example of double standards in the British legal system, which supposedly discriminates against the white majority population and in favour of Muslims and other minorities.

Daily Express columnist Leo McKinstry produced a characteristically frothing-at-the-mouth comment piece on the case. Being a bit of a traditionalist, McKinstry couldn’t help adding a large dollop of good old-fashioned racism to his article (“Too many Somalians have become a burden on the British taxpayer, thanks to their welfare dependency…. Somalian gangs, most of them peddling drugs, have helped to create a climate of fear in parts of our cities through their enthusiasm for violence and contempt for the law”). But the main thrust of his argument was viciously Islamophobic:

The dogma of political correctness is dangerously weakening Britain’s traditional concept of justice. Our ruling elite are so deluded by the ideology of cultural diversity that they have lost the ability to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the outrageous leniency shown by a court this week towards a gang of Somalian Muslim women who savagely beat up a white woman in Leicster city centre. In a brutal, unprovoked assault, the thugs knocked Rhea Page to the ground, then repeatedly kicked in the head while calling her a “white bitch” and “white slag”….

Incredibly, despite the ferocity of the attack, the judge gave the girls only suspended sentences, even though he could have jailed them for up to five years. His bizarre decision came after the defence told him that the Muslim assailants had been drinking and were “not used to being drunk” because of their religion.

As a cause for mitigation, this is absurd. Why on earth should Muslims be treated any differently to other offenders, simply on the grounds of their faith? … The disgraceful message of this episode is that Muslims can get drunk and maim almost with impunity because the state is so craven about their creed….

The reluctance to imprison Ms Page’s attackers is so indicative of the supine, guilt-ridden mindset of our modern ruling class, where cowardice is dressed up as cultural sensitivity and self-loathing masquerades as tolerance. This mentality, which is tearing apart the moral bonds of our civilisation, can be seen all around us. This mentality, which is tearing apart the moral bonds of our civilisation, can be seen all around us….

Tremendous double standards are at work over race crime. Racial killings of whites are frequently downplayed or forgotten…. The British establishment is guilty of nothing less than reverse racism. Their members, from judges to politicians, think they are enlightened and compassionate. But in truth they are filled with prejudice. For often they refuse to expect the same standards of civilised behaviour from certain minorities that they demand of the indigenous population.

Forces further to the right have of course seized on the case. The British National Party reported it under the headline “‘Enough is enough’ – Rising anger over court bias as Muslim racists swagger free from Leicester court” and boasted that they were recruiting members off the back of the controversy. Paul Weston, the leader of the English Defence League’s new political ally the British Freedom Party, posted an article (“One rule for them, one rule for us”) on Ned May’s Gates of Vienna blog, one of the “counterjihadist” websites that provided the inspiration for Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. The EDL itself organised a protest in Leicester yesterday and has announced that it will be holding a national demonstration there in February to oppose “anti-white racism and the 2 tier justice system“.

This entire furore derives from a report published in the Daily Mail last week, under the headline “Muslim gang who kicked woman in the head while yelling ‘kill the white slag’ FREED” (subsequently amended to “Girl gang who kicked woman in the head while yelling ‘kill the white slag’ freed after judge hears ‘they weren’t used to drinking because they’re Muslims'”). In the print edition the article was headlined “Somali girls thugs go free after judge is told ‘they were not used to being drunk'”, but the Mail evidently thought it necessary to beef up the shock-horror anti-Muslim message for the benefit of its online readership.

The Mail‘s account provided the basis for further coverage in the Sun, the Telegraph and the Metro. The Sun added an editorial comment, headed “Return Left”:

How Britain cheered when judges doled out proper jail sentences to the looters who briefly ran amok in our cities. Four months on, the Left has regrouped to concoct its perverse excuses for evil. And courts have resumed their liberal agenda too. So while in the summer yobs were handed two years apiece, yesterday a girl gang who screamed racist abuse while kicking a care worker’s head in got six months. Suspended. The poor dears were Muslims and not used to drinking, you see.

Since then the Sun has kept the issue on the boil by running an interview with Rhea Page (“I daren’t go out since race attack”), which in turn provided the Mail with an opportunity to run the story a second time (“Muslim girl gang ‘sentence sends wrong message about street violence'”). Not to be outdone, the Express, apparently feeling that McKinstry’s extended rant was an inadequate response to the scandal, published another op ed by Nick Ferrari (“Whatever happened to the idea of everyone being equal in the eyes of the law? Are we really suggesting that Muslims can be seen to be beyond the law by virtue of being unused to drink? … If this wasn’t a race crime, what the hell is?”)

Where did the Mail get the information for the report that provoked such a frenzy? As is often the case, the paper lifted the basic facts from a local newspaper and then distorted them in order to support its own anti-Muslim agenda. (For another recent example, see the Mail‘s concocted story of “church leaders” expressing “fury” over a branch of McDonald’s opening on Christmas Day.) In this instance the Mail‘s piece was essentially a rewrite of a report published in the Leicester Mercury back on 24 November, combined with quotes from an interview with Rhea Page, who of course held her assailants entirely responsible for the violent confrontation and claimed that she and her partner Lewis Moore were blameless.

If you examine the Leicester Mercury report you can see how it has been manipulated by the Mail. It was the lawyer for just one of the defendants, Ambaro Maxamed, who raised the issue of their faith. He said: “Although Miss Page’s partner used violence, it doesn’t justify their behaviour. They’re Somalian Muslims and alcohol or drugs isn’t something they’re used to.” But there is no suggestion in the Mercury report that the religious affiliation of the accused had anything to do with the judge’s decision not to jail them:

Sentencing, Judge Robert Brown said: “This was ugly and reflects very badly on all four of you. Those who knock someone to the floor and kick them in the head can expect to go inside, but I’m going to suspend the sentence.” He said he accepted the women may have felt they were the victims of unreasonable force from the victim’s partner.

A researcher from Full Fact contacted the Judicial Office, who referred her to the Mercury report as accurately reflecting the facts of the case and pointed out that “the role of the victim’s boyfriend was the one which impacted on the judgement”. This was no doubt reinforced by the fact that the main object of Lewis Moore’s violence was Ifrah Nur, who it appears had initially intervened to try and stop the fight, only to be punched in the face by Moore.

The Mail was clearly aware of this hole in its story. Hence the weasel-worded sentence that opened its report: “A gang of Muslim women who attacked a passer-by in a city centre walked free from court after a judge heard they were ‘not used to being drunk’ because of their religion” (emphasis added). Chronologically speaking, this is of course strictly true. The Mail‘s objective, however, was to mislead its readers into concluding that the judge decided against jailing the women because they were Muslims.

The actual cause of the violent clash is itself obscure. The Mail quoted Page as saying: “I honestly think they attacked me just because I am white. I can’t think of any other reason.” She added: “We were just minding our own business but they kept shouting ‘white bitch’ and ‘white slag’ at me. When I turned around one of them grabbed my hair then threw me on the ground.” Page repeated this accusation in her Sun interview: “they all came from behind me shouting, ‘White bitch’ and ‘White slag’. I had done absolutely nothing to them, I hadn’t even looked at them.”

But the Mercury report states that the assault on Page followed a verbal altercation: “after words were exchanged, Ambaro Maxamed had grabbed Miss Page’s hair, causing her to fall on the ground” (emphasis added). Which obviously conflicts with Page’s account. The Mail has posted CCTV footage of the incident on its website, but this has been edited so that the events leading up to the attack have been omitted. Even on the basis of this truncated version, however, it looks as though Page was involved in a verbal exchange with two of the four women before they attacked her. Exactly what was said, and why it provoked a violent reaction, the Mail obviously had no interest in establishing. They preferred to whip up the anger and indignation of their readers with a tale of Muslim thugs attacking a random stranger solely because she was white.

The claim that the attack was racially motivated is also dubious. The Mercury reports that only one of the defendants was accused of using such language: “During the hearing, James Bide-Thomas, prosecuting, said Ambaro Maxamed, who started the violence, had called Miss Page a ‘white bitch’ during the incident.” But Page’s account has all four of the women calling her a “white bitch” and “white slag” before attacking her. If that was indeed the case, it is difficult to understand why the Crown Prosecution Service failed to charge the accused with a racially aggravated offence. The Islamophobic right of course have a ready explanation for that. It wasn’t because the police and CPS were unconvinced that the assault was racially motivated or felt there was insufficient evidence to prove this (just as they refused to accept the allegation by Ifrah Nur that Page’s partner Lewis Moore had himself been racially abusive towards her). It was because the state systematically discriminates against white citizens in favour of ethno-religious minorities. And that, we are told, was also why the defendants were not sent to prison.

Indeed, as we have seen, the central claim of the racist right in relation to this case is that the sentencing of the four women was part of a general pattern, with the legal system giving preferential treatment to non-white minority communities and Muslims in particular. To quote Leo McKinstry’s diatribe: “We can be pretty sure that if a Somalian Muslim girl had been kicked to the ground by a group of white brutes, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Police would have taken a tougher approach.” This is the so-called “two-tier system” that the EDL endlessly bangs on about.

This myth was demolished in a recent Guardian report, based on an analysis of over a million court records, which found that:

black offenders were 44% more likely than white offenders to be sentenced to prison for driving offences, 38% more likely to be imprisoned for public disorder or possession of a weapon and 27% more likely for drugs possession. Asian offenders were 41% more likely to be sent to prison for drugs offences than their white counterparts and 19% more likely to go to jail for shoplifting.

One expert, who is working with the Magistrates’ Association on disparities in sentencing, told the Guardian that the “disproportionality appears to be getting worse”.

As for McKinstry’s views on the judicial system’s supposed bias in favour of Muslims and minorities, ENGAGE has posted an effective response:

His statement that had the race of the attacker and victim been reversed, the sentencing would have been harsher is highly dubious. Take, for example, the disproportionate effects of stop and search on ethnic minorities, or the harsh judgements handed down to young Muslims for public order offences committed during demonstrations against the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 2009 – January 2010. Or to use examples more directly related to the question of inversing ethnic identities and comparing the judges’ decisions – take the case of the four men who were given suspended sentences for their drunken attack on a mosque in Scunthorpe last month, or the community service sentence given to a young white teenager who committed a religiously aggravated attack on a Muslim police officer. Did any of these cases merit a column from McKinstry on the justice system and its upholding equality under the law? The answer is, of course, no.

None of this justifies the violence to which Rhea Page was subjected, of course. It is even possible that Page was indeed attacked at random, purely because she was white, though that strikes me as unlikely. It might be argued that the assailants should have received heavier sentences. Or you could argue that Lewis Moore should have been charged with assault too, for that matter. But in order to make a judgement on these issues it would be necessary to have much more reliable information about the case than we currently do. It is a shameful reflection on the state of journalism in the UK that the Mail, and the rest of the press that unquestioningly followed its lead, have shown not the slightest interest in uncovering that information and presenting us with an accurate account of the events.

In its analysis of the inaccurate press coverage of the case, Full Fact has suggested that “this handling of the story reflects inexperience in reporting legal issues on the part of the journalists concerned”. That is far too charitable. In reality, what we have here is the conscious manipulation and distortion of the facts by the Mail in order to produce a misleading story that has been uncritically repeated by other right-wing newspapers, with the aim of inciting their readers against Muslims.

This sort of irresponsible journalism has real consequences. Former Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt, who has explained to the Leveson inquiry how that paper takes its line directly from the Mailput it very well: “The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke’s head caved-in down an alley in Bradford.” Already we are seeing increasingly violent expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK – only last week an EDL member and his friend were convicted of trying to blow up a mosque in Stoke. Nor is it accidental that Anders Breivik was influenced by the Mail – numerous anti-Muslim reports from the paper are cited in his manifesto and he even reproduced an article by Melanie Philips in its entirety. If the Islamophobic propaganda put out by the Mail and the rest of the right-wing press continues at its present pitch the emergence of a British Breivik cannot be ruled out.

Postscript:  This analysis has concentrated on the right-wing response to the case in the UK. However, it has also been taken up by US right, with predictably ignorant and bigoted coverage from the likes of Jihad WatchBare Naked IslamPamela Geller and FrontPage Magazine.

Update:  See “CPS statement on case of Aayan, Hibo and Ambaro Maxamed and Ifran Nur”, CPS News Brief, 12 December 2011