Former Tory minister uses Leveson lecture to eviscerate the Sun and the Times for ‘extraordinarily irresponsible’ coverage
Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative cabinet minister, has accused British newspapers of Islamophobia and hate speech and called for a parliamentary investigation into the issue.
Lady Warsi, the first Muslim woman to hold a cabinet position, said hate speech in the press had become a “plague” with Muslims the “principal target”.
She gave examples from the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Times in her speech.
The former lawyer was giving the fifth annual Leveson lecture at an event hosted by the Hacked Off campaign, which wants greater regulation of the press. She resigned from the government in 2014 over its “morally indefensible” policy on Gaza.
Warsi said hate was a daily reality for Muslims in Britain in 2017, adding: “In sections of our press, it is relentless and deliberate. Steadily and methodically using paper inches and columns to create, feed and ratchet up suspicions and hostilities in our society, driving communities apart and creating untold – and unnecessary – fear and distress.
“Poisoning our public discourse, making it almost impossible to have sensible discussions about real challenges, crowding out tolerance, reason and understanding.
“And this drip-drip approach has created a toxic environment where hate crime is the highest it has been since records began.”
She continued: “Hate speech in the press has become a plague, an epidemic. Ways of expression that I thought we had left behind with Enoch Powell in the 1960s are now the new normal.
“This is true not just of two or three notorious dailies, but also of papers some still regard as responsible and ethical. Anti-Muslim hate speech is becoming a regular feature even in the more ‘respectable’ parts of the press and that’s why it is becoming more dangerous.
“Islamophobia is Britain latest bigotry blind spot. It’s where the respectable rationalise bigotry, couch it in intellectual argument and present it as public interest or honest opinion that allows the rot of xenophobia to set in.”
Warsi described a front page headline from the Sun in 2015 – “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis” – as “shocking” and “encouraging a false and derogatory idea”.
She also criticised the Times for its coverage of a foster care row in east London involving a five-year-old girl. The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper reported the story with the headline “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care.”
Warsi said the newspaper was “wilfully sending a message to its readers that Muslims are frightening people with whom Christian children are not safe.
“It pandered to bigoted stereotypes, was extraordinarily irresponsible and most shockingly was untrue.”
Warsi, who served as chair of the Conservative party during David Cameron’s government, criticised his and Theresa May’s administrations for not implementing the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry.
Those include the commencement of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would force a newspaper to cover the legal costs of the claimant in a libel case unless it joined the approved regulator and offered low-cost arbitration.
Warsi has written to Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the chair of the parliamentary home affairs committee, to ask her to investigate hate speech.
News UK, the publisher of the Sun and the Times, declined to comment.