Ideas Hubs: The Sun and the dangers of made-up statistics – Dr Khadijah Elshayyal

By Myriam Francois|December 7, 2015|Ideas Hub|0 comments

Above: Dr Khadijah Elshayyal
Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Muslims in Britain)
The Alwaleed Centre
University of Edinburgh

Exclusive: shock poll – ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’ –  screamed the recent front page of The Sun newspaper. It seemed that the tabloid notorious for giving us inflammatory ‘Muslim stories’ in the past[1] had hit a new low.

Over the past week, criticism for the headline, the poll, and indeed the article as a whole has been mounting, and rightly so. The anonymous piece by an individual who had helped conduct the poll for Survation being particularly telling, in terms of the clear intention of the newspaper to pursue a ‘headline’ above all other considerations. Its use of questionable techniques to obtain the data, followed by a clearly misleading interpretation of the results, render the article and the ‘statistics’ within it absolutely useless in terms of providing information of any value to the reader. As Maria Sobolewska and Matt Singh have pointed out, the use of any sort of polling to determine the level of support from Muslims is a futile exercise. Results can vary hugely depending on the wording used for questions, and ultimately, ‘what we receive as a true picture of what Muslims think is mostly an artefact of what they get asked’.[2]

But the problem does not stop at the article’s lack of utility. A more serious concern is the very real damage that misleading headlines based on patently false ‘statistics’ can cause to social integration. Headlines and ‘stories’ such as these provide easy reference material for far-right groups who typically capitalise on crises to ‘blame’ Muslims for current social problems (be they real, exaggerated, or imagined).[3] In fact, they do much of their work for them.

Even beyond the influence of the racist far-right, among the wider public, opinions, and sadly, prejudices, will already have been formed when reading the headline. One would even be forgiven for thinking that this (or similar headlines) may have subconsciously influenced our Prime Minister, as he emphatically asserted in the House of Commons last week that those opposing military action in Syria were ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Comparatively, very few people will have noticed the ‘correction’ that so often sheepishly follows such sensationalist headlines, in this case, not even from The Sun, but from from its sister paper, The Times.

And while this is irresponsible journalism at the best of times, we are not living in the ‘best’ of times by any measure. Indeed, local and international factors, not least the impact of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, have all contributed to strained community relations in many parts of the country, and a dramatic rise in Islamophobic hate crime, of the type that we have come to routinely expect in the wake of terrorist incidents. Those who carry out these attacks regularly cite an association between their Muslim (or ‘Muslim-looking’) victims with ISIS, or terrorism, and British Muslims, particularly women, have expressed unprecedented feelings of vulnerability. Newspapers like The Sun should not be able to get away with publishing untruths that are ultimately fear-mongering about a minority that is already under intense pressure, and in the age of terrorism and securitisation, increasingly viewed as suspect.[4] While it is heartening to see that concerned members of the public have held them to account, it should not be their job to do this.

Therefore, the recent move by MPs led by Birmingham Ladywood’s Shabana Mahmood to discuss this headline and its dangerous wider impacts with The Sun’s editor is to be welcomed. Certainly, media outlets and journalists do need to take greater responsibility for the accuracy and reliability of their reporting, and acknowledge the very real-world effects of their content.



[1] Including ‘Ramadan-a-ding-dong’, which claimed in 2013 that Channel 4’s daily broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer ‘could inflame tensions’.

[2] Maria Sobolewska, ‘Can we ever estimate how many British Muslims will become Islamic extremists?’ Manchester Policy Blogs, 26 August 2014.

[3] For an example of this, see Waqas Tufail,  ‘Rotherham, Rochdale, and the Racialised Threat of the ‘Muslim Grooming Gang’’ in International Journal for Crime, Justice and Democracy, 4(3), pp. 30-43 (2015).

[4] Mary J Hickman, Lyn Thomas et al, ‘‘Suspect Communities’? Counter-terrorism policy, the press, and the impact on Irish and Muslim communities in Britain’ London Metropolitan University, (July 2011).

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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