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The case against dog whistle media

Harry Palmer looks at the aftermath of the Panorama programme.

The Metropolitan police have found no credible evidence of fraud in John Ware’s Panorama dossier on Lutfur Rahman. They have made it quite clear that if the audit currently being undertaken by government inspectors unearths any evidence, they will return and investigate that. However, if Ware’s dossier includes all his information, and one has to presume it does, why was Ware so quick to raise questions about what was going on in Tower Hamlets given that, as it transpires, he had no evidence? Outright racism is unfashionable now, so covert racists in the USA developed a way of getting their message across in a more subtle way – which has become known as “dog-whistle politics”. Humans can’t hear dogwhistles because they are so high pitched, but dogs can. Nice meaning liberals don’t notice dogwhistles – but bedrock racists get the message and their ears prick up. Dog-whistle politics involves using coded language to evoke a response based on prejudice, which is then, in turn, confirmed.

Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles

The whole mayoral campaign in Tower Hamlets has a deafening orchestra of dog-whistles being tooted by journalists such as Ware and by politicians such as Pickles and, possibly more surprisingly, Labour politicians like John Biggs and Sir Robin Wales. It is not that these people are overt racists, not at all. It is more that they encourage the public to relate back to a framework of beliefs which is structurally racist: they don’t recognise they are doing this, and they get angrier and angrier when any dialogue about the racist consequences or their actions is begun. In East London and the national press, Islamophobia has replaced racism and red-baiting. Sadly, we have now reached a stage where otherwise “nice” people will say things about Islam that they would never dream of saying about Jews, or Blacks, let alone Irish or Catholics. (Imagine Mayor Lutfur Rahman had been Jewish, rather than Muslim. Would any of his opponents have written a dossier condemning him for having links with “extremist Jews”? Re-read things that local and national politicians and journalists say about Mayor Rahman, and read them again with the word “Jewish” rather than “Islamic” to see how different they sound.) John Ware was shocked, shocked, at being accused of racism, but he did rather give the game away. Writing in defence of his programme in the Independent on Sunday, he said, “We made no mention of the mayor’s links to Islamist fundamentalists.” – which does show that he assumes the mayor has such links. It’s unlikely to be something that’s just occurred to him, so he must have made the Panorama programme with this assumption in his mind, even if he did not feature it in the programme which was eventually broadcast. Ware may not have spoken about the links he assumes the mayor has to Islamist fundamentalists, but he did use a gratuitous picture of a Saudi Shaikh, quoting his anti-semitic sermons in the programme. Another dog whistle is blown when Ware calls Rahman an “Asian mayor,” whereas the Mayor himself labours under the assumption that he is British. Ed Milliband does not claim to be the first Jewish elected leader of the Labour Party, nor do we hear of the “Anglican” or “Roman Catholic convert” ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Asian” is a very wide description, but when Ware uses it in this context, dogwhistle audiences know exactly what is meant: Muslim. It is not that Rahman is trying to hide the fact that he is a Muslim: there are a billion Muslims wordwide, which would suggest that there is nothing wrong with being Muslim – and they can’t all be extremists, either. Rahman has often expressed his pride in his faith. It’s just that he doesn’t do being a mayor differently because he is a Muslim than he would if he were a Roman Catholic, a Druid or a Jeddi. Tony Blair is proud of his Christianity, but he doesn’t get constantly associated with the IRA (which would see itself as an organisation embedded in a Catholic community) or the Spanish Inquisition. Ed Milliband is doubtless proud of his Jewish origins and he certainly does not have to make excuses for Meir Kahane. It is in this way that what might appear simple utterances to politicians or journalists can be called racist: not because they are overtly race-hating, but because of the effect they have on society – and the horrendous consequences of that effect.

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