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Batley cartoon row: As Muslim parents are vindicated, the media is silent

British columnists demonised parents for protesting the use of a Prophet Muhammad cartoon in school. Now that an independent enquiry has found in the parents' favour, where is the reckoning?
A flag flutters at the Palace of Westminster in central London on 17 October 2019 (AFP)

Two months ago, Britain underwent one of its periodic moral panics about Islam. Protests by Muslim parents at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire were widely covered in the media, after a teacher showed Year 9 pupils a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist during a religious studies class on blasphemy.

These parents were demonised in liberal and conservative newspapers alike. Politicians, including Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, weighed in to condemn the protesters. The teacher’s right to show the cartoon as an exercise in free speech was widely defended, while those who objected were denounced as extremists.

The British commentariat was unanimous in its condemnation. In a Sunday Times column headlined, “It’s time liberals showed some spine and stopped pandering to zealots,” Matthew Syed warned of the “chilling effect on open debate”.

It takes no imagination to work out the media reaction had the investigation gone the other way, and had the parents not been vindicated

Fiyaz Mughal, who founded the hate-crime monitoring project Tell Mama, despaired in the Spectator that “if we cannot allow schools to encourage critical thinking in our young people, then why do we educate them?”

Nick Timothy, once a key adviser to former prime minister Theresa May, warned in the Telegraph that: “We are facing hardliners who want to define Islam in line with their own extremist beliefs, control public thought and conscience, and use our pluralistic values in order to destroy them.”

Only Middle East Eye urged caution, pointing out that nobody knew the facts and that Britain places all kinds of interdictions on free speech. If the classroom debate was presented as a discussion between showing the image and observing blasphemy laws - as some commentators assumed - then that was not a valid debate in the context of a class discussion, as blasphemy laws were abolished years ago.

'Deep offence'

In this context, we also pointed out that free speech does not exist for 13-year-old Muslim children in Batley. One phrase out of line in a discussion as sensitive as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and a teacher might feel he had to report them under Prevent guidelines

Teachers, in common with other professionals, are expected to conduct themselves according to well-known standards. As part of their employment contract, teachers agree to uphold a set of standards that include “treating pupils with dignity, building relationships rooted in mutual respect… showing tolerance of and respect for the rights of others… [and] tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. They are also required to ensure “that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law”.

British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is pictured in London in September 2020 (AFP)
British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is pictured in London in September 2020 (AFP)

It was right, then, that the teacher in the Batley case was suspended, and that the responsible Batley Multi Academy Trust (MAT) launched an independent investigation, which recently published an executive summary of its findings.

As far as I can tell, not a single one of the newspaper columnists who rushed to judgment back in March has so much as mentioned this investigation. That’s not a surprise: it found in favour of the parents.

The investigation recognised that showing the image had caused “deep offence”, noting that the “teaching staff who developed and delivered the lesson genuinely believed that using the image had an educational purpose and benefit, and that it was not used with the intention of causing offence”. Yet, it also concluded that the topics of the lesson “could have been effectively addressed in other ways and without using the image”.

Victory for the 'mob'

The suspension of the teacher has been lifted, but the Batley MAT accepted its own responsibility, vowing to “establish a more formal Trust-wide structured approach to quality assurance of individual teacher planning”. Among the measures proposed are more rigorous monitoring of teaching aids, along with additional guidance and training for teachers, including to promote “an awareness and understanding of our local context and its rich and proud history and heritage”.

In short, the complaints and concerns of the parents who felt the Charlie Hebdo image should not have been shown were upheld by an independent enquiry.

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How has this been reported? Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator described the report as a victory for the “mob”, assisted by the “cowardice” of institutions that have “caved in to intolerance”. 

Other reports have opted to describe the outcome without comment, while giving prominent place to its critics. The Telegraph’s Camilla Turner, for example, reported: “Critics have warned that teachers should not face a ‘religious veto’ on what material they can use in the classroom, adding that the Trust’s stance is a ‘route to censorship’.”

The Guardian and the Independent similarly opted for straight reporting, without revisiting earlier commentary that condemned the parents.

That’s not good enough. We need to learn a lesson from the fake moral panic over the Batley parents. Columnists such as Fiyaz Mughal, Nick Timothy and Kenan Malik are influential people. With influence comes responsibility. They should display intellectual integrity, and at the very least ask themselves whether they got it wrong.

Lessons to be learned

In particular, the British media owes a collective apology to Mufti Mohammed Amin Pandor, who was portrayed in photographs as an angry bigot outside the school gates. In fact, this former civil servant was outside the school at the request of police, who asked him to calm things down. 

As for Williamson, his instant reaction to the Batley controversy was to make crowd-pleasing comments for the benefit of the UK's Islamophobic mainstream press. Is this what we really want from an education secretary?

Williamson has not commented on the inquiry findings, despite castigating the parents’ protests at the outset and stating that differences between the school and parents were better sorted out through dialogue.

There's an ugly double standard at work here. The real mob outside the school gates at Batley wasn't the parents; it was the media

A group representing the parents, meanwhile, issued a statement welcoming the findings of the investigation, but expressing dismay at the failure to publish the full inquiry report (even in redacted form). This is in stark contrast to prior reports, such as the city council probe of the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair. The parents also expressed concern over the lack of community involvement in the process.

And yet, the liberal media remains silent, as the right-wing media continues to castigate and misrepresent that community. The local press has not reported on the continuing concerns of parents.

It takes no imagination to work out the media reaction had the investigation gone the other way, and had the parents not been vindicated. There’s an ugly double standard at work here. The real mob outside the school gates at Batley wasn’t the parents; it was the media. The Batley MAT needs to publish its report in full, so that lessons can be learned.

Additional research by Mahdi Mustafa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

John Holmwood
John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at University of Nottingham and was expert witness for the defence in the professional misconduct case brought against senior teachers in the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair.
Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth, was published in February 2021. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.