Half of Britons see one of the UK‘s largest tabloids, The Sun, as a negative influence on society, according to a new poll.
The YouGov survey, published on Monday, commissioned by the campaign group Stop Funding Hate, comes amid concerns the media is stirring up anti-Muslim, anti-migrant, and anti-EU sentiment.
The poll said just five percent see The Sun’s influence as positive.
The findings revealed low public faith in tabloid newspapers, with 38 percent of respondents also holding negative opinions of the Daily Mail, The Sun’s popular right-wing rival.
In comparison, 31 percent of respondents were disappointed with the left-leaning Daily Mirror tabloid, while 12 percent thought poorly of the liberal Guardian newspaper.
Right-leaning broadsheet papers such as The Times and The Telegraph fared better, with just 10 and 13 percent holding negative views of them, respectively.
Last week, the Daily Mail’s front page carried photos of 11 MPs from the ruling Conservative party who had voted against the government on a key Brexit vote, describing them as “malcontents” and accusing them of betrayal.
That came little more than a year after the newspaper declared three High Court judges as “Enemies of the People” for ruling that Parliament must issue a mandate for the Brexit process to start.
The Sun, which is owned by billionaire media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, regularly targets Britain’s Muslim minority, migrants and refugees.
In March 2016, the tabloid was forced to admit its headline, claiming one in five British Muslims held sympathy for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) was “significantly misleading“.
This divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by politicians and covered within the media created a toxic climate in which the targeting of people on the basis of their identity was seen as legitimate and acceptable.
Stevie-Jade Hardy, a criminologist at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Hate Studies, said tabloids contributed to a “toxic climate” during last year’s EU referendum, leading to hate crimes.
“In the build-up to the European Union referendum, we saw the demonisation of particular groups and communities within sections of the British media, which went, and, to some extent, continues to go unchecked,” she said.
“This divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by politicians and covered within the media created a toxic climate in which the targeting of people on the basis of their identity was seen as legitimate and acceptable.”
Stop Funding Hate launched in 2016, with the group’s organisers concerned over the media’s perceived role in rising hate crimes following the EU referendum.
Some newspapers “had been running very hostile front-page stories targeting migrants, Muslims, and other groups”, Richard Wilson, the group’s director, told Al Jazeera. “The idea we had was to start to talk to advertisers.”
“Demonising minority groups can be a way of boosting sales of a newspaper, which in turn is a way of boosting advertising revenue,” said Wilson.
“Our thinking was that if you can convince enough of these advertisers to pull away and not go along with these hateful news stories, then it would start to make the business models less profitable, basically making hate less profitable.”
Today's Daily Mail advertisers include @Waitrose @LidlUK @MarksandSpencer @BT_UK @BootsUK @LoveWilko @LloydsPharmacy @IcelandFoods #StartSpreadingLove #Spenditwell https://t.co/Z60EEtCrSk pic.twitter.com/ExiKyemqUh
— Stop Funding Hate (@StopFundingHate) December 14, 2017
The group has gathered tens of thousands of pounds in grassroots funding from supporters.
To date, it has successfully convinced brands including Lego and The Body Shop to stop advertising in papers such as the Daily Mail.
We've been getting positive messages all the time from people who've been saying they felt frustrated about the hate they've been seeing in the media for years.
Earlier in December, The Sun ran an opinion piece by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson titled: “Leftie activists trying to silence newspapers they dislike are attacking the very basis of our democracy.”
Johnson said Stop Funding Hate was “attacking the freedom which is the foundation of [British] democracy”.
Wilson said such slurs only help publicise the group’s cause.
“We’ve been getting positive messages all the time from people who’ve been saying they felt frustrated about the hate they’ve been seeing in the media for years, and that they’ve finally found something that they can do,” he said. “Everyone has a little bit of power as a consumer.”
Stop Funding Hate stops short of calling for a regulatory response to tabloid coverage.
Others argue that flaws in the press regulatory system allow hateful coverage to go unchecked.
Activist Miqdaad Versi said he has personally filed 40 complaints about inaccuracies in coverage of Islam or Muslims by the British media.
That figure excludes “negative portrayals of Muslims, scaremongering, or bias”, which he said are not covered by the press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
There is little doubt that the consistent stream of inaccurate articles and the negative narrative plays a role in fuelling the far right.
Versi, who also serves as assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said IPSO has failed to act against newspapers – even when they themselves admit fault.
“(IPSO) has refused to launch any investigations into newspapers’ breach of standards and has chosen, on a number of occasions, not to censure newspapers even when they have admitted fault,” he told Al Jazeera, giving the example of a recent Daily Express story.
The Sun corrects false claim of terror attack by gunman shouting Allahu Akbar (actually robbery by Stefan): no recognition/apology for error pic.twitter.com/UTRaabIrny
— Miqdaad Versi (@miqdaad) January 13, 2017
The right-wing newspaper published a story with the headline: “New £5 notes could be BANNED by religious groups as BANK CAN’T PROMISE they’re Halal.”
The article, which quoted Hindus and not Muslims voicing concerns over the new currency, was later amended to remove the Islamic reference, but IPSO chose not to take action over the initial inaccurate reporting.
“Many of these stories have been shared by known far-right extremist groups on social media, often to corroborate their own, hateful, anti-Muslim narrative,” Versi said.
“There is little doubt that the consistent stream of inaccurate articles and the negative narrative plays a role in fuelling the far right.”
Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM