Recently, devastating floods hit some of Britain’s most scenic areas and among the first responders were many descendants of Punjabi immigrants.
As they do during most floods, Khalsa Aid volunteers turned up in the tiny, submerged villages. They brought with them hot curries, tea and sandbags. As a caller to a radio programme said, “I lost almost everything I owned … the only bright spot was that I had the best Indian food of my life.”
Alongside Khalsa Aid, 60 youth arrived and announced they represented the Caliphate. These young men came from the Ahmadiyya Caliph’s operations in Britain and spent 14-hour days helping older people to move furniture, digging in the mud and clearing debris. One of the volunteers, Wadood Ahmad Daud, told the Huffington Post that he wanted to “give back to a country that has given [me] so much …”.
However, as reporters filled endless hours of rolling news with dire interviews on flood barrier construction, the story of the British Asians and their faith-based charities went untouched. Social media users I spoke to had all seen posts about the young Muslims and Sikhs. Apart from the Guardian and the Telegraph, the traditional media had ignored them.
Political manipulation by media magnates explains some of the silence. Many use xenophobia to promote a wider agenda of isolation. Even The Times, under Rupert Murdoch, stokes fears about immigrants. But, this was not really racism. Ravi Singh of Khalsa Aid told me that he first encountered racism when he moved from a village in Punjab to Britain in the 1980s. “I don’t think the coverage was racist,” he said.
The atrophied state of most news organisations too played a role. All British newspapers and broadcasters are losing audience and revenues. Most newsrooms cannot now cover much that isn’t handed to them by an information officer or a PR agency. Neither Khalsa Aid or Muslims for Humanity funds any media outreach.
But the real reason for preferring tedium to news is linked to the kinds of people who still run the British media. As Singh pointed out, the media ignored the Christians too — churches ran feeding programmes and young evangelicals were in every flooded community.
In a leaked 2012 memo, the outgoing director general of the BBC said that he was disturbed by how many of the corporation’s employees came from the same, privileged Oxford and Cambridge élite. Most newspapers are worse. For this urban intelligentsia, religion is to be reported as repressive or ridiculous or anachronistic. As Singh told me, they seemed scared of covering faith communities altogether. Maybe they were worried they would betray how little they knew. Maybe they thought that covering one group would be taken amiss by the others. Maybe faith-based charities are too complex a concept to understand.
Mark Chataway is a UK-based consultant on communications and market research
The views expressed are personal