Remember this? The Sun reported on how nasty Muslims had hounded brave soldiers out of their new home in Windsor, except it turned out they weren't Muslims. How about this? A disturbance in Windsor that ended up with a dairy owned by Muslims being firebombed was blamed by some papers (although not the Sun, curiously) as being the fault of the Muslims who had been firebombed?
Now we have a new candidate for the 'hastily blaming something on Muslims with scant evidence' category. Oh good.
On Monday, the Telegraph published 'Police called to disturbance at Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution', a story that seems to have been picked up by the Sun in ''Disturbance' at teen prison'. The Telegraph headline summed up the story pretty well, since not many details were known at that point.
A little more information was available later in the evening, allowing for a bit more detail in the papers' coverage. Late on Monday, the Telegraph published 'Asian inmates run riot during Eid at Aylesbury centre'. According to this version of the story:
Dozens of Asian inmates destroyed workshops at a young offender institution after running riot during Eid celebrations.Okay, dozens of Asian inmates 'destroyed workshops'. But the evidence that Asian inmates were doing the destroying is a little, um, scant:
Up to 80 detainees at Aylesbury YOI, including a large group of Asians, armed themselves with hammers, knives, saws and other tools as they kept prison officers at bay for six hours during the major disturbance.So, a 'large group' of the 80 odd inmates were Asian. How large? We're not told. But the Asian ones definitely 'destroyed' the workshops. We can rely on that, right?
The disturbance was contained to the centre's two workshops, which inmates are believed to have trashed during the incident, although there was little structural damages according to Ministry of Justice sources.So, they managed to trash and destroy the workshops while causing 'little structural damages [sic]'. That's quite a feat.
Since the paper doesn't know how many rioting inmates were Asian, how did it know that the Asian ones destroyed the workshops (while causing little structural damage, which suggests the opposite of 'destroyed', but there you go)?
The BBC, Sky News, ITN, Guardian, Independent, Mirror and Express all leave out the connection with Asian inmates. The Mail, in 'Specially trained officers overpower rioters armed with saws and chisels during jail protest' leaves the detail until the final paragraph, which says:
The incident, described by the Prison Service as 'concerted indiscipline', was believed to have broken out during protests as Asian inmates celebrated the festival of Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan fast.Notice the 'believed to have' qualifiers. We'll be coming back to the Mail later, so keep that tab open if you clicked the link.
But the Mail and Telegraph have only mentioned Asians. Am I being paranoid in making connections between Eid and Asians that aren't there, or at the very most only implied?
No. The Sun decided to reflect the uncertainty with the balanced headline 'Prison cops in 5hr Muslim riot'. The printed word can't really do justice to that headline. It needs to be growled excitedly like a tense bit of football commentary. The 'large group' of Asians among the 80 inmates in the Telegraph's coverage have been transformed by the Sun in this paragraph:
A FIVE-hour rampage by young Muslim prisoners armed with hammers and chisels was broken up by a riot squad yesterday.We're now talking about a Muslim riot carried out exclusively by Muslims.
Maybe the Sun has more information than the other papers. Maybe that explains it. I suspect not, and here's why. Go back to the Mail coverage. Notice the page title at the top left of the browser window? It's 'Muslim prisoners go on the rampage in armed seige at young offenders' institute'.
That's different from the headline and content of the version of the story on the page, because it's the headline from the earliest version of the Mail's coverage.
According to Europe Media Monitor, that version of the story went up on the Mail site at 6.56 on Monday evening. The Sun's 5hr Muslim riot appeared on the website the next day. Curiously, the Telegraph's 'Asian inmates' version first went up 43 minutes later than the Mail's 'Muslim rampage' headline, and was updated over an hour later. Whether the Telegraph reacted to the Mail's headline but muted the coverage because of the tenuousness of the Muslim link, or came up with its coverage at the same time but didn't think the Muslim link was strong enough to mention isn't clear.
What is clear is that the Mail was the first to go with a 'rampaging Muslim' style headline, and in subsequent versions removed those references. No other news outlet that I can find thought the links were strong enough to mention at all. Bear in mind how many of these papers led with headlines about Mumbai gunmen being British on little or no evidence and how weakly they corrected themselves, and you'll see how weak this Muslim link probably was for some agencies not to cover it at all, and the Mail to completely replace its original coverage.
The only other reference I can find is in the 'Update: Major incident at Aylesbury Young Offenders' Institute is over' in the Bucks Herald, which says:
Inside information suggests that the protests may have been related to inmates' treatment during a Muslim religious festival.Note the tentative 'may have been related' and the absence of even a tentative claim that it was the Muslim inmates that rioted, or that the festival had anything to do with the inmates' treatment.
I've spoken before about how pre-existing assumptions effect confirmation bias. If you already think something happens regularly for a certain reason, every time that thing happens, you're likely to think it's for that reason. If you think Eastern Europeans eat swans and you see a swan carcass near someone you think is Eastern European, you're more likely to think it's because they ate the swan rather than think the swan just died. If you think Muslims are uppity and aggressive and you see a Muslim bus driver praying on a bus that has just cancelled its service, you're more likely to think the driver threw everyone off so they could pray. If you think the same thing and you see that a riot has broken out in a Young Offender's Institution with a large proportion of ethnic minority inmates during Eid, you're more likely to jump to the conclusion that the Muslim inmates have rioted because of Eid.
So, what happened? The Muslim inmates really could have rioted because of their treatment during Eid. Equally, non-Muslim inmates may have rioted because of what they saw as special treatment of Muslims during Eid - or a mixture of both could have rioted for other reasons, coincidentally during Eid. We don't know, and neither do any of the reporters here. We do know that any evidence that it was a Muslim riot is so slight that even the Express rejected it, the Mail scaled down its own coverage to remove references to it and even the Telegraph's assertions about Asian inmates is poorly backed up. We won't find out what actually happened until the police investigation. That's why the Mail toned down its coverage and why most papers don't mention it at all. But by then if there's no Muslim connection, the Sun's readers will have forgotten about it, and if there is the paper can report it as new all over again.
Three questions are, did the Sun have extra information, did the reporter's selection bias make them think, 'riot involving some Asians during Eid - the Muslims must have done it,' or did the reporter deliberately write a story based on the skimpiest of evidence that not even the Daily Express followed up?
If the answer to the last one is yes, the following question is - why would they do that?