Home: Opinion

Distorted reporting of the 2021 census echoes a racist conspiracy theory

OPINION: Headlines reporting a drop in white Christians in England and Wales aren’t just wrong – they’re dangerous

Benali Hamdache
30 November 2022, 6.42pm

Commuters cross London Bridge in the evening rush hour


Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

Our lives are filled with bad data and error-laden interpretations of good data.

Fifty per cent of all marriages end in divorce. You’re 15 times more likely to die from a falling coconut than a shark attack. A Lib Dem bar chart.

Even when the data is good, our institutions, from politicians to newspapers, often struggle to accurately communicate it. Sometimes the end result is benign – but this week, with the release of the ethnicity and religion data from England and Wales’s 2021 census, we have seen how it can cause harm.

It has not been a good week for good-quality data journalism.

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The census’s main findings are that we’ve had an increase in people defining themselves as not religious and a linked decrease in people identifying as Christian. Small increases in the number of people who identify as Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist have also been registered.

On ethnicity, the percentage of people categorising themselves as white has gone from 86% to 82%. Leicester and Birmingham are the first two cities in the country where ethnic minorities make up a majority of the residents. Seventy-three other cities remain solidly white majority.

But newspapers and politicians have distorted this data – either deliberately or unintentionally stoking anxieties of a ‘demographic crisis’ and that the days of a White Christian nation are over.

That their reporting mirrors the Great Replacement Theory should trouble us all. This racist conspiracy, coined by the author Renaud Camus in 2011 and conceptualised in France, is the idea that there is a deliberate attempt to end the white race.

White nationalists have described a growing Muslim population and lower French birth rates as a crisis. Exaggeration of the scale is presented as the total end of France as we know it. Frequently, Jewish people are accused of being responsible for it all.

The Islamophobia and the antisemitism are obvious, but this hasn’t stopped the theory from being echoed across the world – whether by some Republicans and Fox News in the US or populists across Europe. It’s a conspiracy that has radicalised too many towards the far-right and extremism, inspiring violence and terrorism such as the 2011 Norway attacks, in which neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people.

A need for diverse journalism

Sensible reporting of the census is needed, but even purportedly liberal newspapers like The Guardian have tripped themselves up. The first iteration of their reportage led with:

The census also reveals a 5.5 million drop in the number of Christians and a 44% rise in the number of people following Islam. It is the first time in a census of England and Wales that less than half of the population described themselves as “Christian”.

Reading this you’d be forgiven for perceiving a substantial increase in the Muslim population. In reality, 6.5% of the UK population now identifies as Muslim, up from 4.9% in 2011. Comparing a percentage increase of a small number and a total decrease of a larger one is poor data. The Guardian has since corrected the article.

Right-wing papers went even further. The Mail Online’s ever-succinct headline thundered:

Census shows fewer people in England and Wales describe themselves as white and under HALF are Christian for the first time EVER, while two-thirds of Londoners are from an ethnic minority

The word ‘fewer’ represents a 4% decrease in the white population over ten years, while London remains majority white, with 54% of the population identifying so.

Talking heads with an agenda have of course leapt in, their spurious statements are all too often rewarded by attention. Seven-times failed MP Nigel Farage has jumped into the fray, wrongfully claiming London is a minority-majority city. He’s been rewarded with column inches, both reporting and debunking his demographic rants, though myth-busting as a way of deconstructing fake news is of very questionable efficacy.

Douglas Murray, the associate editor of The Spectator, a right-wing political magazine, has made similar comments to Farage, decrying that no one voted for a more diverse Britain. (The absurdity of this statement aside, Murray overlooks that the BNP’s white-only vision for Britain has been repeatedly defeated at the ballot box.)

Migrants and their children add to and enrich our culture, just as they take and adopt many parts of it

On a personal level, the mainlining of white supremacist thought is deeply perturbing. I’m half British and half Algerian, I represent the reported changing demographics and am a target of the bile from the Great Replacement Theory. It’s odd to be described as an existential threat when you don’t see yourself as particularly scary.

Of course, even if the distorted media reports were accurate, it would be no bad thing. Migrants and their children add to and enrich our culture, just as they take and adopt many parts of it. I grew up eating Yorkshire puddings and celebrating Eid, watching ‘Keeping up Appearances’ and Syrian dramas. Our cultural identity is not static, it is not under threat and it is bigger than a narrow perception of whiteness.

We need mainstream newspapers to platform diverse voices and we need accurate data journalism. The rapid explosion of far-right extremism has to be taken seriously – and the antidote isn’t rewarding radicals with media attention, even if under the guise of debunking their claims. Instead, we need better journalism and to elevate cooler voices.

And, as for the census: the biggest story is that more people are identifying as not religious and we’ve continued to become a more diverse nation, but it’s not an especially radical change. Don’t let other narratives take hold.

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