LSE MSc student Reuben Shapland argues that the media coverage of the Shamima Begum story was damaging to the decision making process around her case and her story should not have been covered at all.

Anyone who has followed the story of Shamima Begum will know opinions have been extremely divided, as one might expect in Brexit Britain. On the one hand there have been those demanding her return, arguing that she is a British citizen, that she was 15 when she left and was undoubtedly groomed online and a victim of sexual abuse under British law. Those protesting her return think that she would aim to spread her extreme views, influencing British society and posing a threat from within. Some also claim that she has not shown any remorse or substantially changed her views on the caliphate and plans to infiltrate Britain as a sort of double agent.

Both of these viewpoints miss a crucial point, which is that it does not matter whether she is a ‘bad’ person, still holding dangerous beliefs or that she has been exploited. Citizenship is not based on whether a majority of people like someone or empathise with their decisions; it is an infallible right and to remove it, leaving a person stateless, is against international law. It is for this reason, that this story should not be covered in the media at all because it politicises an issue which is highly divisive yet should not be up for debate. The coverage has turned Home Office casework into a political issue.

(c) Jamie Wiseman/ Daily Mail

Following the enormous amount of coverage this story received, is has predictably become a convenient vehicle for those wishing to express nativist views. You can find hundreds of social media comments saying things like: ‘she rejected our country’s values so we reject her.’ In response to her father’s plea for her return to safety, there was a torrent of near identical comments saying: ‘the man lived in the UK for 20 years and he can’t even speak proper English. Makes my blood boil’ – an example of how quickly this story escalated into a race-issue.

What is notable about the hostile reaction to Shamima Begum’s return is how she is framed as being an outsider, rather than someone who has grown up in East London. For a British-born girl seen to be violating the laws of ‘our’ country, shows that many don’t view girls like Shamima as being British. Whether or not they’re second, third or even fourth-generation immigrants, they don’t fit the ethnic specification. Regardless of her place of birth, as a Muslim born to Bangladeshi parents, she is not seen to be British by a sizeable chunk of British society who equate Britishness with whiteness. It is for this reason that she fits better into the narrative of ‘controlling our borders’ than one which acknowledge society’s role in marginalising communities and breeding extremism. I find it very hard to believe that if Shamima Begum had been white, that the discourse would have been the same. I am even more confident that had she been white, there would have been a much greater demand for the safe return of her baby.

Metro paper headline refers to one-month old Jerah as a ‘jihadi baby’

Any editor could have foreseen that this story would be particularly appealing to far-right nationalists and a convenient vehicle for the expression of racism. To some, it may sound rather Orwellian for journalists to make judgements on what kind of information should be shared with the public, but I would argue, they do it all the time. Of course when there is popular demand for certain coverage, like a royal wedding, an editor has little choice but to respect the market. However, this is different, because no one would have known about this story had it not been published. And had it not been published, but instead reported to the relevant authorities, perhaps the government would have done the right thing, and brought her home, convicting her, interrogating her and crucially, taking her child Jerah into social services, ultimately saving his life.

When the Times’ war correspondent Anthony Loyd found her, and reported that she desired to return to the UK, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared publicly that moves had been made to strip Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, and that she could obtain Bangladeshi citizenship instead. Stripping someone of their citizenship is legal insofar as they are able to obtain citizenship from another country, under the 1981 British Nationality Act and UN law. However, as the Bangladeshi government quickly responded that she was not entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship, to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship was a violation of both domestic and international law. This was the case in 2013, when Home Secretary Theresa May’s attempts to deprive terrorist suspect Hilal Abdul-Razzaq Ali al-Jedda of his citizenship was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Similarly with Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ resulting in the Windrush scandal, where British subjects from Afro-Caribbean descent were wrongly deported, with some dying overseas, it seems that Conservative Party policy is largely governed by the whims of far-right public opinion. So afraid of upsetting the racist, reactionary sections of British society, the Conservative government is willing to break the law and allow British citizens to die overseas. Perhaps responsible journalists might consider this unfortunate reality and think twice before covering stories that endanger the lives of innocents.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Polis, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science