A piece written in 2001 as Director of what was then PressWise about media demonisation of refugees and asylum-seekers, but which still holds good.
Within hours of the sensational press treatment given to The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, the Runnymede Trust report published in October 2000, a member of the public called the Trust to say “To show you what I think of your report, I’m going to go out of my house right now and I’m going to slit the throat of the first Paki I meet”.
Such sickening bravado from one of the many racists who populate our streets may not provide the scientific evidence required to link press coverage to the rise in racially-motivated violence we have witnessed in recent years, but it should at least give journalists pause for thought.
Certainly many of those who attended the PressWise Forum on Refugees, Asylum-seekers and the Media in the Abbey Community Centre, Westminster (1 Feb 2001) would insist that there is a connection. It may no longer be polite to express racist views in public, but the unease generated by countless scare stories about Britain being ‘overrun by foreigners’ has offered legitimacy to xenophobia and hostility to an unspecified class of people known as ‘asylum-seekers’.
The term itself has become one of abuse. Gone are the days when sympathetic media coverage of Kosovar Albanians encouraged people to welcome the refugees with open arms while NATO bombed their persecutors. Now we are led to believe, especially by The Daily Mail, that Britain has become the magnet for the world’s dispossessed.
Never mind the fact that some of the world’s poorest nations are harbouring the vast majority of the estimated 12 million refugees worldwide. (In 2018 the UNHCR estimate there were more than 28 million refugees and asylums-seekers worldwide. plus another 40 million people ‘internally displaced’ by war and environmental disasters.) Nor that the real villains are the unscrupulous traffickers who have turned political and environmental instability into a thriving business. Nor, indeed, that the leading contingent of asylum-seekers are Kurds from Iraq fleeing Saddam’s oppressive regime, which Britain also continues to bomb. The media cannot have it both ways. Journalists may take proper satisfaction when our efforts expose the failures of governments and the anti-social activities of criminals, but we must beware hypocrisy that can quickly undermine our credibility with the public.
While seeking to deflect blame for the hysterical reactions to the arrival of poor and persecuted Roma from Slovakia in October 1997, some reports insisted that the new arrivals had been encouraged to come by ‘foreign’ TV documentaries which suggested that Britain was a safe and salubrious haven.
The headlines on Monday 20 October 1997 said it all:
3,000 GIPSIES HEAD FOR ENGLAND: We have best handouts (Sun)
Dover overwhelmed by Gypsy asylum-seekers (The Times)
Gypsies invade Dover, hoping for a handout (Independent)
Resentment as ‘invasion’ continues (Daily Telegraph)
The Dover Deluge: Pleas for action as port is flooded by gypsy asylum seekers (Daily Mail)
Gipsy scam grows: Thousands on the way seeking benefits cash
Crisis talks on Gipsies (Mirror)
Tide of Gypsy asylum ebbs (Guardian)
The response was immediate. Racist organisations took to the streets of Dover, Jack Straw almost immediately imposed visa restrictions on all Slovakians (incidentally generating even more hostility to Roma on the streets of Bratislava), and the press had a field day with public indignation that destitute Roma were begging in Britain. None of these reactions improved community relations, or defused the vitriol of racists who need little excuse to blame foreigners for the country’s ills.
‘The public appear to think that Britain is being overrunby feckless foreigners attracted by the prospect of generous state benefits.’
On 1 February 2001, MPs in the House of Commons exercised their lungs over the chaos of successive government asylum policies. Nearby in a hall in Westminster at the Refugees, Asylum-seekers and the Media (RAM) Forum, Nazand Beghikani, an exile from Iraqi Kurdistan who now works for the RAM project, gave a shocking account of what happened to her brother in Germany.
He sought refuge in Germany after the execution of two of their other siblings in Saddam’s gaols, and was reported missing by his wife after the family received threats from local Nazis. Determined to prove that he had merely gone underground to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, the police tapped the family phone, convinced they would hear him reporting on his progress. Instead they were forced to acknowledge that the family was receiving death threats. Six weeks later they found his body in a nearby river—and promptly recorded it as suicide.
Similar stories of violence against asylum seekers in Britain are finding their way into the headlines, although much racial violence goes unreported. Meanwhile, the police have at last acknowledged that violence against refugees is a serious threat to public order. The Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that more must be done to tackle this racially-motivated violence.
A Channel Four documentary Bloody Foreigners, shot largely undercover, provided graphic evidence of threats and violence against those stigmatised by the media as spongers and ne’er do-wells.
And Jay Rayner’s study for The Observer (18 Feb 2001) demonstrated that the most significant increase is to be found in rural areas unused to these new strangers in their midst. Small wonder that police officers from West Country race hate units, concerned at hostility directed at the relatively few asylum-seekers who have been ‘dispersed’ into the region, expressed their concerns at a media workshop PressWise ran at a Searchlight anti-racism day in Bristol in autumn 2000.
According to a survey conducted at the time for the eminently respectable Readers’ Digest by the equally respected MORI organisation, the public appear to think that Britain is being overrun by feckless foreigners attracted by the prospect of generous state benefits. Apparently 80 percent of British people believe refugees see the UK as a ‘soft touch’. (The Daily Mail gleefully announced that even Labour MPs share this view on its 1 Feb 2001 front page.)
The MORI poll revealed that 63 per cent of the population think the state provides asylum-seekers with £100 a week more than the £38 they actually receive, mostly in the form of food vouchers for which there are no cash reimbursements if they underspend. Even more worrying the majority of British people believe that 20 percent of the UK population are immigrants, and 26 percent of the population are from ethnic minorities. In actual fact only seven percent of the population are from ethnic minorities and only about four percent are immigrants.
Who is to blame for this extraordinary level of ignorance? I would not lay it entirely at the door of the media, although it is high time journalists looked at the consequences of pandering to popular prejudice and misrepresenting or incompletely explaining facts. That, as every politician knows, has always been a good way of grabbing headlines and making electoral capital out of public unease. Newspaper owners are in the business of selling more newspapers every day, not just trying to win votes every few years. With the asylum issue firmly on the forthcoming general election agenda this could prove to be a lethal cocktail.
The RAM Forum sessions of powerful testimony from exiled journalists were moderated by BBC newscaster George Alagiah, Kamal Ahmed of The Observer and Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Dorothy Byrne. We attempted (and failed) to get political parties and editorial executives to agree ground-rules for the election campaign to protect asylum-seekers from the backwash of prejudice, and we can be sure that anyone playing the race card will get extensive media coverage. Yet social scientist Dr Shamit Saggar of Queen Mary College told the Forum and Newsnight that voting patterns over the last 50 years demonstrate that pandering to racism has lost the power to catch votes among an increasingly open-minded electorate.
The press self-regulatory body (then the Press Complaints Commission, now the Independent Press Standards Organisation,IPSO) procedures do not allow for investigation of objections to press stories attacking vaguely identified social groups – like refugees and asylum-seekers – and has in the past bestowed respectability on the use of pejorative expressions like ‘Chinks’ by treating them as the common parlance of ordinary people.
To his credit, Lord Wakeham, as Chair of the PCC, did issue a series of statements warning editors about the danger of inflaming public passions with inaccurate or misleading coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers. But these groups are not likely to make complaints to the PCC because they fear harassment following a complaint, or because they do not or cannot read British newspapers. Even if complaints are successful, newspapers are only obliged to publish a correction and apology, rather than make proper amends for the damage they have caused to individuals and groups of people.
The PressWise (later MediaWise) RAM project was designed to empower exiles and their support groups to take issue when the print and broadcast media get things wrong. MediaWise is all willing to assist those who wish to make specific complaints to the regulators (which now include IMPRESS). Far better, however, if journalists and their editors ceased to scapegoat people whose only offence is the desire for a better, safer life.
We would all be better served if the print and broadcast media concentrated instead on informing the public about the root causes of mass migration (often linked to Britain’s foreign policies), offered constructive criticism about where the asylum system has gone wrong, and hounded those who exploit the dispossessed – including the racists who make their lives a misery in what is supposed to be a tolerant society.
The originally version was published by the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies, No. 43, Spring 2001 [cjm 43: Crime and the media]