British tabloid editors have never struck me as a particularly reflective and thoughtful breed of humanity, so I doubt they will be plunged into a mood of remorseful self-analysis by the very strongly-worded suggestion from the United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein that there is a connection between their skewed coverage of immigration and asylum and the horrors now taking place in the Mediterranean.
It is far more likely that they, their journalists and many of their readers will scoff at the impudence of some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner with an unpronouncable name who is probably a Muslim to boot having the temerity to criticize their courageous attempts to have a ‘debate’ about immigration and shrug off the politically correct shackles imposed on them by muesli-eating liberals from Hampstead.
That is what they’re like, and to our great shame, that is what they are making us like too. Because it is really very difficult to argue with Mr Al-Hussein’s condemnation of the ‘ vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants’ that is ‘not only sapping compassion for the thousands of people fleeing conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation who are drowning in the Mediterranean’ and which has also ‘skewed the EU response to the crisis.’
These are very harsh words from an organization that is normally far more diplomatic and polite. The immediate object of these complaints was Katie Hopkins’ ‘cockroach’ comments, which Mr Al-Hussein sees as a manifestation of a larger phenomenon:
‘Asylum seekers and migrants have, day after day, for years on end, been linked to rape, murder, diseases such as HIV and TB, theft, and almost every conceivable crime and misdemeanour imaginable in front-page articles and two-page spreads, in cartoons, editorials, even on the sports pages of almost all the UK’s national tabloid newspapers.’
Many of these stories, as the Commissioner pointed out, ‘ have been grossly distorted and some have been outright fabrications. Elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other countries, there has been a similar process of demonization taking place, but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’
This is horribly and depressingly accurate. One of the great fantasies of the British right is that they are ‘not allowed’ to have a ‘debate’ about immigration, but there has never been a time in my lifetime when the right has not talked about it, and it has always done so in negative and often grossly offensive terms.
Even as a child when I came back to the UK from the West Indies in 1967, I was shocked by the racism oozing from the front pages of the tabloids, whether it was aimed at Enoch Powell’s ‘picanninies’, Ugandan Asians, or the ‘black mugger’ of the 1970s or the ‘people with a different culture’ who Margaret Thatcher said were ‘swamping’ Britain in the 1980s.
The idea that all this miraculously stopped, and that the UK suddenly became a ‘post-racial’ society that was comfortable with immigration and with its new ‘rainbow’ multicultural identity was always something of an overstatement. Of course progress has been made since the days when Tories could fight election campaigns under the slogan ‘vote Labour if you want a nigger for a neighbor’, but there has always been a solid section of the white British public that has bitterly resented having to share the UK with foreigners of any kind, and dark-skinned foreigners in particular.
Beginning roughly in the early 90s, anti-immigrant rhetoric shifted away from earlier narratives about ‘race’ and ‘culture’ and began to develop a seemingly racially-neutral narrative about ‘numbers.’ This ‘numbers’ discourse was focused primarily on asylum seekers. Shamelessly, dishonestly, and relentlessly, without even the pretence of trying to understand the phenomenon of asylum or explain its causes and its complexities, the British media disseminated an image of asylum seekers as parasites and liars flooding into the country and ‘abusing’ our generosity because they regarded Britain as a ‘soft touch.’
Following the ‘war on terror’ the discourse shifted again, merging Islamophobic fantasies of terror cells and a Muslim cultural/religious takeover of British society with xenophobic outrage against Eastern European immigrants who refused to integrate while they ‘took our jobs and services’ and created Polish and Rumanian ghettoes etc.
Whatever they did, immigrants couldn’t win. If they came here ‘legally’ they were part of the phenomenon of ‘mass immigration.’ If they worked hard, they were exploiting us by taking jobs for low wages, even if they were being exploited themselves or doing jobs that British citizens wouldn’t do. If they sent their children to school they were undermining the education of our children. If they lived in a house they were stealing a house from ‘our people.’
Whatever they did they always had an unfair advantage over us. They were always taking, usurping, queue-jumping, and undermining. As for those who came here ‘without permission’ or ended up becoming ‘failed asylum seekers’, they were the worst of all; criminal parasites living the life of Riley all over the country at the expense of ‘our people’ or using the Human Rights Act to escape deportation for crimes they’d already been punished for.
Whoever they were, they were bad, and taking advantage of our goodness, and there were always too many of them, in a country that was ‘full’ and which needed to put ‘our people first.’ And anyone who said that this kind of talk was unfair, dangerous, and maybe xenophobic and racist hatemongering to boot, why they were just trying to stifle ‘debate’ and smother the public’s ‘concerns.’
Out of those decades of bile, words like ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’ became pejorative terms of abuse onto which tabloids hung their prejudices and fanned the prejudices of their readers, and politicians pandered to them and fed them further.
The result, as Mr Al-Hussein pointed out, is that we now have a country where a columnist in a major newspaper can use the kind of language used by Nazis and Rwandan genocidaires to describe people drowning in the Mediterranean. It’s a country where sick men and women who need medical treatment are now dying because they are afraid to seek it in case they are deported, a country whose rancid bitterness and fury towards immigrants is now transforming ideas and concepts that were once associated with fascism and Nazism into jokey blokey everyday discourse.
Katie Hopkins used that language because in her dim, grasping, attention-seeking way, she recognized that she lived in a country where such talk has now become acceptable and can even appear to be a kind of ‘common sense.’
The British media bears a huge responsibility for this outcome. As the High Commissioner pointed out, the demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers also takes place in other European countries ‘ but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’
He is absolutely right. An extremist media is what we have got, and it is helping to create an extremist society drugged by fear, loathing and resentment that is in danger of losing its own humanity even as it denies the humanity of the men and women who want to come here.