How journalism plays follow-my-leader with rhetoric of negativity

By Zak Suffee

For decades the issue of immigration has been a toxic and divisive political issue in the United Kingdom and in 2015, in the wake of the European-wide migration crisis, the debate around asylum and refugees became highly charged, volatile and polemical.

In its reporting of the crisis the British tabloid press, already criticised in recent years for political bias over reporting of refugee and asylum issues, has found itself again under scrutiny during 2015 – this time from the international community.

In what was probably the lowest point for British media coverage, the country’s highest-circulation tabloid newspaper, the Sun, in April was carpeted by the United Nations human rights chief for describing migrants as “cockroaches” in a piece of journalism which he said was reminiscent of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.

In the midst of global media coverage of the tragic scenes of suffering by hundreds of migrants who drowned off the coast of Italy earlier in the month, Sun columnist Katie Hopkins wrote:

“I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care… these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.”

This incendiary piece appeared only hours before another migrant ship sank off the coast of Libya killing some 800 people. It prompted protests on a massive scale: more than 300,000 online protests and more than 300 complaints to the newly-formed Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

But the intervention of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein shows that the frustration over media-inspired hatred, particularly coming from Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper extends far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.

“The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches,” said Zeid.

His intervention raised two issues concerning Britain’s troubled press industry. The first is whether the tabloid press, despite promises of reform, is really willing to regulate itself effectively.

And the second is to explain why Britain appears to be the only settled democracy in Europe where the problem of hate-speech is generated less from outside the newsroom – by extremist political or religious leaders – than from within, where it is flourishes amidst a mix of editorial stereotypes, political bias and commercial self-interest.

As Zeid noted in his protest when bias and prejudice make the headlines in Britain it is often as a result of editorial choice, while elsewhere in Europe where “demonisation” of migrants is also taking place it is “usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media”.

With a few dips, net immigration has steadily increased since the 1990s. Between 1994 and 2003, the share of annual net migration by asylum seekers ranged from 25 per cent to 54 per cent. This trend had changed decisively by 2004, as net migration increased but asylum seekers declined, so that between 2004 and 2012, their numbers ranged from 4 per cent to 11 per cent and was estimated at about 8 per cent for 2013.

Large peaks and troughs have occurred but each quarterly review of immigration creates in some media circles a new furore, often driven by outspoken and intolerant political speech and generally leading to negative coverage of asylum seekers or migrants from other countries of the European Union.

This approach to immigration in particular places enormous responsibility on media to provide critical and informed journalism. And it is no longer enough to ensure that coverage avoids hate-speech or intolerance. New forms of communication have opened the door to more opportunities for critical journalism but have also flooded the debate with opinion over fact, pushing freedom of expression into hate-speech and prejudice.

The challenge of reporting the migrant and refugee crisis comes as the British press emerges from a period of intense public scrutiny in which corruption, scandal and political bias in the media have been forensically exposed. In 2012 a major tabloid newspaper was investigated for phone hacking and bribery. The establishment of an inquiry headed by Lord Justice Leveson into the state of the press found deficiencies in press regulation.

In his scathing report on the press published in 2013, Lord Leveson ripped into the media culture. He concluded:

“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained”

In his report Leveson highlighted political bias in coverage of migration issues and highglighted a number of cases where tabloid media had fabricated stories concerning migrants and minority communities.

He pointed to examples of the tabloid press attacking migrants and recalled how the Daily Express 12 years earlier “ran 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period”.

That case (the only time in recent history when journalists have reported their own newspaper to the national press council) was also highlighted by Leveson. In his final report Leveson condemned “careless or reckless reporting” and concluded that regular discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced coverage of ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers amounts to press hostility and xenophobia.

He accused newspapers of manufacturing stories to suit their anti-migrant political agenda. A story in The Sun headlined «Swan Bake,» for instance, alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses. But the story was totally unfounded.

Among his recommendations aimed at cleansing the press was a demand to dismantle the disgraced and ineffective Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an independent watchdog, but which was seen to be a creature of the press industry rather than an effective guardian of readers’ interests by holding the press to account.

This led to the establishment of a Royal Charter on Press Regulation and the appointment of an independent Recognition Panel which aims to monitor press self-regulators to ensure that they meet basic standards of independent governance but without any power to regulate the press and with no role in relation to the contents of newspapers and news websites.

The majority of the country’s national and local newspapers decided to ignore this process and created a new body to replace the PCC: the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Significantly, three leading media – The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times – decided not to join.

The new body was established in September 2014 and is tasked with regulating the press in conjunction with the Editors’ Code of Practice, ratified by the PCC in December 2011. This Code, written by journalists in the newspaper industry, including current editors of broadsheets and tabloids, provides guidelines and ethics by which journalists are bound – albeit without legal sanction for breaking them.

Particularly important for reporting on migration are the Code Guidance Notes on asylum and refugees, originally established in 2003, which state:

“Editors should ensure that their journalists covering these issues are mindful of the problems that can occur and take care to avoid misleading or distorted terminology. By way of example, as an ‘asylum seeker’ is someone currently seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection there can be no such thing in law as an ‘illegal asylum seeker’…”

The guidance noes continue to underline the importance of Clause 12 (Discrimination) and Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code, to mitigate “the danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts”.

Despite the guidelines, many newspapers still fail to adhere to accurate and non-discriminatory reporting. A 2015 publication by the Media Standards Trust, as well as reports from campaign group Hacked Off, found a number of breaches to the Code, specifically on migration-related stories in major tabloids, with no rulings from the new self-regulating body IPSO. Most tellingly, there were numerous complaints to IPSO about the article by Sun columnist Katie Hopkins referred to earlier, but the organisation said it could not consider the issue, because the complaints did not come from people directly affected, that is from among migrants themselves.

It was in this context that the British press, in the summer of 2015, faced the challenge of reporting on the record numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean to mainland Europe – as many as 522,134 arrived by sea, with 2,892 dead or missing.

The pivotal moment however came at the beginning of September 2015 when a majority of the front pages on one day were dedicated to the death of a three-year-old Syrian Kurd, Aylan Kurdi.

Almost overnight this reframed the rhetoric from scare-mongering, as described by the front page (28 August) of the Daily Mail – “Migrants: How many more can we take” – to a more humane call for aid and hospitality “A tiny victim of a human catastrophe” (3 September).

This almost schizophrenic reaction to the so-called “migrant crisis” highlights the tempestuous relationship the UK press has with migration, fearful on the one hand and fearless on the other.

Playing alongside the Mediterranean migration crisis was a story closer to home: a growing number of asylum seekers had been gathering in camps at Calais, with 12 people killed whilst trying to get to the UK up to the end of September 2015.

The situations in Calais and the Mediterranean provided a contrast of approaches to media reporting. A number of articles, from media linked to politics of the right and left, often displayed a knowledge and understanding, albeit limited, of the complexities of European migration, with mention of European directives, regulations, or UN definitions of refugees.

However, many would continue to frame the Calais story in particular with the same rhetoric. This approach may have taken its cue from the Prime Minister’s use of the word “swarm” in July to describe the numbers of migrants, but in fact even before then newspapers had long been using war-related terms such as “invasion” to describe migration.

In some cases, numbers and figures were twisted or exaggerated to portray asylum seekers as “sneaking in”, yet in other examples lengthy articles provided profiles of asylum seekers, or of those helping refugee organisations working in Calais. The scale of the coverage of the Calais story astonished many, including Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor of The Guardian, who commented:

“What, however, is extraordinary is that the attempts of a few hundred migrants, many of whom may well be refugees fleeing war and persecution, have completely eclipsed the situation in the Mediterranean, where thousands do continue to attempt to cross”

The schizophrenic media coverage of migration and refugees issues perhaps reflects current public attitudes. According to an August 2015 poll, 50 per cent of the public are not concerned about immigration, while 50 per cent are. Arguably this concern has been influenced by the government’s rigid and negative response. Britain has refused to be part of any European-wide quota solution to the refugee crisis and has insisted on taking only 20,000 from camps housing Syrian refugees in the region over five years, compared with the hundreds of thousands being admitted by Germany and Sweden. This stance is welcomed and supported by the majority of media.

The migration story is rarely told from the perspective of those arriving, or the resident communities. In telling the story of humane migration, journalists face a number of challenges. “It is no longer about myth-busting or being better informed, the debate has moved on, and is highly politicised”, says Alan Travis.

There are a number of sources which provide reliable statistics, yet coverage of migration is still unbalanced. As the pressure group Hacked Off has found, newspapers continue to print inaccuracies and still allow space for extreme views, potentially inciting xenophobia. It may not be the decision of editorial staff to begin these discourses in order to sell papers; however there is little reason for them to diverge from what is becoming the mainstream.

Without media challenging mainstream discourses in a critical way, coverage of migration risks remaining as polemic. Rare examples of media criticising migration coverage can be found both in Al Jazeera and The Guardian, which highlights a crisis of reporting rather than a migrant crisis per se.

Al Jazeera’s “Listening Post” provided a 10-minute package solely on the coverage of Calais by the UK Press. They found that it was “difficult to separate truth from fiction”, which tended to be a result of the “disproportionate way that stories are covered, which says more about the political agenda of news outlets than the story itself”. As Arun Kundnani told Al Jazeera:

“Media are driven by sales, but you can’t simply explain this through supply and demand, this is part of a deeper cultural shift going on in the UK”                                                        

Interestingly, it is online where media such as Sky NewsCNN  or Al Jazeera have had more balanced and in-depth reporting, analysing who is fleeing and why they do so. This also coincided with a debate the media had around terminology. Many civil society groups began pressing for those arriving to be described as asylum seekers or refugees rather than migrants.

This debate was picked up by many papers, including The Financial TimesThe SpectatorThe Independent and The Daily Telegraph. Many news outlets, such as The MirrorThe Guardian and Channel 4 News, continue to use the word “illegal” in describing undocumented migrants, despite calls to avoid the term from NGOs such as the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.

As the mainstream media falls within the narratives discussed here, it is the alternative media, or smaller media outlets which have shown themselves able to provide quality and nuanced reporting on migration. Media Diversified, openDemocracy and Ceasefire Magazine all have in-depth and accurate stories viewing migration from different angles, not toeing the government line, or reducing the argument to slogans.

If journalists are to successfully navigate the tricky waters of hateful and divisive politics around the migration story they will have to focus on balanced and reporting without polemics. People need to understand the facts about migration and need commentary and analysis which use the right terminology and avoid language that is pejorative in telling this story. That means care with words like “illegal” and “migrant.”

The media coverage often underlines the newsroom diversity deficit with limited numbers of women, people from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and even those with precarious immigration status not themselves writing for major news outlets. Encouraging more journalists from refugee backgrounds will be beneficial in getting closer to the story and its roots.

Reporting around migration often remains framed through an old-fashioned perspective which for some people has an imperial, if not colonial tone. When the Prime Minister portrays Britain as a land attractive to migrants for its health and justice system, without noting any historical link that may be evident in the nationalities of migrants he plays into familiar and well-worn descriptions of “them” and “us”. That is why there is a need to acknowledge a wider historical perspective when writing about recent migratory trends in order to provide a more well-rounded picture of the situation.

In Britain, some of the best examples of good journalism in this area are those stories which do not quantify the “migrant” story, or qualify between “good” and “bad” migrants. These are the stories that do not play into the invasion or flood imagery but that focus on the human story without emotionally manipulating the reader.

Much media attention has tapped into public uncertainty and focused on the fear of migration, on problems of security, or the threat to UK culture from “migrants”. Often too little attention is given to the failure of the political system to deal with a humanitarian situation, or on political failure over the last five years (and longer) to anticipate this latest crisis. That is why reporting on migration should not focus on scare-mongering about refugees but on holding to account those with political influence.

Given the UK media’s history of impunity and weak levels of self-regulation major press news outlets can be unrestrained in their reporting of migration. For some that means the freedom to use intemperate language, and even hate-speech.

The press in the United Kingdom provides some excellent examples of fine reporting, with good background and sensitive coverage, but in debate where fear often frames the story deceptive handling of the facts, political bias and a rush to publish without sufficient thought as to the impact on the audience provide traps for all journalists.

The unconscionable terrorist killings in Paris on November 11 with a reported link to the Syrian refugee crisis after a migrant’s passport was found at the scene at one of the incidents prompted new media speculation over migration policy. The story is becoming more complex.

Simple narratives – either of so-called migrant “invasion” or of a de-politicised ahistorical human story where hospitality in the form of “Refugees Welcome” is presented as a solution – are not enough. The challenges to journalism will be to show sensitivity, humanity and respect for the facts and, above all, to provide their audience with information they can understand.

Main image: “Dieppe Sunset” by Darren Johnson licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0



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