Freedom to hate?

May 20, 2003 — Comment

Written by Arun Kundnani

New research by Article 19 shows how the press is biased against asylum seekers. But change will not come about unless we go beyond liberal pleading.

As long ago as the 1970s, the anti-racist movement learned an important lesson. Then, as now, we were faced with newspapers that warned of an invasion of immigrants, of weak immigration controls, of public services being overwhelmed. But, as Paul Foot put it in 1976: ‘Race hate and race violence does not rise and fall according to the numbers of immigrants coming to Britain. It rises and falls to the extent to which people’s prejudices are inflamed and made respectable by politicians and newspapers.’

The recently published Home Affairs Committee Report on ‘Asylum Removals’ drew the opposite conclusion. In its widely quoted opening paragraph, it stated that the numbers coming have been so high that ‘if allowed to continue unchecked, it could overwhelm the capacity of the receiving countries to cope, leading inevitably to social unrest’. In essence, the argument presented was that of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, albeit couched in more moderate language. The right-wing newspapers pounced on the report’s prediction, finding in it official endorsement for their longstanding campaign against immigration. The rest of the report – which demanded, among other things, that asylum seekers be treated as ‘fellow human beings’ – was largely ignored.

A few days after the report was published, a meeting organised by Article 19, the ‘campaign for free expression’, was held on the question of how asylum seekers are reported in the media. Article 19 has conducted research on the media representation of refugees and has drafted a set of recommendations for journalists aimed at changing the way they report the issue. They are eminently liberal proposals. The recommendations call for the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to publish ‘soft guidelines’ for journalists on using the correct language, for journalists to be more careful in their sourcing of statistics and for the media to ask refugees and asylum seekers for their opinions more often.

No doubt there are some areas where this kind of approach can make a difference. But, unfortunately, they will have no impact on the tabloid newspapers which dominate this debate: the Sun, the Mail, the Express and their sister papers on Sundays. For the racism of these newspapers is not the result of carelessness or lack of thought on the part of journalists. It is a deliberate and systematic campaign of hate which no amount of liberal pleading will unhinge.

At a recent NUJ conference, a black journalist, who had previously worked at the Daily Mail, spoke of the culture of racism in the Mail‘s office, which included, he alleges, shouting ‘wogs’ at the TV screen when black athletes appeared. ‘The Daily Mail is a culture that seeps with deep racism, and it’s not just at the Mail but throughout the tabloid press’, he told delegates. In many other kinds of organisation – both public and private – this kind of institutional racism has been identified and challenged. Yet the newspaper industry remains largely untouched by these changes, free to perpetuate racism without any kind of accountability, except to shareholders.

Part of the problem is the concept of the inviolability of ‘press freedom’. The dilemma for liberals is that their request for ‘balance’ can be ignored if a newspaper so chooses. And yet liberals are loth to do anything more than ‘request’, for fear of offending a sacred cow – freedom of the press. The result is that nothing changes and press-fuelled racist violence against asylum seekers continues.

But the ‘press freedom’ that was fought for in previous centuries, and which political refugees themselves are especially likely to value, is not the freedom of large corporations to be involved in the industrialised production of racism for profit. The racist coverage of asylum seekers in the press is a failure of democracy, not its flourishing. When every problem of the day – whether it be SARS, house prices or even, as one newspaper reported, the decline in the number of swans on the river Lea – can be blamed on a relatively small number of outsiders, then genuine democratic debate has collapsed. Hate can never be compatible with democracy, for hate destroys everything but itself. And in the poisonous atmosphere created by the right-wing press, only other pseudo-democrats, like the BNP, can prosper.

Of course, censorship is not the solution. After all, the media are just part of a vicious circle, which also includes the state and public opinion. But anti-racists must campaign for more than just ‘guidelines’. The PCC must take a much stronger stand, issuing a public censure of those newspapers which systematically distort and mislead in their coverage of an entire group of people. The Mail, Sun and Express should have to explain to a public inquiry how they can justify their coverage. In addition, there are unexplored possibilities of using the Human Rights Act to protect the privacy of victims of tabloid hate campaigns.

No doubt the editors of right-wing newspapers will protest their right to freedom of expression if these measures were to be implemented. Yet they themselves have no qualms in calling for an individual (Abu Hamza) to be expelled from the country, for no crime but that he ‘preaches hate’. If only they followed their own advice.

Related links

Article 19

RAM project

This article appears in issue 71 of CARF magazine. To subscribe (£9 for individuals, £20 for organisations), please send a cheque made payable to 'CARF' to CARF, BM Box 8784, London WC1N 3XX. Or phone: 020 7837 1450.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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