Text of my presentation to the SAGB Conference in Canterbury this morning, 7 August 2016
THE REFUGEE CRISIS: The Media and Public Opinion in the UK
This being a time when many Christians in Britain will be on their way to church, it’s perhaps fitting to add an overtly moral dimension to our discussions. What follows is certainly not a sermon, but rather a reflection on how people in Britain have responded to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region that has propelled well over a million refugees towards Europe. In particular, I shall focus on the role of the media – newspapers, broadcasting and new social media – and the way that these have both reflected public opinion and helped shape it. As the debate about the national attitude to the refugee flow coincided with the European Referendum campaign, there is a credible argument that it contributed to the end result, which saw a slim majority in favour of Brexit.
First, the good news.
When the first TV pictures were shown of predominantly Syrian refugees making the short but perilous journey from Turkey to Greece there was a spontaneous outpouring of compassion in this country. The fact that scores, even hundreds, of people trying to find sanctuary in Europe instead ended up being drowned awakened the public consciousness to the depth of despair of those fleeing the nightmare of Syria’s civil war. When the body of the Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Turkish seaside resort of Bodrum, his picture became a poignant symbol of the unfolding tragedy. Virtually every daily newspaper in Britain put his image on their front page. Ten days later, across Britain, marchers took to the streets behind banners proclaiming “Refugees Welcome Here!” I was on the march in central London and there was a carnival atmosphere, as we strode down Park Lane under the warm sun, people of all ages and ethnicities, of varying political affiliations and none. On the other side of the road, car drivers honked their horns in support and we basked in a communal feeling of goodwill.
Yet there was also an undercurrent of frustration, anger even – targeted at the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. The Conservative government that had won a surprise election victory four months previously quickly made clear that Britain would not be part of any EU-wide scheme to settle Syrian refugees, or any of the Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans and others who were making their way across the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. Instead, the government declared that it would take a limited number of the most vulnerable people – especially children – from refugee camps in Turkey and neighbouring countries. The official reason for this parsimonious approach was that opening the door to refugees who had successfully made the perilous journey to Europe would only encourage others to follow suit. But the unofficial reason, which opinion pollsters had picked up, was that many of the Conservatives’ natural supporters – as well as those who had defected to the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP – believed that the country could not take in more than a token number of refugees because “Britain is full”.
That is a narrative that has figured in some of the UK’s more popular and conservative newspapers for several years now: the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun, in particular. These papers are fond of pointing out that although Britain’s population is roughly similar to that of France, France is twice as large as Britain geographically. While that is factually true, the impression of Britain’s being “full” is misleading. There is an over-concentration of the British population in London and the South East, and the capital has grown rapidly over the past twenty years, in contrast to earlier decades of post-War decline. London’s infrastructure, from the public transport network to the housing stock, is indeed under strain. But that is not the case in much of the rest of the country. Large areas of the North of England – formerly the nation’s industrial powerhouse – are half-empty and in need of regeneration. So, too, are much of Scotland and Wales. It is simply a myth to say that Britain cannot sustain a larger population than the one it has at present, but it is a myth that has gained considerable public traction.
What is true is that, in contrast to Germany, Britain does have a population that is markedly growing, partly because of a higher birth-rate but mainly because of immigration. The latter is adding a little over 300,000 people to the UK population annually at the moment, about half of that number being EU migrants who are exercising their right to freedom of movement within the European single market and the other half coming from elsewhere, especially former colonies that are now part of the Commonwealth. Migration from other EU member states accelerated from 2004 because Britain – then under a Labour government – was one of the few “old” EU member states to grant immediate access to citizens of “new” member states such as Poland and Lithuania. For several sectors of the British economy this brought a welcome influx of young, well-motivated and often well-educated workers who were prepared to do jobs that many native Britons avoided, such as picking fruit and vegetables on farms, or working in the building industry. In London, which is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, in which only a third of the population was actually born in the UK, this injection of new workers was comparatively easily absorbed, despite the pressure on housing, as well as social services and education. But in some other parts of the country where the percentage of immigrants is much lower, the arrival of thousands of Poles, and later Bulgarians and Romanians, caused something of a culture shock. Local residents were not used to hearing what to them were unintelligible languages spoken in their streets and many worried that their own children’s education would suffer because the schools were suddenly absorbing large numbers of kids for whom English was a foreign language. Similarly, the influx of eager young workers from countries such as Latvia and Slovakia, where wage levels are well below the EU average, did undeniably depress wages in some sectors here in Britain, meaning that some locals found that they were earning less than what they were used to, or even ended up without work. It is important to realise this in order to understand why a party such as UKIP saw a surge in support, notably in the 2014 European elections, in which it topped the poll. And to understand why at least some of those who backed Brexit voted the way they did. Probably most of us in this room value highly our European citizenship and the associated freedom of movement, but for many working-class Britons, EU free movement of labour is seen as a threat.
Moreover, the perception, right or wrong, of a “full” Britain being “swamped” by cheap central and eastern European workers was made toxic by an unrelenting campaign by some of the British Press to tarnish the image of EU migrants by claiming that many were coming to Britain simply to take advantage of benefits such as our National Health Service and child allowances. The Daily Express in particular has run a series of headlines, day after day, week after week, portraying EU migrants as work-shy scroungers costing our social services a fortune. Other newspapers have echoed that narrative, albeit usually in less mendacious terms. Small wonder, therefore, that there has been an upsurge in anti-EU migrant feeling in Britain. This boiled over after the EU referendum, with a sharp rise in xenophobic incidents involving verbal or physical abuse and numerous cases of people who look visibly different or who are speaking a language other than English being told to “go back home”.
Now you may feel that I have wandered rather a long way from the issue of the refugee crisis, but I would argue that the issues surrounding EU migrants, immigration from outside the EU and refugees are inextricably linked in the British context. When young white skinheads belonging to extreme right-wing groups such as the English Defence League march behind banners proclaiming “Refugees NOT welcome here!” – cruelly mimicking those who have a more compassionate attitude to those fleeing war and persecution – they are basically saying “foreigners not welcome here”. And their hostility extends to anyone who is not visibly like them, as many black and Asian Britons have been discovering to their cost. This is not to say that all Britons are racists or xenophobes. Far from it. But it is important to understand some of the reasons for hardening attitudes in sections of the British population, as well as the link to what those of us who consider ourselves to be liberal internationalists consider to be the cynical manipulation of such attitudes by more unscrupulous elements of the media.
That manipulation, and the fuelling of fear of and anger towards “The Oher”, has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the extraordinary rise in the importance of social media. Now, I am a great fan of twitter and Facebook; in fact, that’s often how I first hear about political or international news, as well as diverse opinions. But there is no doubt that the sudden ability of anybody and everybody to “publish” material, immediately and without any form of editorial control has meant that social media have become a platform for a cacophony of often strident, extreme and offensive material. Facebook will occasionally take down postings that it feels violate its vaguely defined code of conduct – notably graphic pictures – but elsewhere there is an unstoppable tide of lies, distortions and pure bile. One can’t escape it by judiciously choosing who one follows on twitter, as anyone posting tweets that are pro-EU, pro-migrant or pro-refugees is likely to find themselves trolled by opponents, who usually hide behind anonymity. One can of course block people, but others soon take their place.
In principle, what one might call the traditional media ought to be more restrained and to have a greater respect for truth, but this is alas a utopian dream. Publications such as the Financial Times and the Economist may have high ethical standards but these are not shared by much of the mainstream Press, especially the big-selling newspapers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. There, the old maxim that a keen journalist should never let the truth get in the way of a good story still holds true. Moreover, when it comes to any story relating to the EU, anything is fair game, according to most conservative newspapers. When he was a young journalist in Brussels, Boris Johnson worked first for the Times and then for the Daily Telegraph, happily concocting fictitious stories about the EU that helped build a picture in the minds of many Britons that Brussels is full of “faceless, unelected bureaucrats” dreaming up ridiculous regulations and soaking up billions of pounds of British money. Some of Boris’s stories were so outrageous that the Times eventually sacked him, but that did not stop him going on to become the highest paid columnist on the Telegraph, commanding a salary of £250,000 a year, and getting elected as Mayor of London, twice. Moreover, in the EU Referendum, it was Boris Johnson who fronted the Leave campaign, happily touring the country in a bus that proclaimed, falsely, that Britons pay £350 million a week to Brussels, which could be spent on our National Health Service instead. He participated with gusto in a totally mendacious campaign. And what was his punishment for this barrage of lies? He’s been made Foreign Secretary.
However, to understand how the refugee crisis got conflated in the minds of many British voters with EU migrants and the alleged perfidy of Brussels one needs to cast a critical eye on the behaviour of UKIP and its former leader, Nigel Farage. Though married to a German, and himself a descendant of Huguenot refugees, Farage became the face of white working-class resentment of foreigners. This pose is even more grotesque when one realises that prior to getting elected to the European Parliament he was a commodity trader in the City of London. His mantra during the Referendum campaign was “We want Our Country Back”, making him the hero of what the Remain side derided, not entirely unfairly, as Little Englanders. The nadir of Farage’s poisonous political activities came when he unveiled a poster showing an enormous throng of refugees from Syria and elsewhere trying to get into Slovenia. The message was clear: Britain was about to be swamped and must say “no”, because Britain is “full”. Liberal newspapers such as the Guardian were quick to point out that the UKIP poster was a chilling replica of Nazi propaganda from the 1930s. But that did not stop it having an effect.
Furthermore, Nigel Farage got a huge, indeed disproportionate, amount of coverage in the media, not just during the Referendum campaign, but over the previous two or three years. His folksy image of a man standing outside a pub with a pint of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other was plastered across newspapers of every political persuasion. More seriously, he was given considerable visibility in the broadcasting media, not least on BBC television. There is a popular political debate programme on the BBC called Question Time, in which a panel of politicians, journalists and diverse celebrities answer questions from the audience on topical subjects. Farage featured on that programme more than anyone else, other than the presenter. The BBC argued that this was because he was entertaining, but the result was that it made him a national figure who was able to trot out his anti-EU and anti-migrant message month after month.
For those of us who care about the integrity of the British media this has worrying connotations. Newspapers are free to display a political bias, and most do. Academic research has long shown that British newspaper readers tend to buy newspapers – or read the online versions – which most closely reflect their own political views. So if you are a Conservative Party supporter you would tend to read the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail, whereas if you are a Labour supporter you would be more likely to favour the Guardian or the Daily Mirror. So in a sense, it does not matter all that much that individual newspapers have a clear political bias. That said, there is an added element to the British newspaper scene which is that non-nationals own a lot of it, not least Rupert Murdoch, who owns both the Times and the Sun, and who is openly hostile to the EU. It was no surprise that the Sun – Britain’s biggest selling newspaper – urged people to vote for Brexit.
However, when it comes to the broadcasters, there is meant to be a degree of political neutrality, especially on the BBC. During election campaigns that neutrality is tightly controlled, as the major political parties are given equal airtime. But what this meant during the EU Referendum was that Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and others on the Leave side were given free rein to come out with gross untruths, many of which were never properly challenged. The result was that instead of having a “balanced” debate we were presented with an often distorted narrative. This served to reinforce perceptions that Farage had been shaping over the previous few years. Lest anyone doubt the xenophobic nature of much of those, watch Farage’s speech to the European Parliament immediately after the Brexit vote.
There is another element to the discourse about the EU, migration and refugees which has to be confronted head-on: a rise in Islamophobia. This is by no means as acute in Britain as it is in central European countries such as Hungary or Slovakia, or even France. But it is a growing phenomenon. Though there has been little history of conflict between Christian and Muslim communities in Britain ever since the first Muslim immigrants arrived here from the Indian sub-continent nonetheless the atmosphere has been soured by the linkage made in many people’s minds between Islam and terrorism. Of course we here all know that there is a world of difference between Islam and radical Islamism, but in the wake of Islamist terrorist incidents here and in other EU member states there has perhaps inevitably been a space opened up for a far-right narrative that Muslims in general are a threat to British civilization, however one might define that, and that therefore allowing in Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere might endanger national security. Such a hypothesis ignores the fact that many such refugees are actually fleeing Islamist terror, rather than having espoused it, but the argument still resonates with some sections of the public. At a local community level, inter-faith groups have tried to counter such false impressions and senior British politicians have stated their heartfelt opposition to Islamophobia. But that does not alter the fact that in some quarters it exists. Similarly, worryingly, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism, which suggests that anyone who is perceived as “different” is fair game for criticism or abuse. This is particularly depressing in a country which until recently many of us saw as a beacon of multiculturalism.
I have not the slightest doubt that the Brexit vote has made that situation worse. But this begs the question: did the vote result in more people becoming xenophobic, or did it merely enable those who had previously remained silent about their prejudices to speak out? Either way, the sad reality is there, whether it is the Lithuanian shopkeeper who had coca cola thrown in her face or the Romanian shopper who was pushed aside by a British woman who declared, “We come first in our country, now” – both genuine incidents reported on the BBC. It is important that such incidents are reported and that ordinary, decent people stand up against them. Otherwise if one turns a blind eye to such casual discrimination it can start propelling a society down a slippery slope that leads to the dehumanisation of the Other, the outsider – and worse.
Given Britain’s demographic, no British government could have opened the door to a million refugees as Angela Merkel bravely did in Germany. But David Cameron and now Theresa May could and should have been more welcoming than has been the case. Part of the problem is because Mr Cameron foolishly made a promise a few years ago to reduce the level of immigration to a few tens of thousands each year, rather than hundreds of thousands – a pledge he was totally unable to keep. Mrs May, mindful of the feelings of some of her party’s more conservative supporters, will similarly try to reduce the numbers coming into Britain; already she has said there will be greater scrutiny of people trying to come as students. But even if she avoids naming any targets or figures it seems certain that the needs of refugees will be low on her government’s list of priorities. As it is, the government has shamefully failed to fulfil its promise of bringing over the number of unaccompanied Syrian children refugees that it said Britain would take. Instead, the UK government will continue to fund camps in the Middle East and other programmes that are aimed at keeping refugees over there as opposed to over here.
There will doubtless continue to be marches and campaigns by those – including the churches – who argue that Britain should have a more compassionate approach to the refugee crisis. But for all the talk by the pro-Brexit campaigners that Britain will be more outward looking as a result of Brexit, the early signs are that in fact the country is becoming more insular. That is reflected in much of the media, sadly. And that media, including the BBC, has moreover been relentlessly dumbing down in recent years, moving away from comprehensive coverage of both domestic and international news towards “info-tainment”: the trivialisation of news as entertainment. Yes, there are sometimes TV documentaries and newspaper features on the refugees and the conflict situations that have caused them. But in a media environment in which consumers are spoilt for choice, many people will opt for Big Brother or a Premier League football match rather than yet another gruelling portrayal of the senseless slaughter in Syria. I am not alone in detecting a degree of so-called compassion fatigue among the British public. Thirty years ago, millions watched documentaries about famine in Ethiopia and responded generously as well as putting pressure on the government to do something about it. I doubt that the same thing could happen today. For a start, no single programme would command the same viewing figures as some enjoyed when there were only three or four TV channels to choose from.
Moreover, viewing and listening figures are all-important for the media organisations these days, not just for the independent TV channels and radio stations, because of their dependence on advertising revenue, but also for the BBC. To cite an obvious example, BBC Radio 4 used to have a regular programme about what was going on in the EU, including the European Parliament. Not anymore. And whereas there were dozens of British journalists based in Brussels when I was first sent out there as a cub reporter for Reuters news agency shortly after Britain joined the then European Economic Community, now there are but a handful. So, little about the EU gets reported in Britain, and what is reported tends to be misreported or else given a slant to yet again poke fun at the institution. No wonder such a large proportion of the British public hold the EU in low esteem. British politicians are partly to blame, not just Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, but successive British Prime Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, who always blamed Brussels when anything went badly but claimed all the credit for themselves when anything went well. All too often the British media then parroted what the politicians said, reinforcing the stereotypes and misconceptions.
As many of you will know, the UK was due to assume the six-monthly rotating presidency of the EU in July of next year, which would have been a wonderful opportunity for Britain not only to help set a reform agenda for the EU but also to work towards a more coherent European policy on such matters as refugees and asylum-seekers. But that opportunity has been missed. Moreover, like his predecessors, David Cameron never bothered to “sell” Europe to the British electorate, instead continuing a narrative of Britain fighting off efforts by Brussels to impose yet more regulations or demand yet more money. Given that context, is it surprising that the British attitude to refugees has come across as small-minded and lacking in compassion? I believe not. And for that politicians should be held to account. But so should the media, who have too often provided an echo-chamber to the more jingoistic cries of the politicians and have fanned the flames of discrimination and intolerance.
The current government has emphasized Britain’s roots in its Christian tradition, even though only about ten per cent of nominal British Christians attend church regularly. But if it wants to claim some form of Christian legitimacy then the government needs to review its record on refugees and asylum. The head of the Anglican clergy, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has set a symbolic example by inviting one Syrian refugee family to live in a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace, his London residence. But such tokenism, however sincerely meant, is not enough. All of us Britons, of whichever faith or none, who are conscious of the moral responsibility we have towards refugees need to stand up and be counted and to put pressure on both the politicians and the media to ensure that Britain as a country shoulders its responsibilities. The Farages of this world will complain, but so be it. They must be confronted and shamed. They say they believe in Great Britain, but their efforts are heading this country down a road that leads to a Little Britain, self-satisfied, selfish and, alas, increasingly isolated.