There is little doubt that immigration was the key factor that swung the referendum for Brexit. It is the issue that has been at or near the top of “what concerns voters” polls over the past few years. So it is to be expected that newspapers should focus on the subject: to examine the plight of people in Syria abandoning their homes because of a war for which Britain was in part to blame; to scrutinise the EU’s freedom of movement ethos; to look at the Jungle in Calais; to assess the cultural impact of the many thousands of foreigners who choose to settle in Britain; to consider border security and terrorism. These are all legitimate subjects. They are also separate subjects, even though some are linked.
Yet tabloid readers could be excused for thinking that “immigrants”, “Eastern Europeans”, “illegals”, “asylum seekers”, “refugees” and “Muslims” are one amorphous, undesirable, mass – “millions” of people whose one objective is to come to Britain and steal our country.
The obsession has reached such a pitch that the Sun’s first instinct when five young men drowned off Camber Sands last month was that they might be illegal immigrants – they were not white and had been wearing shorts. They turned out to be five friends on a day trip from London.
For the past six years, the volume of invective against Johnny Foreigner has been turned up to the point where it has become almost unbearable. The only pause in the cacophony came just over a year ago with the appearance of a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. He had drowned, along with his mother and brother, within five minutes of setting sail for Europe in a little dinghy.
Suddenly the snarling was replaced with compassion. Suddenly the “cockroach” was a child.
Newspapers not known for their sympathy for refugees or their dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean demanded action.
The Sun launched an appeal and within two days was hailing its readers as heroes for raising £350,000 to help children like Aylan; families put up their hands to offer foster homes to the young refugees. David Cameron, who two days earlier had said that Europe’s migration crisis would not be solved “by taking more and more refugees”, apparently promised to admit thousands, prompting headlines such as “Britain opens its arms to refugees”. Fifteen, twenty thousand people would be admitted to Britain, foreign aid money would be diverted to help asylum seekers, “Refugees welcome” banners appeared across the country.
But then there was a new season of Strictly and The X Factor - and the tabloids lost interest. By the end of the following week, Cameron had ordered a drone to kill a pair of Britons fighting as jihadis in Syria and the Queen had become the country’s longest reigning monarch. Who had time for the boat people now?
The Daily Mirror, the one paper that has shunned front-page stories about migration, broke step for three days to cover the Kurdi story and the deaths of four more refugee babies two weeks later. It had not led on any aspect of migration in the previous eight months and has not returned to it since.
The Daily Express did not break step – or publish the Aylan photograph. Instead it spent a couple of days berating the EU for the human catastrophe unfolding on its borders before resuming normal service with a diabetes breakthrough.
Against the Mirror’s three migration splashes last year and this, the Express has managed more than 90.
The fifteen or twenty thousand have not, of course, reached our shores. By the end of June, 2,659 had been admitted – against 19,000 taken in by Germany and 26,000 by Canada. The National Audit Office reported earlier this month that 113 councils had pledged to resettle refugees, but that the programme was being put at risk by a shortage of school places and housing.
In April, Cameron was also denying entry to 3,000 unaccompanied children on the grounds that they were already “safe” in Europe. For this he was taken to task by the Daily Mail, which has the sophistication to differentiate between the vulnerable and those it deems to be unworthy. It also has the chutzpah to take credit where it may not be due and so when Cameron did an about-turn, the paper that vilifies economic migrants and foreign nurses hailed its “victory for compassion”.
The three thousand haven’t got here either.
If newspapers like the Mail believe that their headlines influence politicians, do they not consider that they might also affect the behaviour of readers?
Last month, Arkadiusz Jozwik died in an street attack in Harlow, Essex. Witnesses said he had been targeted because he was speaking Polish. The Sun splashed on the killing - and then, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, published a story on page 2 about hundreds of thousands of “hidden” EU migrants.
So on page 1, the paper mourns a family man who came to Britain thanks to his homeland’s membership of the EU, and on the very next page it decries the fact that anyone should be able to enter the country on those terms.
Then, a little further back, a spread likened the Calais Jungle to a festival site with its “booming micro-economy”, including restaurants, shops, musical halls, a nightclub and a boxing gym. An accompanying single - or small news item - said that one “illegal” is stopped every hour in the UK.
The paper might rightly argue that once here, anyone should be safe from murderous gangs, but might it not also pause to consider whether the rhetoric coming from Fleet Street is inflaming the situation?
The Leave campaign and its newspaper supporters made great play of how leaving the community would give Britain back control of immigration - and that seems to have convinced a certain section of society that the moment the votes were counted, all foreigners would be put on the next boat and that any who remained were fair game.
There has been strong evidence of a rise in racist or “hate” crimes since the vote – a fact reported by the Sun on June 28 in a spread headlined “Racists shame Britain”. Before that, the paper had printed 120 news reports and opinion pieces about migration this year, almost all of them negative.
For the Daily Express, all foreigners are a problem and everything is Europe’s fault. From the day Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 up to last Saturday - September 10 - the paper had splashed on migration issues on 180 occasions, with a marked acceleration after the autumn of 2013, when Romanians and Bulgarians were about to be given full access to the UK. And that’s not taking into account all the puffs at the top of the page when advice on living longer or rising house prices take centre stage. By last weekend the paper’s tally for 2016 stood at 51 splashes, 18 puffs, 51 op-ed columns, 116 leaders and countless inside stories. All that in just 216 papers.
Why? The paper has yet to respond to requests for a comment, but it may be supposed that if one were forthcoming, the answer would be “because it is what most concerns readers”.
In that it would have corroboration from Ipsos-Mori’s monthly “issues” polls. Since that 2010 election, immigration has regularly emerged as the subject most frequently mentioned by voters.
Fair enough, but another such topic is the health service and yet - miracle cures apart - the state of the NHS has bothered the Express’s splash headline writers on only a handful of occasions over the past six years and not once this year. [The Mail, which - with 122 - comes second to the Express on the number of migration splashes since May 2010, is constantly on the case of the NHS, GPs and junior doctors.]
Editors may argue that they have a duty to reflect public concern, hold authorities to account and inform the people. Others contend that they are feeding the fear with their constant stream of venom and bile.
While Press freedom is an essential element of democracy, there is a groundswell of opinion that some mechanism needs to be found that can both protect that and stop the dangerous drip-feed of negative headlines.
CitizensUK, which seeks to help to settle immigrants into the community, is particularly concerned about Britain’s slowness in helping refugees, and about the recent rise in “hate” crime.
It marked the anniversary of Aylan Kurdi’s death with a “memorial” outside the Home Office. Here, it urged politicians and officials to act speedily to admit 178 children who have an absolute right to come to Britain because they are alone and have family here, plus a further 209 with “valid claims for protection”. Then, last weekend it hosted a “Refugees welcome” summit in Birmingham at which hundreds of people considered practical initiatives to help refugees and counter negative attitudes. One affiliated group has approached the Press regulator Ipso for a meeting to discuss how to persuade newspapers to tone down their language.
Asked if there were any way that it could tackle the cumulative effect of stories that might not individually contravene the editors’ code, Ipso’s director of external affairs Niall Duffy confirmed that the regulator considered stories only on a case-by-case basis. But he pointed out that it did have the power to instigate an investigation of its own, without any complaint, if it considered the issue serious enough.
The signs are not auspicious, however, given the ruling that Katie Hopkins’s notorious “cockroach” column did not breach its guidelines on discrimination - a decision reached in the face of an appeal from the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner for the UK to tackle “tabloid hate speech”.
There are those who believe that Ipso cannot be an effective regulator because it is still in the pay of the big newspaper publishers. But, where immigration coverage is concerned, there is little sign of anything different from the putative rival regulator, Impress, which has a remarkably similar draft code of conduct.
Another approach is to try to convince advertisers not to spend with newspapers that demonise foreigners. Step forward Richard Wilson.
Sixteen years ago, Wilson’s sister died in a massacre in Burundi. A Daily Mail reporter who approached his mother for her story was gently shown the door because, she said, she had lost count of the number of newspaper articles - many in the Mail – that portrayed refugees as liars, cheats and frauds.
Katie Hopkins’s notorious Sun column struck a chord with Wilson because it had the same “cockroaches” simile that had been used to justify the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The combination of his mother’s example, that column and this summer’s tide of anti-immigration coverage spurred Wilson to set up a Facebook page - Stop Funding Hate - and a petition aimed at persuading Virgin to stop advertising in the Express, Mail and Sun. The Facebook page has had more than five million views, attracted 80,000 “likes” and the petition has nearly 42,000 signatures.
Wilson says: “Our aim is to shift the balance of incentives so that running hate campaigns costs newspapers more money through lost advertising than it makes them in sales. We hope that this will contribute to a long-term improvement in the quality and tone of Sun, Mail and Express coverage.
“Obviously the first company that does pull their advertising will be showing that they’re ahead of the curve in responding to the deep public concern.”
The essence of an independent Press is that it shouldn’t be influenced by people with power or money in their pockets, so do we really want advertisers dictating or censoring editorial content?
Wilson says: “Writing disproportionately negative stories about migrants is currently a good way of selling papers. Advertisers benefit from these headlines because they get a wider circulation for their messages. We aren’t asking advertisers to lean on newspapers and pressure them to change their content. We’re asking them to walk away and stop making us complicit.”
Whether writing nasty stories is a good way of selling papers is a moot point – circulations haven’t exactly been rocketing. Papers enjoyed a “Brexit spring” during the referendum campaign, but all those “migrant” splashes over the past six years have coincided with a decline in the Express’s circulation from 663,627 in May 2010 to 422,440 in July this year. There is no evidence that its anti-EU, anti-immigration crusade has provided a buoy to prevent sales sinking even further.
But is it not reasonable for companies to decide that it’s not good for their image to be associated with a particular brand or organisation? The extreme example of this is the closure of the News of the World, when advertisers deserted after the Milly Dowler phone-hacking story broke. But if Rupert Murdoch hadn’t actually wanted to close the NotW, he would have brazened it out.
The campaigners are taking on hugely powerful players who can be guaranteed to deploy heavy artillery if they feel their challengers are gaining traction, so it’s not surprising that campaigners are turning their attention first to the Express rather than Paul Dacre - editor of the Daily Mail - or Murdoch.
But they, and other like-minded groups, have some secret weapons in their arsenals – and they are all trained on Richard Desmond. The opening salvos have been fired. It’s war.
The SubScribe blog has been monitoring front pages for some years and it’s actually quite hard to determine what should be included in the “migration” chart at the top of this spread. For a start, it deals only with print editions. That is because these are what people see in supermarkets or on television and so have a greater impact than their circulations might imply.
There’s a lot of moaning about foreign aid, benefits for expats and Muslims who may not have integrated into UK society quite as the Mail or Express might wish – last Saturday’s “fury” about policewomen in burkas, for example. These are all excluded, as are terror-related splashes. Migration to other countries is, however, included.
It should also be pointed out that the “heavies” - the Telegraph in particular - are perhaps under-represented, since they often have immigration stories on their fronts, but these are included on the #chartofshame only if they are the lead to the paper.