Talking Politics

Anti-immigrant tabloids have questions to answer over Norway terror

Islamic terror is treated by the mainstream media as an incident in a military campaign. Right-wing terror is treated as the actions of a lone madman. So what happens if we treat them both equally?

When the 2010 plot to blow up airplanes over US cities was foiled, talk quickly focused on the men who had tried to execute the attack. Commentators and pundits spent a great deal of time asking how were they 'radicalised'.

In the case of Anders Behring Breivik, our task is made easier by his 1,518-page manifesto, which makes it entirely clear.

One article by Melanie Phillips, a particularly trenchant columnist for the Daily Mail, is cited in full. It argues that Labour constructed its immigration policy "to destroy for ever what it means to be culturally British and to put another 'multicultural' identity in its place". A Sunday Times article by Jeremy Clarkson complaining about the English aversion to the national flag (an argument I sympathise with, for what it's worth) is also cited extensively. Several news stories are included, many of them from the Telegraph and Guardian.

If this were an Islamic attack, that would be more than enough evidence to brand Phillips' article, for instance, extremist literature, with all the legal implications that entails. That's a silly approach in the case of Islamic terror and it remains so here. 'Radicalisation' has always been a problematic word. It assumes that life is like a Hollywood screenplay, where the character has to get from point A to point B over the course of a scene. In real life seemingly random incidents (Breivik cites being forced to knit in school) combine with attractively simplistic world-views to create violent political dogma. It's a subtle, messy process.

Are Melanie Phillips, or Immigration Watch, or the Daily Star or all those other journalists who write made-up stories about Muslim-only toilets and Sharia law, to blame for what happened in Norway? Plainly not. But let us not pretend that the cacophony of anti-immigrant rhetoric sweeping Europe has no consequence.

It is perfectly acceptable — important even — for a debate to take place on immigration. There are concerns around the forcing down of domestic wages, the affect on communities and the sense it gives people that they are not in control of their own lives. That debate is quite separate to the misleading bile which fills our newspapers on a daily basis.

Nick Davies, the man responsible for dragging the phone-hacking scandal into the cold light of day, conducted an excellent analysis of how the Daily Mail tweaks reality to satisfy its relentlessly anti-immigration platform. He cites a July 2003 story proclaiming that "asylum-seekers infected with the Aids virus are putting public health at risk, MPs will warn today". The actual report contradicts the claim. While 90% of Aids in the heterosexual community was contracted in sub-Saharan Africa, the infected tended to come from countries which rarely applied for asylum, such as South Africa or Zambia, while those who applied the most came from countries with very low instances of Aids infection, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

Take the Sun's opinion column headline, a variation of which could be read in the paper nearly every day: "Many asylum-seekers are no more than dole-scroungers." The tabloid was not so keen to highlight Refugee Council research which found that three-quarters of asylum seekers "had no knowledge of welfare benefits and support before coming to the UK — most had no expectation they would be given financial support".

Another tabloid favourite is the myth of asylum seekers going to the front of the social housing queue. This is false. A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found zero evidence for this oft-repeated allegation. Absurdly, and with a trace of comedy even its editors must have found satisfying, the Daily Mail reported it with the headline: "One in ten social houses go to immigrants".

Take this account from Richard Peppiatt, a former Daily Star journalist, whose resignation letter is one of the best first-hand accounts of the approach to immigration in tabloid news rooms. "I nearly walked out last summer when the Daily Star got all flushed about taxpayer-funded Muslim-only loos," he wrote. "A newsworthy tale were said toilets Muslim-only. Or taxpayer-funded. Undeterred by the nuisance of truth, we omitted a few facts, plucked a couple of quotes, and suddenly anyone would think a Rochdale shopping centre had hired Osama bin Laden to stand by the taps, handing out paper towels. I was personally tasked with writing a gloating follow-up declaring our postmodern victory in 'blocking' the non-existent Islamic cisterns of evil."

Soon enough, the police became so concerned with the effect of these ceaseless lies and innuendos they had to issue a warning. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) published a report saying "ill-informed adverse media coverage" was producing the risk of "significant public disorder". It added: "Racist expressions towards asylum-seekers appear to have become common currency and 'acceptable' in a way that would never be tolerated towards any other minority group." In a move that tells you everything you need to know about tabloid journalism in Britain today, the Mail ran with the "significant public disorder" line but left out its own role in it, suggesting it was the work of the immigrants themselves.

Whatever else it is, it's not journalism. Journalism communicates accurate information. Sometimes these tabloid stories are simply out-and-out lies. More often, they are misleading accounts of reports or statistics. They are published with a political agenda: to limit immigration to the UK.

Sometimes they are motivated by genuine political concerns. Usually, I suspect, they are motivated by what Breivik called his desire for "monoculture". That's not racism. It's distinct. But much of the attack on multiculturalism has at its heart an aversion to diversity.

With the British press about to undergo possibly the most extensive change in its history, this is a good time to discuss the matter. A stronger watchdog could prevent some of the deeply misleading coverage that has poisoned our press in recent decades.

But censorship and regulations are not ultimately the answer. Censoring Islamic fundamentalist texts and banning more and more groups on wider and wider definitions of extremism isn't the answer either. In both Islamic and far-right terror, you have to make the case. You have to make the argument. There are pitifully few people who are willing to do that in this country, who are willing to saw that they believe in a diverse Britain, a more vibrant and beautiful Britain. Until we have the guts to do that, the stage is filled with lies and hate, and the terrorism they demonstrably help create.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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