Unfortunately the media portrayal of BME groups, migrants and refugees has not improved since the last periodic examination and remains a very serious concern. In fact, the situation seems to have worsened in some cases. A survey conducted by The Runnymede Trust found that four out of five people thought the way the media portrays BME people promotes racism. This concern was not just expressed by BME respondents but by over two thirds of white respondents as well, thus countering the often rehearsed argument that negative media portrayal merely reflects public opinion.38
Some communities, such as Muslims, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, have been the target of particularly negative and hostile media coverage last year in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France in January and November 2015 and the European “refugee crisis”. Two striking examples of such coverage include:
On 17 April 2015, The Sun published a widely criticized article the day after the capsizing of a boat in the Mediterranean, where 400 migrants were feared dead. The piece was entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, and likened people fleeing war-torn regions to “cockroaches” and described them as “feral humans”. The author of the piece wrote: “I don’t care if migrants die.”39 The dehumanising language and tone of the article shocked many readers (a petition calling for the columnist to be fired from the newspaper reached more than 300,000 signatories) including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Al Hussein stated “The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches. This type of language is clearly inflammatory and unacceptable, especially in a national newspaper.”40 The author of the column was reported to the Metropolitan Police by the Society of Black Lawyers, and the case was passed on to Crown Prosecution Service, but she did not face any charges.
On 23 November 2015, ten days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, The Sun splashed the following headline over its front page: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. Soon after, academics, broadsheet journalists and even an employee who had helped conduct the survey (on behalf of a research agency) pointed to the misleading and unscientific nature of the questions asked in the survey and the dubious interpretation that The Sun chose to make of it. The script of the survey was “reductive and often patronising” according to one of the pollsters and did not even mention the word ‘jihadi’.41 One question asked whether respondents had “sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”, with the choices being ‘a lot’, ‘some’ or ‘no’ sympathy with people leaving for Syria. As another article pointed out, “the problem with the Sun’s interpretation of this poll is that people travelling to Syria are not necessarily going to fight on the side of jihadis. There have been high-profile examples of British people going to fight on the side of, for instance, the Kurds, who are fighting against Isis.” In addition, the wording of this question is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous in a way social scientists who design surveys seek to avoid. ““Sympathy” is a very broad term and does not necessarily imply full-blooded support. People who say they have sympathy with something might be saying they understand why someone has come to do something, even if they think it is wrong. They may even simply be saying that they feel bad for a person in that situation.”42 Finally, there was no comparator group for Muslims in this survey. The British Election Study studied attitudes to extremism in the general population and found that all ethnic groups expressed similar levels of support for violence, including the white group.43 Even though the story was widely debunked and the newspaper was criticised for using such inflammatory headlines, the Sun did not apologize or issue a correction. Regardless, the damage had been done, providing yet again another example of stereotyping a particular group of people (in this case Muslims).
The two examples above are not only detrimental and inflammatory towards BME and migrant communities, but they also create a climate where minorities are vilified and where perpetrators of racist violence feel legitimized in expressing their hatred. As the Sun headline appeared in the press, TELL MAMA (an independent NGO that records anti-Muslim hate crime) recorded a 300% increase in anti-Muslim incidents in the week following the Paris attacks, with many incidents involving violence against Muslim women and girls.44 Although this increase in hate crime targeting Muslims at that particular moment can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the aftermath of the Paris attacks, press coverage in the UK should do much more to reduce racial hatred, and be more wary of publishing articles that might incite it.
These two examples concern refugees and Muslims but other ethnic minorities, including Gypsies and Travellers, are also targeted by offensive media coverage. The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB) highlighted examples of such coverage, including the use of “offensive and provocative terminology” when referring to Gypsies and Travellers, notably in the advertising for the Channel 4 series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.45 These programmes have real effects on young people, who are known face bullying and harassment based on the stereotypes portrayed in such series.
Inflammatory speech is unfortunately not only confined to the press. Politicians have also made statements that vilify even further an already vulnerable group. Examples include the Prime Minister referring to a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” to seek a better life in Britain46 or when the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond referred to the migrants in Calais “marauding the area.” As Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner stated “this morphs them into pirates, pillaging lands as they go.”47 NGOs have noted the failure of politicians to ensure that they do not exacerbate an already hostile climate for BME groups and to recognise the direct link between ‘hostile policies’ on migrants and the effect this has on all BME people in Britain, whether in terms of ‘Go Home’ vans48 or policies that will incentivize landlords to discriminate against ethnic minorities49.