Paper boat protests against Mediterranean migrant deaths, Brussels, April 20. Demotix/ Frederik Sadones. All rights reserved.Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, the Sun, has been carpeted by the United Nations human rights chief for describing migrants as “cockroaches” in a piece of journalism which he says is reminiscent of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
He is not wrong. The word resonates with anyone who has charted the use of hate-speech in the Nazi era and the genocide in Rwanda 21 years ago.
By any standards the column produced by Sun columnist Katie Hopkins torched ethical standards on the need for sensitive, humane reporting of humanitarian issues.
In the midst of global media coverage of the tragic scenes of suffering by hundreds of migrants who drowned off the coast of Italy earlier this month, Hopkins wrote:
“I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care…. these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.”
This incendiary piece appeared only hours before another migrant ship sank off the coast of Libya killing some 800 people. It prompted protests on a massive scale: more than 300,000 online protests and more than 300 complaints to the freshly-scrubbed Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
But the intervention of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein shows that the frustration over media-inspired hatred, particularly coming from Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper and one owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, extends far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.
“The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches,” said Zeid. He called on the UK government, media and regulators to respect national and international laws on curbing incitement to hatred.
His intervention raises two issues that should concern Britain’s troubled press industry.
The first is whether the tabloid press, despite all the post-Leveson promises of reform, is really willing to regulate itself effectively.
And the second is to explain why Britain appears to be the only settled democracy in Europe where the problem of hate speech is generated less from outside the newsroom – by extremist political or religious leaders –than from within, where it is flourishes amidst a mix of editorial stereotypes, political bias and commercial self-interest.
As Britain’s general election campaign gathers pace, political leaders, even those from the anti-migration parties, have avoided stirring up xenophobic passions.
But when the issue comes into the headlines it is often as a result of editorial choice, something highlighted by Zeid who said that while elsewhere in Europe “demonisation” of migrants is taking place, this is “usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media”.
He pointed to other examples of the tabloid press attacking migrants and recalled how the Daily Express 12 years ago “ran 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period.”
That case (the only time in almost 50 years in journalism when I recall journalists reporting their own newspaper to the national press council) was also highlighted by Lord Leveson in his investigation into the excesses of the British press three years ago.
In his final report Leveson condemned "careless or reckless reporting" and concludes that regular discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced coverage of ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers amounts to press hostility and xenophobia.
In particular, he highlighted how some sections of the press portray Muslims in a negative light and questions whether such articles "are appropriate in a mature democracy…”
He accused newspapers of manufacturing stories to suit their anti-migrant political agenda. A story in The Sun headlined "Swan Bake," for instance, alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses. But the story was totally unfounded.
In another example, a Daily Star article headlined, "Asylum seekers eat our donkeys" - a fabrication based upon the disappearance of nine donkeys from a park in London. In a piece of total speculation the article went on to claim that donkey meat was “a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe” and that there were "large numbers of Somali asylum-seekers" with some Albanians living nearby.
Three years on the newly-launched IPSO has issued a po-faced statement over the Hopkins incident. They confirm that they have received complaints and that an investigation would be held - no mention of the importance of the issue, no hint of the depth of public concern, no reiteration of calls for press responsibility in this area, particularly with a national election only days away.
This bureaucratic response can only fuel the fear that, for editors and tabloid press owners at least, the press has returned to business as usual after Leveson. They hope this embarrassing gaffe, like others in the past, will be kicked into long grass.
An adjudication will come some weeks hence, and it will probably be critical of The Sun and its columnist. How could it be otherwise? But it will be post-election and when the memory of the original offence is fading into the folk-lore of past misdemeanors.
That will be a pity. The moment for action is now, but the regulation of the British press as it now stands offers no prospect of fast-tracking urgent and serious complaints.
And it fails to answer the challenge posed by Zeid to find a way of eliminating from press discourse, once and for all, the threats that come with casual, hateful and dangerous discrimination against vulnerable minorities.
“History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonising foreigners and minorities,” he warns, “and it is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used in a variety of countries, simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.”