The the UK media has been slammed for using “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology” and fuelling the rise in racist and xenophobic attacks after the Brexit vote. In a report (pdf) released on 4 October, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), part of the Council of Europe, condemned what it perceived as “no coincidence” that hate crime has risen. But oddly, most of the UK press failed to report its findings.
The UK press: going unchallenged for too long
The ECRI said that “biased or ill-founded” reporting by the mainstream media about vulnerable groups may be fuelling negative “stereotypes”. It cited Katie Hopkins’ controversial column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” with the headline: ‘Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants’. The ECRI quoted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as saying that “vicious verbal assault on migrants and asylum seekers in the UK tabloid press has continued unchallenged under the law for far too long”.
The Sun also came under fire for its “inflammatory anti-Muslim headlines”, such as this:
The ECRI also said that “unscrupulous press reporting” of the LGBTQ+ community was of concern. It specifically mentioned that, in March 2013, a trans schoolteacher committed suicide after being outed by The Daily Mail.
The report urged the press to “take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups”. It specifically mentioned that the fuelling of prejudice against Muslims “showed a reckless disregard… for their safety”.
But the report says that politicians have failed to control the press, regarding their use of offensive language. It said, after warning the UK government in its last report, that:
[The ECRI has already] strongly encouraged the authorities to intensify their efforts to impress on the media, without encroaching on their editorial independence. The need to ensure that reporting does not contribute to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection towards various minority ethnic groups. ECRI places great emphasis on self-regulation as an important means of combating the use of hate speech. It therefore regrets that, as concerns the media, the systems in place in the UK have not been effective.
The ECRI said that the Press Complaints Commission was not independent and had failed its purpose. It specifically questioned why an Independent Press Regulator was still not set up, in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. But, as the report highlights, when politicians are as guilty as the press regarding their use of inflammatory language, it should be of little surprise that no action has been taken.
Politicians under the spotlight
The report also called out politicians like David Cameron and Nigel Farage for their use of language which “contributed needlessly to an increase in xenophobic sentiment”. It criticised the use of the terms “invasions” and “floods”, in relation to migration, as “large-scale scaremongering by UKIP and some Conservative MPs”. It also condemned the use of the term “benefits tourism”, as a 2013 study (pdf) found no evidence that EU migration was benefit-related.
Specifically, the ECRI criticised Cameron for calling refugees and migrants a “swarm” of people crossing the Mediterranean. It also called out Farage’s statement on Muslims, where he said “there is rising public concern about immigration partly because people believe there are some Muslims who want to form a fifth column and kill us”. The report also denounced the government’s controversial ‘Prevent’ programme as fuelling discrimination against Muslims.
The far-right group Britain First was also heavily criticised. The ECRI found that in just one day on the group’s Facebook page, the term “scum” came up 207 times, while words calling for direct action against Muslims, such as “hang” came up 61 times and “death” 34 times.
Furthermore, politicians’ attitudes towards the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities came under fire. One instance the ECRI highlighted as “highly offensive” was in 2013, when a Conservative member of Thurrock Council referred to a Travellers’ planning application as “my big fat Gypsy cesspit”. This statement went on to be included in a Thurrock Conservatives press release. The Tory MP Sir Eric Pickles was also cited, after he referred to Travellers as a “blight that would not be tolerated”.
And the press and politicians’ response…?
The report also highlighted numerous other areas of concern, including:
- The rise in antisemitism.
- Government policies like the Housing and Planning Act, which discriminate against the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities.
- The cuts to the legal aid system.
- Under-representation of BAME communities in the public sector; most specifically the police.
- Persistent inequalities surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, specifically in law.
In a long response to the report, the UK government said that it was:
committed to a free and open press and does not interfere with what the press does and does not publish, as long as the press abides by the law.
But, somewhat astonishingly, the government went on to criticise the ECRI itself, saying:
We are disappointed that the Commission has missed some important opportunities to highlight examples of good practice in its report. While we are pleased to see that some examples of good practice… this is heavily outweighed by lengthy sections pointing out supposed shortcomings. We are particularly concerned to see that the Commission repeats controversial and eye-catching press headlines and some alleged statements by politicians, which wrongly implies that these are the prevailing narratives in the United Kingdom and/or are government policy… We would like some assurance that the United Kingdom is being assessed against the same standards as its partners across the Council of Europe membership.
The reaction in the UK media was even more underwhelming. The only newspapers to cover the report’s findings were The Independent, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Express. The Independent gave a full analysis of the report; The Guardian only mentioned the criticisms of the press in one sentence; The Huffington Post didn’t mention the media at all; and The Express ran with this headline:
As SNP MP Mhairi Black said in a column for The National:
To read the headlines of the major British newspapers felt like I had awoken in some dystopian, V for Vendetta-esque society. The Conservative Party’s mask as ‘a party of the common people’ has slipped to reveal the xenophobic, often racist, nationalist, ugly face beneath.
But if you were to believe many of the mainstream media and leading politicians, you’d think that the UK doesn’t have a problem with racist and xenophobic hate speech at all. The apparent tactics of either sticking fingers in their ears or actually being complicit in the increasingly vile discourse should both be of great concern. Levels of hate crime rose almost 60% after the Brexit vote, and are still 14% higher than last year. And with a disgracefully complicit media, and politicians failing to denounce the problem, hope of the situation improving seems a long way off.
This article was updated at 9am on 11 October 2016, to reflect an error by the author. The ECRI is part of the Council of Europe, not the European Union (EU).
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