Democracy under attack is the title of a new book which looks at the role of the media in driving social policy. It accuses journalists of distortion, dumbing down, hunting in packs and several other sins.
Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, except that the author is a journalist – Malcolm Dean, until 2006 the editor of the Guardian ‘Society’ section and one of the paper’s leader writers. The book is a fascinating interweaving of government policy decisions – especially in the Labour years – with the media’s treatment of the same issues and how one shaped the other.
For me his analysis of one story stands out, because it says so much about how policy on asylum and migration has been driven by the press. First, Dean reminds us that before 1997 Labour had said little about these issues: its manifesto in 1997 covered them in only six lines. Within six years, Tony Blair would (in Dean’s words) be ‘openly admitting he was intending to breach the founding principles of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees’. How did this happen?
The story is familiar but it is painful to see it summarised in one place. Numbers of asylum seekers had risen rapidly, as a result of turmoil in places such as Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia. Applications peaked in 2002. Both the Star and the News of the World began to refer to asylum seekers as ‘this scum’. The Sun was a shade more polite with its ‘asylum cheats’ and ‘illegals’. A particular focus of attention was the French asylum centre at Sangatte, run by the Red Cross, but often referred to (wrongly) as a ‘detention centre’ and its occupants as ‘inmates’.
Several classic stories date from this period. The Sun devoted three pages to ‘the Queen’s swans’ being killed, cooked and eaten by asylum seekers. The Star trumped this by alleging that nine donkeys from Greenwich Park had been stolen and eaten. And the Express reported the arrest of two Lithuanian asylum seekers involved in a plot to kill Tony Blair. None of these stores were true.
Complaints to the Press Complaints Commission were routinely rejected on the basis that the complaints (even, on one occasion, from disaffected journalists from the Express) did not come from the direct victims of the story. Yet how could they, when the stories were invented? The fact that the PCC’s own guidelines on writing about asylum were consistently ignored was, well… consistently ignored.
Labour’s response to the media deluge was to make what – at the time – appeared to be one of the most daring promises of Blair’s term of office. In February 2003 he announced on Newsnight that asylum numbers would be cut by half by that September, compared to the previous year. At the time the Sun was in the middle of its ‘Stop Asylum Madness’ campaign which had attracted one million signatures.
Yet David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, was reportedly ‘incandescent’ at being bounced by Blair into a target which he thought was hopeless. But, as it turned out, No.10 had done their maths. Michael Barber, head of the delivery unit, had projected the figures based on the much tougher rules just introduced by the 2002 Asylum Act and the expected closure of Sangatte. He turned out to be right: when the September 2003 figures were eventually published, they had indeed been halved.
The remarkable thing is that, despite the growing numbers of asylum cases, the opinion polls showed little public concern before the tabloids got to work. Before 2000, when figures were already rising fast, the percentage of people who put it as one of their three main political concerns remained in single figures. This was before a ‘press campaign of vilification’ which ‘legitimised public hostility’ (according to Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Mirror, quoted by Dean):
‘If the only information provided to readers is hostile, one-sided, lacking in context and often wildly inaccurate, how can they be expected to see through the distorted media narrative?’
Of course, Labour could and should have resisted this pressure. Instead the 2002 Act (one of six pieces of asylum legislation introduced by Blair) was the one that effectively made a legal entry to Britain to claim asylum impossible. Consciously or unconsciously, Blair legitimised the Sun’s description of asylum seekers as ‘illegals’. The 2002 Act and the press campaign that provoked it set the tone for the debate and the policy-making on asylum and migration which we still have to endure and which shows no signs of ending. Democracy had been successfully attacked. As Malcolm Dean concludes:
‘The degree to which an already coercive system of control over asylum-seekers was tightened and made more intimidating demeaned the Labour government.