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I remember the first time I saw someone spit at an asylum seeker.
It was 2007, and I hadn’t long been working for a local politician. A middle-aged man from Sierra Leone was leaving our Friday afternoon advice surgery, his immigration paperwork crammed into two plastic bags. I walked our constituent to the door and shook his hand. A stranger strolling past the office took a look at our guest, muttered the single word ‘asylum’, and spat in his path. He barely broke stride.
Cause and effect are hard to unpick, but such things don’t happen in isolation. By that time, a campaign to demonise asylum seekers had been raging for years in some parts of the British press. ‘Asylum seekers are revolting’ said a headline in the Daily Star in 2000; ‘Asylum killer on the loose’ said the Express in 2003; asylum seekers were “AIDS-infected … overwhelming our hospitals” according to the Daily Telegraph in the same year. The Daily Express ran 22 front-page anti-asylum splashes in a single 31-day period in 2002; The Sun organised a whole week dedicated to anti-asylum stories in 2003. In his excellent book Bad News for Refugees, Greg Philo talks of newsrooms where junior reporters were dispatched to “monster an asylum seeker”.
This was the media landscape ten years ago. But are things the same today? What difference has a decade made to editorial attitudes, political decisions and public opinion in the UK? How might we generate accurate, positive coverage of asylum and refugee issues in the mainstream press now?
Those are the questions posed in my new research report, Dividing Lines, published on Thursday by the charity Asylum Aid. I have tried to answer them with cautious optimism.
REASONS TO BE (A BIT) CHEERFUL
For a start, there are far fewer anti-asylum stories around (although of course there are still some). Philo records that articles about asylum in the mainstream media roughly halved in number in the six years between 2006 and 2012. And much of the heat in the debate has dissipated: the days of relentless campaigns splattered over the front pages are over.
Meanwhile shrinking, hard-pressed teams of journalists and editors are under more pressure than ever to find newsworthy content for webpages, columns and broadcasts. And this is where campaigners come in. All journalists benefit from tips on great stories: tales of personal achievements in the face of adversity, or stunning political incompetence, or petty bureaucracy ruining lives.
If those categories sound familiar, they should. Some of the most compelling mainstream asylum stories in recent years have met exactly these descriptions.
Footballer Fabrice Muamba was front- page news across the British press for months when he suffered a heart attack mid-game in March 2012. Suddenly his plight as a child asylum seeker from the Congo who had triumphed over so much was irresistible to journalists.
The treatment of gay asylum seekers was splashed across broadsheets and tabloids when it turned out some had turned to making sex tapes to prove their sexual identity to incompetent British officials.
Newspapers loved the story when senior British soldiers had to step in last year and correct the errors of civil servants who had wrongly doubted the service history of an Afghan army interpreter requesting asylum in the UK.
WE HAVE WORK TO DO
The media isn’t about to fall in love with asylum seekers tomorrow, but neither do we have as much to worry about as we did in the mid-2000s. Even sceptical media outlets will carry celebrations of asylum seekers and refugees if we play journalists at their own game and tick all the boxes needed to make a great story.
This week the Daily Mail – a fiercely right-wing newspaper with the most popular news website in the world – hosted a long feature on Ethiopian-born London resident Alemtsahye Gebrekidan. Gebrekidan had been forced to marry at 10, was pregnant at 13, widowed at 14 – and then granted refugee protection in the UK at 16. Only after finding safety could she start to build a life for herself: “I learned everything in London”.
There is a huge appetite for such stories. The British media, so long a source of unhappiness and distress for asylum seekers, can and will celebrate their extraordinary stories. The tide can turn. As Dividing Lines makes clear, it is our job to share those stories with accuracy, widely and loudly.