Over the last two years, tabloid attacks on asylum-seekers have grown in frequency and ferocity, spreading from the open hatred of local newspapers in Dover to national press ‘exposés’ of spurious refugee crime waves.
In March this year, with the government’s asylum-seeker dispersal plans set to take effect and with this year’s round of council tax increases being announced, the tabloids seized the opportunity to turn the asylum issue into a national populist cause. With nobody to oppose the daily stream of tabloid scare-mongering, least of all the government, a new strain of xenophobia has become part of an everyday ‘common sense’ way of thinking about new arrivals. And this xenophobia easily spills over and mixes with the racism that longer established black communities already face.
Throughout the summer of last year, asylum-seekers staying on the Folkestone Road in Dover faced harassment and violence. In one incident, three young Kurdish men were rammed by a car and beaten with an iron bar. Schoolchildren were regularly beaten or stoned on their way home. In nearby Folkestone, an Afghan boy was beaten up at school while another youth was dragged from his house, attacked with a hammer and hospitalised. Many asylum-seekers have been forced out of their homes after threats and intimidation. A family who run a shop on the Buckland estate were twice on the receiving end of arson attacks. They were not asylum-seekers but, because they were Asian, were targeted by mobs who were now simply out to inflict injury on anyone ‘foreign’.
Anita Chaudry (not her real name) is a young Asian woman who runs a small hotel on the Folkestone Road in Dover. When, on a Saturday night in July last year, a group of Kosovans were once again set upon and beaten up outside a nearby pub, she decided enough was enough. She intervened and pushed the assailant away and was hit herself. She followed the gang to the pub hoping to keep track of them until the police turned up. By now a crowd had gathered but none intervened as one of the gang threw beer over Anita before smashing the glass and trying to slash her face. Anita was then pushed in front of an oncoming car which braked to avoid hitting her.
By the time the police arrived, the assailant had tried to flee through the pub garden. Anita went after him and was punched in the face, while the police were hanging about inside. It was only around 30 minutes later that Anita was able to identify her attackers and the police made arrests. But one of those they arrested was a Kurdish victim of two attacks who tried to defend himself the second time. Later, in November, two Pakistani men from Manchester were attacked outside the same pub after being mistaken for asylum-seekers.
Events such as these in Dover are the result of over a year of local newspaper scare-mongering, which has included editorials telling readers to ‘wash this human sewage down the drain’ (Dover Express, 1 October 1998). As the government’s policy of dispersing asylum-seekers around the country is clumsily implemented and the national tabloids launch equally virulent hate campaigns, the scenes which we have witnessed in Dover are now set to repeat themselves across the country. Thrybergh, a small village near Rotherham, south Yorkshire, has seen the first example of a residents’ association campaign to prevent a hostel from being built to house asylum-seekers. The villagers are angry that the hostel is to be built near accommodation for the elderly. According to a local parish councillor, ‘these are elderly people, nervous of what is going to happen. People have read stories about beggars and armed gangs.’ In St. Leonard’s, Hastings, after a woman was raped by men described as having ‘foreign accents’ and ‘eastern European’ appearances, the tabloids opened another assault on refugees in general, who were now all potential rapists.
In Sheffield, a young Asian student was viciously beaten up in February and left unconscious in the city centre, after being mistaken for a Kosovan refugee. His story, like Anita Chaudry’s, never made it to the national press.
Officially immigration has not been an issue in mainstream British politics since the 1979 general election. Indeed one of the proclaimed virtues of the British state system, we are told, is the absence of the race card played in other European parliaments. We British, the argument runs, are above that sort of narrow nationalism and our political system is weighted against such extremism. Yet, what is different about British politics is not the absence of an anti-immigrant nationalism, but the cultivation of that nationalism by the tabloid press, rather than by an organised far-Right political party of the kind that has been successful in France or Austria. The British state’s peculiarly antique system of paternal, centralised and opaque power creates a legitimacy gap between state and citizen. As if to fill this gap, the tabloids insert themselves between the people and government, claiming to represent the ordinary ‘man in the street’ in a system which otherwise favours rule from above.
This surrogate ‘voice of the people’ speaks the language of an insular ‘us and them’ nationalism, which infects the entire public sphere and both the two main political parties. The same distorting effect which the far-Right parties in Europe achieve, dragging the whole political spectrum in an anti-immigrant direction, is achieved in Britain, more subtly, politely and with less opposition. Whereas others might pursue the familiar nationalist call of ‘France for the French’, Anglo-British nationalism takes the form of arguing that ‘our English tolerance’ protects us against such ‘foreign nationalist excesses’, but that, even against our own natural instincts, we must not become a ‘soft touch’ as compared to other European countries. And while far-Right political parties can be fought politically by those who oppose them, newspaper editors are a more difficult target. They are only accountable to their shareholders and the multinationals who own them. They claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people yet they are not tied to any democratic process. Furthermore because a small band dominate the mainstream arenas of debate, their populism goes unchallenged.
According to the tabloid press, natives of this land have been taken for a ride by a conspiracy of soft-hearted liberal officials, other western European countries (who have dumped their asylum problem on us) and ‘money-grabbing gypsies’. The nation is on its knees. Faced with this message on an almost daily basis, few politicians have dared to contradict it with more realistic accounts of what is actually happening. The only voice of opposition has been the concerned broadsheet liberals. But their arguments have looked increasingly feeble in the face of week after week of ‘gypsy beggars fund wealthy lifestyle’ headlines.
In the perverse world of tabloid nationalism, all prophecies are self-fulfilling. The people are told that their threshold of tolerance has been breached; as a result, tolerance runs into short supply. The government bars asylum-seekers from working for at least the first six months (though the economy needs more workers); tabloid columnists claim that they are lazy. Their very deprivations are turned around in the tabloids and thrown back at them as if they themselves had chosen to be ostracised from normal society – ‘they’re not hard-working’, ‘they’re different from the rest of us’, ‘they go around in gangs’.
The anti-asylum-seeker message has been repeated enough times, with so little opposing viewpoints, that it is now accepted as a perfectly natural view to hold. It is now the norm to think that there is a natural ‘fear of strangers’, that xenophobia is an ‘understandable response’ to the ‘huge numbers’ now arriving. It is not just that these extreme views circulate freely, but that their extremism is no longer noticed. The right-wing idea of a ‘threshold of tolerance’ has become accepted wisdom. Indeed the idea seems to be behind the government’s policy of dispersal as a solution to the ‘asylum problem’, as if the problem were simply due to too many ‘foreign elements’ gathered in one place. Inevitably, once these views take hold, they also risk dislodging whatever gains have been won by longer established black communities. Violence against ‘gypsies’ all too easily spills over into generalised violence against all non-white communities, as we have already seen in Dover and Sheffield.
Labour and Conservative administrations have jointly forged immigration policies which are as extremist and excessive as anything passed on the other side of the English channel. The shared consensus across the two main UK parties is that asylum-seekers effectively constitute a criminal community which ought to be dealt with as a law and order problem. This consensus survived New Labour’s coming to power in 1997 and since then has, if anything, become more embedded in state practice. But this has not been enough to satisfy the tabloids. Thanks to their campaign, Labour Party focus groups are now warning that asylum is the third most serious concern of voters. As a result, government and opposition politicians compete in a ritual of who can be the toughest on asylum, as if to put on a show of genuine democratic disagreement on the issue, while in reality the basic direction of UK immigration laws has been set in stone by the British state for some years. With the fundamentals of asylum policy already agreed, only the details remain to be thrashed out. Announcements by politicians are otherwise purely designed to placate the tabloids. To the current New Labour government, which has made ‘modernisation’ its mission statement, this regressive pandering to nationalism is also a way of compensating, a way of reassuring middle England that enough of the old Britain is still in place.
There is no better example of this than the Home Office’s recent announcement that new powers are being looked at to clamp down on ‘gypsy beggars’. The announcement came after an intense campaign led by the Sun under the headline ‘Britain has had enough’. The Sun celebrated the announcement as a victory for its readers, yet the police admitted that they could not imagine what new powers could be brought in which they did not already have. All the announcement amounted to, then, was a decision to ‘fast-track’ convicted beggars through the asylum claim process and get them out of the country as quickly as possible. But, as even the Telegraph later pointed out (20 March 2000), there was something hollow in this – whether or not an asylum claim is genuine does not depend on the behaviour of the claimant, especially when they are forced to live on thirty per cent less than an already inadequate level of benefit. Furthermore, it will only be a short while before tabloid-nationalism returns to the issue demanding yet more action, when, as is inevitable, the recent government ‘initiatives’ turn out not to have had the intended effect. And each frenzy of tabloid rage takes us further down the path of xenophobic madness.
The bogus nationalism of the tabloids has to be stopped.