The first victim of hysteria is context.
This goes some way to explaining how the fate of a camp of between 6,000 and 8,000 asylum seekers in northern France came to dominate the migration conversation in Britain at a time when Europe is counting arrivals in the hundreds of thousands.
The dismantling of the Calais “Jungle,” as the camp is popularly known, in late October was the cue for a week of breathless headlines and heated media debate in the U.K. However, intensity of attention does not equate to a more informed debate, as Francesco Fasani from Queen Mary University in London explains.
“The constant presence of immigration in the media and the political debate does not necessarily mean that the discussion has become progressively deeper and better documented,” he writes in the introduction to a new book, “Refugees and Economic Migrants: Facts, Policies and Challenges.”
“The presence of openly racist and xenophobic stances among individuals, policymakers and political movements is only part of the problem. Even the more civilized and politically correct debate is often very confused and poorly informed.”
The numbers involved at Calais make it a sideshow in terms of the wider European response to refugee and migrant flows. At its largest, the Jungle represented less than 1 percent of refugee and migrant arrivals into the E.U.
A sideshow, then, but also a lens through which Britain’s influential popular press views the refugee crisis and the broader issue of immigration.
The French police action in Calais was trailed one month beforehand by France’s president, Francois Hollande, so that all the actors were prepared. Among them was British Conservative member of parliament David Davies, who called for dental X-rays to be used to verify the age of some 200 refugee children – of an estimated 1,400 in Calais – whom Britain agreed to admit during the camp’s demolition.
These don’t look like “children” to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused. https://t.co/1CKwsPnfaS
— David Davies MP (@DavidTCDavies) October 17, 2016
This was the cue for Britain’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, the Sun, to run pictures of what it claimed were overage individuals posing as children arriving in the U.K. True to its tradition of using puns, the headlines included “Are you kidding? Calais ‘children’ arrive in U.K.” and “Tell us the tooth.”
When Davies was invited onto the BBC’s flagship radio news show, the Today program, he defended himself from charges of a lack of compassion for refugees by claiming that Britain’s Home Office had found that two out of every three migrant children whose age it sought to verify turned out to be older than they said they were.
His assertion was faithfully reproduced in most of the coverage that followed. Camilla Tominey in the Express, a right-of-center, mid-market tabloid, was fairly typical in her comments: “Is it really any wonder that people are suspicious of the whiskered coach-loads arriving from the Channel when the Home Office itself has admitted that last year two-thirds of ‘child’ refugees turned out to be adults?”
This parroting of the Davies line was not confined to the popular press either, explains Jonathan Portes, an economist and research fellow at Britain’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
“A lot of the tabloid coverage is the usual stuff aimed at selling papers by printing nasty stories about so-called immigrants,” said Portes. “But it was very disappointing, the child refugees thing. They kept repeating this line that 50 to 60 percent turn out to be older.
“You expect the tabloids to say that but you don’t expect [TV presenter] Andrew Neil on the BBC to be repeating it.”
In fact, as Portes observed, the reported figure of 50 to 60 percent referred to cases where the Home Office had specific doubts – in other words, a far lower figure. Of the 3,253 asylum applications for unaccompanied children in the U.K. last year, some 789 were disputed. A little over half of this figure turned out to be older than they had claimed.
If these distinctions were largely absent from the mainstream media, they were invisible in the ensuing social media storm. Much of it focused on tweets from actress and singer Lily Allen, who apologized on behalf of her country for the idea of dental checks; and former footballer Gary Lineker, who questioned what he saw as a lack of compassion for refugees.
While they were lauded by some for using their celebrity in the service of a more humane image for Britain, they were both pilloried by others online.
Within days the Sun used its editorial column to demand the resignation of Lineker from a popular BBC soccer highlights program. A front-page story referred to the retired sportsman as someone who “peddles migrant lies.”
Angela Phillips, a professor of media and communications at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, said there is a “symbiotic” relationship between the press coverage and the social media anger.
“The mainstream [media] are looking for angles that will ‘go viral’ that encourages editors to choose words that will encourage participation either in agreement or in opposition.
“This creates a feedback loop. The more they can wind up their followers, the more successful they are in getting ‘clicks’ and, as we know these days, clicks mean money.”
As Stephen Hale from the charity Refugee Action observed, somehow the reuniting of 39 refugees with their families in three days had been the cause for a moral panic in Britain’s popular press.
Tabloids embarrassing themselves this week. 39 kids reunited with families in 3 days. Cause for modest celebration. Not moral panic. https://t.co/L3SLjGXXpN
— Stephen Hale (@SHaleGeneva) October 19, 2016
Jeff Crisp, a former official with the U.N. refugee agency, now with Chatham House and the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, said that the flurry of inaccurate or misleading reports had drowned out all context.
Job done. Tabloid coverage of refugee arrivals in UK & Calais camp clearance has made the asylum issue even more toxic than it was.
— Jeff Crisp (@JFCrisp) October 24, 2016
“What struck me on Calais was how one statement by one M.P. completely dominated the whole media agenda for the next couple of days – and still continues to exert a strong influence over media coverage,” said Crisp.