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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
Reporting asylum: Ask the experts
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Journalist John Torode and Mike Jempson, director of the media ethics charity, Presswise, answered your questions.



The words 'asylum seeker' have become an emotive phrase, arousing suspicion, anger and frustration in almost equal measure.

Negative media coverage and the language used in some political debates are seen as partly to blame.

Headlines like 'Asylum-on-sea' and 'Surrender to Asylum' have contributed to a widespread perception that the country is being overrun by refugees.


Transcript


Nick Higham:

Hello, I'm Nick Higham and welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum, our contribution to the BBC's Asylum Day.

Now what do you think of when you hear the phrase asylum seeker? Is it a desperate refugee, a victim of harassment and perhaps even torture, fleeing persecution by an oppressive government? Or a shiftless scrounger, one of an unsettling flood of foreigners invading the country, living off state benefits and stealing British citizens' jobs?

It's an emotive phrase and it arouses suspicion, anger and frustration in almost equal measure. So how much is media coverage of the asylum issue to blame for that? Our television, radio and especially newspapers perpetuating negative and misleading stereotypes of what asylum seekers are.

With us to answer your questions are two journalists, John Torode, writes for the Daily Mail, a paper which more than any other has become associated with the campaign against asylum seekers. And joining us from Bristol is Mike Jempson who runs Presswise, which campaigns for greater fairness and accuracy in the media.

Mike Jempson, if I can ask you first, what's your view very simply of the way the media in general - perhaps newspapers in particular report this issue?


Mike Jempson:

Certain sections of the media have made it their special theme and it plays well to certain sorts of audiences. And so the Mail and the Express and the Sun in particular and the Star have focused on extreme stories and perhaps especially extreme headlines. And what we've seen is the ideas embedded in those headlines have become part of popular mythology. It's a big story, it's an important story but the way it's handled can be disastrous for everybody concerned.


Nick Higham:

John Torode - extreme headlines, perpetuating or contributing to a popular mythology but presumably also reflecting widespread public opinion.


John Torode:

I think it is reflecting widespread public opinion. I think that on the whole the tabloids do not create public moods, I think they reflect public moods - and that's quite important and most of the academic research tends to back me on that.

Can I just come back to one little point in your introduction which I thought was pretty sort of biased in itself - that the description of the Daily Mail - and I paraphrase that, I haven't got the words up in front of me - leading the campaign against asylum seekers, or words to that effect. As I read the Daily Mail - and I'm not a spokesman for the Daily Mail - but as I read the Daily Mail - the Daily Mail's campaigning has been against illegal asylum seeking and the abuse of the system. And every editorial I have ever written for the Daily Mail has always carried a paragraph pointing out the tremendous value to this country that asylum seekers have brought down the decades and down the centuries.


Nick Higham:

Do you think, Mike Jempson, that that's a distinction that always comes across in the coverage - that illegal asylum seekers get lumped in with, as it were, legitimate asylum seekers?


Mike Jempson:

I think one of the problems is that a lot of the newspapers use terms the same. So an asylum seeker and an illegal immigrant and a refugee are all represented as exactly the same - or an economic migrant or whatever is the term of the moment.

There were a series of stories last week in which those terms appeared in the same story and the headline and the subheading and the intro and in the early paragraphs - even though they all mean different things, they were used as if they were the same word. Now that doesn't help people who are reading the papers to make those distinctions.

And I think there's an additional problem in that the point that John has made, which is that the Mail indeed does occasionally say, lots of refugees have added to the economy and we need people coming into the country, is that the target is very often the asylum seeker or the refugee and not government policy and I think that's the danger. You can't read your newspaper and turn around and do something about government policy especially if you're not being given good facts and figures. But what we have seen is increased attacks and criticism of anybody who doesn't look as if they come from Britain and that includes many people born here, as a result of these stories.


John Torode:

Well I don't think there are attacks upon asylum seekers as opposed to government policy. But what I think is true is that there is a massive problem which Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police, which the Government has recognised, of illegal criminal asylum seekers floating around our system. Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of them and those people it is as legitimate to "attack" those people in the press as it is to "attack" burglars, muggers, chaps who fiddle their income tax or anything else. We're talking about a significant number of foreign criminals in this country and those people merit criticism - they merit in that journalistic sense "attack".


Nick Higham:

Well let's move on to some of the e-mails we've had. The first one from Jeremy Hunter in the UK who asks: Do you think that the attention and language that the media use not only exacerbates the issue but also leads to extremes of opinions because much of the media does not debate the issue but as they openly admit, campaign from an entrenched vantage point?

John Torode, are you campaigning from an entrenched vantage point?


John Torode:

Well as I said to your earlier, I am not a spokesman for the Daily Mail. But I think the entrenched vantage point of for example the fact that 20 years ago we had 4,000 asylum applications per year, we're now getting 110,000 asylum applications.

I'll give you just a couple of more statistics then I shall stop - 52% of ethnic minorities, according to a recent MORI poll, show that this country is regarded as a "soft touch" for illegal immigrants - for those who are fiddling the system as opposed to those who've got a legitimate right to here.

There is a very real crisis. The Daily Mail or other papers are campaigning against the abuse of the asylum system in the same what that you might campaign against street crime - it's a bad idea to abuse the asylum system.


Nick Higham:

Mike Jempson, do you think the way this is covered just forces both sides into extreme positions?


Mike Jempson:

Well I think just listen to the language that the journalist just used. First of all we have him using ethnic minorities as the people to -


John Torode:

I want to come in on this. I not going to be accused of racism.


Nick Higham:

John Torode says that he had not used the word ethnic minorities Mike, so I think we have to accept that and I have to say I didn't hear it.


Mike Jempson:

He just did when he was talking about this MORI poll - saying that 52% of ethnic minorities¿.


John Torode:

Hang on, that was a poll about ethnic minorities -


Mike Jempson:

Precisely, so don't jump down my throat when I've just quoted you accurately. You used that expression as a way of defending people saying that there are too many asylum seekers here. That's just the point I was making. Then earlier, you talked about there being a massive problem of the country full of foreign criminals. That's the sort of thing that ratchets up the debate. When you also say there's been a massive increase in asylum applications - of course there has - think of how many more wars and environmental disasters or whatever there are around the world, that are driving people out of their countries. It's not surprising.

I'm not saying that all of those people entering or attempting to enter the country have got a legitimate right to claim asylum, I'm not saying that at all. But using bald figures in the way that you have done and with the language that you have done, ratchets up to a situation where people feel that - going back to an earlier term you used - feel it's ok to actually attack people and criticising government policy, actually attacking people, firebombing their homes or giving them a hard time on the streets. That's very irresponsible.


Nick Higham:

This leads us on to another of the e-mails that we've had which raises the question of whether it is possible to talk about this without people accusing one another of being racist.

Tom from England asks: How much of a problem is it that people refuse to speak about the issue without the other side pulling out the bigot/race/ethnic card?

James Hooper, Southend has just e-mailed us to say: Do you think when the distinction between challenging asylum issues and racism becomes blurred by the press, it prevents people from having a decent debate as they're scared of being branded as racist?

John, you don't seem to me to be scared, certainly of a decent debate.


John Torode:

I am not at all scared of being branded a racist. I am fairly annoyed frankly with the way in which Mike is behaving. Suddenly we lurch on from criticism to attacks to firebombs. Mike, stop being silly. I've put up with your sort of stupidity every day of the week, every time I write about this sort of issue. You don't disturb me. You don't frighten me and you don't throw me by it. Now calm down, use sensible language and I'll continue.


Nick Higham:

I think asking Mike to calm down in that way is itself potentially inflammatory John and Mike I would be grateful if both of you could keep this at a level of reasonable calmness. We are after all reasonable people and we should be discussing this in a reasonable and rational way.

Tim, UK asks: Are there any laws to prevent tabloid papers embellishing the truth about asylum for their own agenda, which often amounts to nothing more than racism? A lot of people believe what they read in the papers as fact, and this is not a healthy viewpoint to encourage.

Mike Jempson, you presumably endorse that.


Mike Jempson:

Yes. I think one of the problems is that it is because of the way some of the issues are handled in the press. Racism is being veiled behind the use of a term like asylum seekers and that makes it very difficult for people to have sensible conversations or rational arguments or whatever. Because sometimes, if you read carefully the stories and if you inserted, Jewish or Irish or Black or whatever, you can see that the copy is quite deliberately discriminatory and it winds people up.

Now I think criticising, analysing government policy is a very important thing to do. What worries me about a lot of the coverage is that it demonises particular people. Nobody can distinguish out on the streets or in their normal lives, who fits which bill. And when general terms are used to cover everybody and the technical terms are misapplied, it doesn't help people to get involved in the debate and indeed to challenge their MPs properly about the political issues.


Nick Higham:

John, two points there I suppose. One is that you are stereotyping the entire group of people without making it clear that obviously they're all individuals and they're all different.


John Torode:

What is this group?


Nick Higham:

This group is asylum seekers who are being lumped together.


John Torode:

I don't think anybody lumps together asylum seekers. I think the debate is about the difference between bogus asylum seekers and genuine asylum seekers.


Nick Higham:

Do you think the public has become confused - some people have become confused in their minds as to whether there is such a thing as a non-bogus asylum seeker?


John Torode:

I think they probably have and I think that's partly because the Government and the whole liberal chattering classes have refused to accept that there is any sort of problem. And the public knows there's a problem. Perhaps chaps who live in Hampstead or Islington or wherever it is that Mike lives, places where I live, don't know there's a problem.


Mike Jempson:

I live in Bristol in fact John - there's no need to be offensive.


John Torode:

If you live on the sort of council estates where a lot of the chaps who've disappeared into the woodwork end up. If you live in the sort of village where suddenly 750 genuine asylum seekers may well be - people who are still going through the system - going to be placed in one big bang, you know there's a problem and you're unhappy and it's nothing to do with race and it's nothing to do with stereotyping, it's to do with a genuine problem.


Nick Higham:

Because that's the other allegation. That asylum seekers - bogus or otherwise - are spoken of in terms which are effectively racist because we would never use them to talk of Blacks or Asians or Jews or other categories of people.


John Torode:

I have as far as I am concerned one of the most worrying groups of asylum seekers - and I'll offer Mike another hostage to fortune - one of the most worrying groups of asylum seekers we have at the moment are the Albanians and Kosovans, who do seem disproportionately to carry organised crime with them. My point is, I'm talking about white people, Europeans there.


Nick Higham:

Mike you wanted to come back on Bristol.


Mike Jempson:

Isn't that a rather pathetic line of argument about the distinction that's being made between using asylum as a cover for racist commentary. The point is that there are serious human problems and consequences both about the circumstances which drive people, whether they're economic or otherwise, to come to countries like Britain. The fact that the asylum system is not working efficiently. The fact that the authorities are not able to deal with people traffickers. The fact that there seem to be some very peculiar ways in which the immigration service are working. The fact that we don't have very intelligent immigration policies, for instance. All of those are the important issues.

All I'm saying is that when - and it's not correct for John to say these terms don't get misused - you will in story after story, terms like asylum seeker, bogus asylum seeker, illegals, illegal immigrants, refugees, are used coterminously. It's very difficult for the reading public to say what is these distinctions when there are quite clinical distinctions between them. They all get lumped together. It's the individuals who then get focused on instead of addressing the political issues that John has also pointed out are most important.


Nick Higham:

One last e-mail on this which has just come in from Ian in Cardiff - John if you could just answer this: why do we not hear the same level of hysteria from the anti asylum lobby about the large numbers of white Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Irish and American illegal residents of this country?


John Torode:

I should imagine because they are as a statement of fact, not as a statement of prejudice, they are more easily assimilable because they are of north European stock, to put it very crudely. This is a statement of fact, just as Africans turning up in one part of Africa would be more easily assimilable perhaps than I would be because I'm white. This is not a question of racial prejudice, it's a question of realities.


Nick Higham:

Let's move on to this question of how far - which you addressed earlier John - the newspapers and the media reflect public opinion and how far they create it.

Mike, Middlesbrough asks: The headlines reflect public opinion not the other way round. We know that there are many thousands of people who should not be here. So do the papers remind the politicians that the people are not going to be ignored forever?


John Torode:

He's put it very strongly. He's obviously very wound up about this issue and perhaps rightly. But that is the job of the papers - yes.


Nick Higham:

Mike Jempson, the papers surely have to do a job of reflecting this widespread public concern. It would be ridiculous if they ignored it.


Mike Jempson:

Sure indeed. It's a very difficult one because recently there was another one of these MORI polls and what was intriguing about that was that the facts and figures that people had, as it were, at their fingertips when asked questions, were precisely those which are promoted in certain newspapers which then the media picks up on and runs with.

So there's a sense in which there is a lot of evidence to show that sort of popular myths have emerged from the newspapers and settled themselves in - whether you consider them to be prejudices or just inaccurate points of view - they've settled into the public consciousness. So there is some evidence that it is working that way - so it's not reflecting but leading. But certainly it is important to reflect and reflect upon public opinion.

But the other point to remember is that the Daily Express chose to make asylum one of its marketing techniques. And over a period of a year, eighteen months, its sales went up by 17%. There was a great deal of criticism, even from its own journalists, about constantly running misleading headlines which didn't even fit the stories below. But that was used as a way of selling the paper. That's selling prejudice. There's a lot of prejudiced people out there - they're entitled to buy newspapers - but that's the sort of thing that worries me, when it's used as a marketing tool to sell a product.


Nick Higham:

Let's talk about the language and actually this term asylum seeker itself. We've had a number of e-mails about this. Freddy Brooks from the UK has just e-mailed us to say he believes that language does make a difference and says: Why do the press persist with the use of the euphemism "asylum seeker". What we're really talking about is trespass and theft if they apply after they break into our small island and don't apply before making an illegal entry?

Neil D, Netherlands asks: The main problem with this issue is that the term "asylum seekers" means people who are in fear for their lives and need a place of safety. Yet the UK is often not the first safe country refugees get to. Do you not agree they should be calling these people "economic migrants" which is what they are?

Phil Caldwell, UK asks: I would like to know why the Government and the media in general constantly refer to these people as asylum seekers. Why is it that these people feel they need to cross most of Europe through at least eight democratic, free and safe countries to come to the UK? These people are not seeking asylum, they are seeking a better life under the guise of asylum.

Mike Jempson, do you think this term "asylum seeker" is one that we should abandon?


Mike Jempson:

Yes - I'm not sure what you'd put in its place because there are, as your contributors pointed out, there lots and lots of different reasons and the term only means something at a certain point.

If I come into this country and apply for asylum, whether it's immediately or when I get to a town and go to a police station - then I become an asylum seeker. There's a register of me having made this application and until a decision is taken, that term applies.

But let's say, we've been doing a lot of work with exiled journalist who've been driven out of their countries for doing their job as journalists. Most of them have got to hide their identity. They've got to get across the world to somewhere safe - and many of them head for Britain because of Britain's colonial past, for instance, and because it's supposed to be the home of a free press.

Now when they enter the country, they may have to enter illegally and not through proper channels - because they won't have the right papers, they may have had to pay somebody to get them across borders, they may have false documents - for their own safety. What do we call them? Until they actually apply for asylum - what are you going to call them - illegal immigrants.

What are you going to call a women who I met recently in Slovenia who's family was being persecuted by the regime in Iran and they paid to get on the back of a lorry and thought they were going to Germany with the whole family and they were dropped on the street in Slovenia and had no idea where they were. They didn't even know that such a country existed. There are many people who end up here who don't even know they're coming here. They don't know anything about where they're coming to. Those people know nothing about the asylum system either.

So there are lots and lots of different types of people. Lots and lots of different types of reasons for coming and ways of coming. We need to just try and find more accurate expressions.


Nick Higham:

John Torode, do you think that this phrase has become so widely used as to become almost meaningless and useless?


John Torode:

It is widely abused I agree with you. An asylum seeker is a fairly formal, as Mike so rightly said, is a fairly formal definite status. Somebody who is seeking asylum - we know the persecution etc. etc. - and we need to differentiate between those people and those who are coming in simply as illegal immigrants because they wish to improve their economic lot or whatever it may be.

I do find asylum seeker as a very flat and neutral phrase. It is not an insulting phrase, it is not a pejorative phrase. It's a flat phrase that describes a status.


Nick Higham:

Well it may have started out as that but the point is that with use it has ceased to be that.


John Torode:

Then what do you do? There is a genuine problem with it - to be boringly journalistic about this - it's a technical, legal status and it's quite hard to get away from it. I don't how I would describe somebody who has formally applied for asylum in this country other than as an asylum seeker. I don't know what I would call them.


Nick Higham:

It doesn't seem then that we have an answer to that particular problem. And also I'm afraid we have run out of time. So to both our contributors, Mike Jempson and John Torode, my thanks. My thanks also to you for your e-mails and contributions. I'm sorry we weren't able to deal with more of them. This is obviously not a subject that is going to go away. But equally, I suspect, the phrase, asylum seeker, is going to be with us for some time yet to come. But for now goodbye.




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