Since when did the Tory press care about the lives of refugees?

Pictures of dead children look like a cynical bid to sell newspapers


It is a cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. But pictures of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey trying to reach Europe, are worth more than many thousands of words published by the British press.

The pictures, published on the front of the right-wing papers today, must come as a special shock to their readers.

All summer, they have been reading of migrants as a ‘swarm’, sneaking into Britain to rip off the taxpayer, being put up in hotels, sucking money from the welfare budget, and ruining the holidays of British tourists.

Calls were made in the press for the army to step in and pacify these greedy savages, (who live in a ‘jungle’ no less), as if people fleeing Syria and Eritrea have yet to experience violent force. Refugees were spoken of as other than human, accused of all manner of deception and criminality.

Contrast this with their tears for Aylan Kurdi today. 

Papers 3 9 15 refugee

The paper with the worst record on this, the Daily Mail, today laments: ‘Tiny victim of a human catastrophe’.

Its editorial begins:

Nobody could fail to be moved by yesterday’s harrowing images of lifeless migrant children washed up on the Mediterranean shore.’

But just yesterday the paper ran a two-page spread on the ‘misery’ of British holidaymakers after ‘migrants’ climbed onto a Eurostar train. As Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth commented: ‘According to the Mail, those fleeing tyranny and war are creating misery rather than trying to escape from it.’

The same point could be made about every right-wing paper.

Mail migrants Calais

So why have they suddenly noticed the plight of refugees?

Slowly the papers have grudgingly had to acknowledge some facts – that these people are refugees and asylum seekers, not ‘economic migrants’ or ‘health tourists’, that Germany and others have received far more people than Britain, and with vastly more compassionate and sensible policies.

Today’s front pages do not signal an outbreak of compassion in the press. After all, children have been dying in Syria for four years, mostly at the hands of Bashar al-Assad.

Given this context, the decision to run these pictures looks like a cynical attempt to sell newspapers. The pictures were being shared on social media last night, and aside from the direct horror and sadness they provoked, they were a symbol of the seriousness of what is happening.

The papers are seeking to mobilise this feeling – against the European Union. 

The Times (to take a moderately serious paper) insists we should ‘stand firm’ against German efforts to distribute migrants fairly around Europe, according to the size and resources of the country. Or as the Times puts it:

“It does not help for Germany to lecture Britain on altruism or the merits of a misconceived quota plan that Berlin wants to force on the rest of Europe.”

Other papers are more explicit in blaming the European Union for everything. So says the Mail:

“With tens of thousands more migrants flooding in, every day offers more proof that the EU as it’s now constituted just doesn’t work. […] if Britain is to remain in the EU … [etc. etc.]”

So nothing has really changed. The demonisation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the British press goes back not months but years. It has a shameful history that can be traced through our ‘proud tradition’ of accepting ‘legitimate refugees’, about which the same papers like to boast. (The Sun’s editorial today is a good example.)

Despite the pictures and headlines, the Tory press are not in favour of accepting more refugees. In this they are lock step with hard-hearted prime minister David Cameron, who has backbenchers and UKIP to consider, after all.

Showing people the horrors of what is happening is welcome. But it’s rank hypocrisy to weep for people you defame and refuse to help.

Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter

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