Media: The colour of prejudice

Despite its coverage of the Lawrence case, the Daily Mail has reverted to type on race
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, for the second time in recent months, anti-racists protested outside the offices of the Daily Mail against its xenophobic coverage of asylum-seekers in this country. The piece that provoked the most recent row was a long, vitriolic attack on Somalis in Ealing, where I live, written by a "top writer", Jo-Ann Goodwin. It was well-crafted to create anger and panic. Facts that matter would have got in the way of this broader social purpose, so they were simply left out. Goodwin says that 90 per cent of Somalis in Ealing are unemployed, but not that many of them are not allowed to work and others face awful discrimination. I know, because friends give them the odd gardening or babysitting job.

But this is what the Mail does, so why the angry surprise? I think it is because expectations of the paper have changed in the past two years. Once upon a time you used to be able either to love or hate the Mail, because it was a truly dependable paper. It was guaranteed not to disappoint or confuse you by taking unexpected positions. Unions were scum, unmarried mothers a national scandal. Thatcher was a goddess we did not merit and the only deserving people in Britain were white home-owners.

Blacks were to be feared and loathed, because they were mostly muggers and rapists. A handful of Asians were useful little millionaires, but most ran dirty corner shops, caged their sweet, anglicised little girls, and ripped off the welfare state. Most of all, immigrants were vermin overrunning the country, claiming to be refugees, destroying our green and pleasant land.

There were a few oddities that didn't quite make sense in these terms. The Mail, unlike some more liberal papers, not only has been open to black and Asian journalists for years now, but was the first to give a black journalist, Baz Bamigboye, a star job as their showbiz man. But this made no difference to the set values and coverage.

Then came its incredible response to the Stephen Lawrence killing and the five white boys who stood accused, but walked free without a trial. The Mail named and shamed them, and black and Asian Britons were left reeling with gratitude, and even guilt. Some of us started buying the paper. Radicals such as the fiery Mark Wadsworth, and Stuart Weir, the widely respected writer on democracy, wrote to the paper with such praise that the eyes hurt to read their words. The explanation for this was that Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor-in-chief, knew Neville Lawrence because the latter had done a decorating job for him, and out of this personal contact was born an astonishing, unlikely campaign.

But one flower does not mean springtime and it is time to ask whether this one good deed has carried too much importance. Maybe we anti-racists have been naive to think that this was anything more than an aberration, the deeper reasons for which can only be speculated on. It was sensational; it sold papers and added moral worthiness to a vast list of other qualities that give the Mail its unassailable reputation. It may even have given the paper licence to hound its traditional victims even more viciously. Without doubt, asylum seekers have long been among the top targets of the paper, and they can expect even less mercy today. Yesterday it was no surprise to see a page lead exposing illegal immigrants from the war in Kosovo "queuing up for jobs in the black economy".

Journalist Paul Coleman carried out a survey of the national newspapers on the press coverage of asylum-seekers for the think-tank the Runnymede Trust. The Mail had the largest number of articles on the subject, three times as many as in The Sun and double those in other right-wing papers. Of course, none of the reports included information on violations of human rights in the countries where asylum-seekers came from, or explained that the Geneva Convention excludes people who are fleeing natural disasters, such as earthquakes. None of those quoted were asylum-seekers. Recently pages were devoted to the crimes committed by asylum seekers and refugees in this country. More cases might have emerged if they had done a spread, say, on nurses who have broken the law.

When I was researching my book, True Colours, on attitudes to multiculturalism, ex-Mail journalists told me that the Immigration Services Union had a direct link with the paper and sought to exaggerate the "problem" of illegal immigration. Thus the anti-refugee obsession carries on.

I came here in 1972, a dispossessed person from Uganda. The Mail told us at the time there was no space for us here. But 30,000 jobs have been created by Ugandan Asians in the Midlands since, and on the 25th anniversary of our arrival the successes in the community were even praised by the paper.

Perhaps we should send an appealing Somali or Kosovan refugee to work for Dacre, if that is what it takes to change direction for the paper. But wouldn't it be better if this extraordinary editor decided to use his influence to create just a little more understanding of why refugees leave their countries, and what most of them bring to our nation?