The barbarous coast

Kent's local papers are whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment - but they're not, of course, racist.

It wasn't clear whether the Folkestone Herald was aping The Sun or The Sunday Sport: "Town centre call-girls in Folkestone claim immigrant women have sunk to an all-time low selling their bodies for the price of a spud," it reported last month, in the midst of the media frenzy over asylum-seekers coming into Britain. "The blouses are coming off as refugee `potato patch dollies' are winning their own version of the war of the undieworlds," the paper punned. "A local prostitute reckons that Slovak `working women' have a new motto: For mash, read cash. The 29-year-old Folkestone call-girl says she is fed up with immigrants stealing customers with incredibly low prices."

The paper gave it the full treatment - including the po-faced official police statement that "they have had no reports of Slovaks soliciting but would like to hear from anyone who has". Evidently unsure itself whether to treat the story as a joke or a serious news item, the Herald hedged its bets by printing a rebuttal from a local refugee organisation explaining why it was extremely unlikely that any of the "family-orientated" Romany refugees in the town would be involved in prostitution.

In an area where anti-refugee feeling is running high, and where some people seem to be prepared to believe almost anything about asylum-seekers, such an "exclusive" ceases to be simply daft and becomes dangerous as well. Here, for instance, are just two of the "33 reasons why we should send them back", listed in a leaflet widely circulated in the Dover and Folkestone area recently: "No medical checks on refugees - with the knowledge of their promiscuity and selling sex for money, who is to answer for the epidemic of venereal diseases that will undoubtedly become rife?"; "A local hospital has advised that in the event of any blood contact with these people, medical help is of the utmost importance."

The leaflet also rages against refugees' supposed involvement in crime, their preferential treatment over longstanding residents and the luxurious lifestyle they enjoy at British taxpayers' expense - DSS "crisis loans" of up to pounds 1,000 are said to be spent at the local Argos jewellery counter, where the asylum-seekers can be seen "getting their friends to take photographs to send back to their families and show them their new-found wealth".

The rantings of an extreme anti-immigrant minority? Certainly. But here is how the Dover Express, 15 October, reported the views of one of the leaflet's authors, under the headline "DSS cheats are now into brothels": "A Dover woman wants local people to join her in putting pressure on the Government into doing something about the number of immigrants in town. Sheila Farrell, 63, of Avenue Road, Dover, hopes enough people will show an interest in going to Westminster to lobby Parliament that it will make it worthwhile hiring a coach."

The article then quotes her at length: "Immigrants get so much more benefits than local people... They've taken over loads of houses... The education department is paying for a 52-seat bus to take four immigrant children to school while mums and their youngsters have to walk... One asylum seeker is being housed though he won pounds 150,000 on the National Lottery... The police are called out up to 15 times a day because of immigrants shoplifting. And at least three brothels have popped up around Dover..."

In case you thought this coverage of Sheila Farrell's unsubstantiated prejudices was a one-off aberration, it's worth looking at how the Dover Express has been treating these issues week in and week out.

"Builder pays a high price to stem the flow," said its headline over another report in October about how a local builder - who intends to stand for the British National Party in next year's local elections - was "refusing work from businesses which accommodate asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees". "We are sitting on a time bomb that must be defused now," announced its editorial that same issue. "Every week we report fresh outpourings of resentment over the tide of immigrants arriving through our port. It is easy to dismiss these as the opinions of an extremist minority." We shouldn't do so, it seems: "The vast majority of townsfolk are not racist. But they ARE alarmed by what they believe is an escalating problem."

The vast majority may well not be racist. But a significant minority have been given voice - and legitimacy - for the sort of opinions that defy any other description. This, finally, was the Dover Express on 1 October, in an editorial headed "We want to wash dross down drain", published during the Labour Party conference in Blackpool.

"Illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, bootleggers... and scum of the earth drug smugglers have targeted our beloved coastline," the paper raged. "Kent Police have their backs to the sea and are being pushed closer to the cliff edge. While Labour luvvies dribble on at Blackpool we are left with the backdraft of a nation's human sewage and NO CASH to wash it down the drain."

You don't have to be a racist to publish that - but it helps.

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