There was some unusually strong language last week when senior executives on rival newspapers picked up The Independent's bold front page on "Lies, Damned Lies and Immigration." The "damned lies" came from lead stories in other papers (eight of them), all of which were curtly rubbished with chapter and verse.
When I called one notorious red-top figure about this, his reply - shorn of the repetitive F-word - was: "I'm sick of this wishy-washy liberalism. It gives me Indy-gestion. It's even worse than your old wet rag used to be." I took that as a compliment, which certainly wasn't intended, and I trust that the editor of this paper, Simon Kelner (himself an Observer graduate) will feel flattered too. It wasn't so much The Observer of my time that merited the liberal accolade (we were vainly trying to keep a candle alight in the face of a Thatcherite gale) but that of my crusading predecessor, David Astor, who led the post-war national debates on issues like hanging, abortion and divorce.
Oddly enough, David was less sure about immigration. He demurred a little, as I recall, from the liberal, office, consensus, led by committed anti-apartheid campaigners like Colin Legum and Anthony Sampson. Although Astor fought as strongly as they did on South Africa and colonialism generally, he had doubts about the long-term effects of West Indian immigration. As an aristocrat and a gentleman, he saw the matter less in terms of politics as good manners: you shouldn't invite someone into your house unless they can be sure of a warm welcome.
The immigration debate at that time was seen wholly in racist terms: papers opposed to discrimination felt an obligation to support the rights of immigrants as part of the same global moral issue. Powerful voices on the left, like Fenner Brockway and Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, saw this as a way of atoning for our colonial past. They seemed to assume (rather naively, looking back) that the newcomers would fit easily into our society as equal brothers and sisters. When race riots eventually broke out a decade or two later - first in Notting Hill, then Wolverhampton, Bristol and Brixton - papers began to divide into those who secretly supported Enoch Powell's warnings about the coming Armageddon and those who saw this as rhetorical racist ranting. Some agreed with his analysis, but deplored his inflammatory language. The same divide exists today, though The Times and The Daily Telegraph have moderated their tone over the years while the Mail and Express have turned up the volume.
The current debate about immigrants from Eastern Europe is different from that about West Indians, Asians and Africans, in that the incomers are white (though there appear to be still 250,000 immigrants a year from outside Europe, compared with the 300,000 EU incomers over each of the past two years). The arguments now are chiefly economic (will they steal our jobs or impoverish the country through exploiting the benefits system or the NHS) - rather than overtly racist, though an atavistic dislike of all foreigners permeates some of the coverage: "Mafia chiefs in Bulgaria are plotting to flood Britain with heroin, prostitutes and guns" (The People); "Britain is confronted with an HIV time-bomb when Romanian teenagers descend on our overstretched health services" (Sunday Express).
Even after this paper's cull of phoney scare stories, the Daily Express led with a story that "Immigrants flooding into Britain from Eastern Europe will be eligible for £10,000 golden hellos funded by taxpayers" and followed up inside with a double-page spread: "Blair must shut the doors on migrants." Words like "flood" or "swamp" are a giveaway signal about a paper's underlying attitude to a supposedly neutral report.
Nonetheless, it has to be said that the papers are highlighting a genuinely important issue. The government's failure to control, or even successfully monitor, mass migration has given added importance to the papers' coverage. The Guardian has done some excellent reporting and the Daily Mail ran a measured piece on the effect that Poles had on a place like Peterborough.
The regional press seems to have woken up earlier than the nationals to the fact that racial attitudes have changed, that immigrants have brought many undoubted benefits to the country, and that the ethnic composition of the readership needs to be taken into serious account, if only for business reasons (in Leicester more than 40 per cent of the population is from ethnic minority backgrounds). Papers like the Hull Daily Mail and the Bolton Evening News now report the positive aspects of immigration.
A study by the Society of Editors and the Media Trust, Reporting Diversity, has led to the launch of the Journalism Diversity Fund to encourage aspiring young reporters from ethnic and socially diverse backgrounds to enter a career that has been traditionally white and middle-class.
David Rowell, an executive of Johnston Press, said:"Red-top tabloids have given journalism a bad name for many Asians and we are keen to say that regional papers are not like this." Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "The media has a vital role to play in driving forward the process of making our communities... inclusive, successful and tolerant." In the light of recent headlines, even to state that ambition shows how far we still have to go.
Hungarians will get the joke at last
VICKY, along perhaps with Low and Illingworth, was the greatest political cartoonist of the 20th century. He appealed to both left and right. "Vicky is a genius", said Randolph Churchill; "the best cartoonist in the world", said Michael Foot. His most famous cartoon showed Harold Macmillan as "Supermac".
Born in Berlin in 1913, Victor Weisz had Hungarian parents and held a Hungarian passport until he became a British subject in 1947. It is fitting, therefore, that the first exhibition of Vicky cartoons in Hungary will take place, in October, organised jointly by the London Press Club and Budapest Press Club, sponsored by the British Council and Budapest. Mark Bryant, the secretary of the London Press Club, who holds a PhD in political cartoons, has put the show together.
The show marks the 40th anniversary of Vicky's suicide and the 50th of the Hungarian revolution, a subject for some Vicky cartoons which will be seen by his countrymen for the first time.
Sex sells, but now celibacy seems sexier
HOW curious that, on the same day, the Daily Mail and Daily Express should both feature the joys of celibacy. Was this a coincidence - or a rip-off? "I've been celibate for six years" screamed the Mail's front-page blurb; ""I chose to be celibate and I'm happier than ever," roared the Express. The only difference was that the Mail's single mother had slept alone for six years and the Express's for only one. One can only conclude that, because there is so much sex about, a woman who isn't having any now makes news. It's the "man bites dog" syndrome - or something like that.
Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93
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