What I learned on the Littlejohn show

The asylum-bashing press and the politicians who give in to them have blood on their hands
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The Independent Online

Here's a real asylum scandal, far more shocking and savage than a few Romanians being allowed to slip into Britain. Yet you won't see this on the front pages of the more rabid British newspapers, and you won't hear Michael Howard ranting about it at the despatch box.

Jhon Reyes thought he was safe when he made it to Britain's shores. He came from Colombia, a country riven by both fascist and communist paramilitary groups, and three of his relatives - including his father - had been hunted down and slaughtered. Jhon and his children were running for their lives.

This country has particular responsibility for the human casualties of Colombia's civil war like Jhon, since the British government has destabilised that country for over 30 years. Britain is one of the main international enforcers of a crazed "war on drugs" that has handed the drugs trade (Colombia's largest industry and 40 per cent of its economy) to criminal gangs. They have proceeded to make the country ungovernable. Thirty thousand people have been killed in the past year in a Colombian civil war facilitated, funded and fostered by our failing "war" to keep cocaine off our streets.

So when he arrived here, terrified, traumatised and indisputably a genuine asylum seeker, you might expect that we would treat him well. But the Home Office is run by a cowardly politician, David Blunkett, who will not challenge a right-wing press that has been condemned even by Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for inciting violence against asylum-seekers.

Blunkett instead chose to appease our own domestic far right by being so "tough" that Jhon was forced - with your tax money and your police force - on to a plane back to Colombia. Blunkett claimed that Jhon would be safe if he went to a different part of the country - a statement that was obviously nonsense to anybody who knows anything about Colombia. The Home Secretary was warned by the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns that he was potentially sending a man to his death. He ignored them.

So on Monday afternoon, Jhon was tracked down by the paramilitaries and shot. It is pure luck that he was not killed; he expects the gunmen to return. Over a dozen asylum-seekers were deported from Britain to their deaths last year. The asylum-bashing press and the politicians who give in to them have blood on their hands.

The British press has created a hate-filled culture where even centre-left politicians behave like this. I saw the distortion machine at work when I was invited on to Littlejohn, the Sky News TV show presented by the Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn. He is a journalist who almost every week incites hatred against people fleeing torture. He jeered about the Rwandan genocide and the refugees fleeing it, asking: "Does anyone really give a monkey's about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them." He has even suggested we should be pleased if refugees drown on their way to Britain.

I was invited to appear on his programme against a British National Party thug who was standing in a council by-election that night. I was initially inclined not to go, but then I realised that it was an opportunity to ask Littlejohn some questions.

For him to present himself as a neutral arbiter between the BNP and non-fascists was so absurd (and typical of Rupert Murdoch's empire) that I thought I could have a chance to expose that too. After all, BNP leader Nick Griffin has described Littlejohn as his favourite writer. The hero of Littlejohn's semi-literate "novel", To Hell in a Handcart, says, "Don't give me multi-fucking-culturalism. The only culture these pikeys have is thieving."

Littlejohn makes a great fuss about condemning the BNP as a "rabble", but what exactly in their political programme does he disagree with? No, Littlejohn pumps out the anti-asylum sewage and the rats of the BNP inevitably feed on it. With this in mind, I arrived on the set. He was already ranting about me, saying to his producer that I was "a nutcase". I coughed politely. He twitched and shook my hand.

As we were waiting, I thought I would have some fun with the notoriously homophobic Littlejohn. "My friend Peter Tatchell really likes you," I said softly as we were waiting. He shifted awkwardly. "Oh. Does he read my columns?" "No Richard, he really likes you." (Apologies to Peter. It was for a good cause). Silence. With that, we started the show.

The BNP fool was very easily dispensed with. I pointed out he hadn't sued the Evening Standard after it was revealed that he was a convicted football hooligan banned from his local grounds for screaming abuse at black people, and he simply blustered. No non-racist was going to vote for him.

So I asked Richard how much a single asylum seeker is given in benefits each week. You'd think that a journalist who writes about asylum twice a week would, of course, know something so incredibly basic. His response was clear. He snapped: "I have no idea".

No idea. I pointed out that he refers constantly to asylum-seekers being "hosed down" with benefits. He implied in his novel that they are given hundreds upon hundreds of pounds a week. Shouldn't he try to find out some facts before he writes his far-right propaganda? (By the way, they are given £37.77 a week, 30 per cent below the poverty line. This is the fortune that Littlejohn and his friends - the bulk of the British press - says people are flocking to Britain to claim.)

He began to howl: "It's people like you who help the BNP!" He declined to talk me through the mysterious process by which people who peddle urban myths, exaggerations and prejudice about asylum-seekers are really stopping the BNP, and people who correct those distortions are helping them. I kept offering him facts, like the simple truth that the Association of Chief Police Officers has stated that asylum-seekers do not commit more crime than anyone else. Or that asylum-seekers and immigrants make a net contribution to the UK economy of £2.5bn a year - saving us the equivalent of a penny on income tax. Littlejohn's response was to accuse me of staging "a student prank".

Soon we were off air, and Littlejohn started to screech at his producers. "I told you not to ask him on! I told you not to ask this nutcase on to my programme!' He looked genuinely upset. I tried to explain that if he doesn't want to be humiliated he should make his articles correspond with reality. He began to howl, and one of the floor managers suggested I leave.

Littlejohn - and the countless other journalists inciting hatred against asylum-seekers - justify their behaviour by saying that they are simply reflecting the prejudices of their readers. When the Daily Mail said in 1938 that "the way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring into this country is an outrage", no doubt many of their readers agreed too. No doubt many believed the stories about Jews carrying diseases, exploiting our hospitality and committing evil crimes.

That doesn't stop it being a litany of lies. Most of Britain's asylum- seekers in the past decade came here from Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. They are no more thieving crooks than Jews fleeing Hitler.

The distortions of the asylum-haters have now created a climate in which the British state is handing men like Jhon Reyes to murderous gunmen, and it is not considered a national scandal. Well done, Richard.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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