The Sketch: The rising tide of generalisation swamping the country

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The Independent Online

I'm afraid I'm suffering from a certain guild solidarity. I'm not sure I like it. Two of the big wheels at the Mail and the Express turned up to the human rights committee to defend their "bogus asylum-seeker" policy. "The rising tide of ants that is swamping this country". Do headlines such as this infringe the human rights of people seeking asylum? That was the question the committee wanted answering.

Peter Hill edits the Express. He's called "Mentally" Hill by Private Eye. But why? Perhaps because he has an other-worldly quality. He reminded me of Mahatma Ghandi. Robin Esser of the Mail is more of this world, being what we used to call a "gent". No dhoti for him. The dress code at the Garrick doesn't include dhotis. He's also quite old, and smiles so barely it hardly registers. That creates affection in his audience.

On the other side of the fence, the human rights committee. It was the normal shambling, many-headed mutant, flailing about looking for evidence to support the conclusions it wants to come to. Hill suspects it wants to produce some sort of legislation, guidance or code of conduct to prevent "bogus asylum" discourse.

If that was its purpose, the evening was a washout. Like so many committees it was too many, too various, too ill-prepared. If it wanted to make a case that these tabloids were stigmatising ethnic groups and making generalisations, it really might have assembled some evidence. One headline about "ants" and another which Hill refused to consider - "I'm sorry, that's sub-judice. I won't talk about it" - and the human rights lawyer in the chair had come to the end of his brief.

Esser, accused of spreading generalisations, replied that generalisation was the only thing that made government possible. He might have added that culture is a national generalisation. Yes, generalisation is too often stigmatised unfairly. We hate that.

Esser's first observation was that we needed to know the criteria for asylum since the country was facing the largest demographic change since the Norman invasion. Hill went further, implying the liberal elite was composed of silly Cnuts who were powerless to prevent the invasion and able only to prevent useful discussion of it.

Andrew Dismore, in the chair, looked at Hill with the sort of expression that would have got his head knocked off in an Oldham pub. Wide-eyed, raised eyebrows, a look at a specimen from another world. As Lord Curzon might have looked at Ghandi, had they ever met. It's that sort of look, with everything it implies, that helps create the constituency for the BNP.