The Only Way is Ethics: When the media report the chaos at Calais, they must remain compassionate

Two words for journalists and politicians to avoid: 'swarm', and 'cockroaches'

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The Independent Online

The migration of individuals from the Middle East and Africa, many fleeing war and hardship, poses significant challenges for Europe. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the primary focus for much of the UK media is not Europe but Britain. The country faces a “migrant crisis” – even though only 5 per cent or so of refugees coming to Europe seek asylum here. Germany, by contrast, takes nearly a third.

Few would argue that recent scenes at Calais have been shocking, both in highlighting the desperation of those who would risk their lives to get through the Channel Tunnel; and in showing the difficulty of keeping the tunnel secure. The seeming vulnerability of Britain’s border is clearly a cause of anxiety.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that we keep some perspective. This country is not facing invasion by a military foe, nor do refugees wishing to come here have – for the very large part – nefarious motives. Hysteria in this country will not resolve the situation. Compassion, and sensible policies developed in conjunction with European partners, just might.

The Prime Minister’s ill-judged comment last week about a migrant “swarm” suggests, however, that good sense is not the order of the day. The Refugee Council described David Cameron’s remarks as “irresponsible” and “dehumanising”. Calais’s deputy mayor was rather blunter, saying they were “ignorant” and “racist”.

Throughout history, unwanted or oppressed people have been compared to animals, in more or less subtle ways. The Nazis portrayed Jews as rats in hideous propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew; while, in 1994 in Rwanda, a call to “exterminate the cockroaches” on a private radio station was a prelude to the slaughter of Tutsi civilians.

Those are extreme examples but an article in The Sun in April by Katie Hopkins also used the word “cockroaches” in reference to migrants, drawing a stern response from the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Even Hopkins subsequently suggested she might have chosen her words more carefully, though “cockroaches” is hardly a term that slips into an article without thought.


Since the causes of migration to Europe are complex, there is unlikely to be a speedy conclusion to the current situation. Language will play an important part in shaping public opinions and the media has a particular responsibility to avoid inflammatory terminology. After all, compassion is what makes us human – if we fail to show it by the words we use, who then are the animals?

What do you call a  man from the US?

Cecil the lion has found in death a fame he did not have in life, with the world united in grief and anger. His killer, Walter Palmer, has come straight in at number one in the public enemy hit parade.

I anticipated some complaints about images published by The Independent showing Palmer with his previous “trophies”. There has always been a mixed reception to the use of photographs depicting animal death.

However, I could not have predicted the one complaint we received about our coverage. A reader was unhappy that we had referred to Palmer as “American”, arguing that he was not representative of the American continents. We would not, he noted, refer to someone from Argentina as “American”.

True enough. But I think on this occasion convention wins out against the reader’s logic. Moreover, what else should we call someone from the United States? United Statesmen and women, maybe?