Comment: This is how the press breeds hatred for immigrants

Ian Dunt: 'Natural friendliness must be stamped out for immigrants to be suitably hated.'
Ian Dunt: 'Natural friendliness must be stamped out for immigrants to be suitably hated.'
Ian Dunt By

Sometimes studies can be useful even when they're telling you something you know.

Anyone who has ever glanced at the newspaper section of a supermarket knows what the press do to immigrants. They libel them, abuse them, humiliate them and stoke up resentment against them. It's been that way my entire life.

But new research from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University shows just how pervasive and systematic this hate campaign is.

After studying 58,000 articles in every national newspaper in Britain – over 43 million words – researchers found the word most closely associated with 'immigrant' was, you guessed it, 'illegal'. It almost trips off the tongue. Even for those of us on the other side of the debate the two words feel intimately connected, like 'pub' and 'pint' or 'library' and 'book'. One goes with the other.


For tabloids, other words closely associated with 'immigrant' were 'coming', 'stop', 'influx', 'wave', 'housing' and 'sham'.

For asylum seekers it was 'failed'. The one small blessing was that it wasn't also 'illegal'. Here we must give some credit to the much-maligned Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

When Christopher Meyer was chairman he did his best to wipe out the phrase 'illegal asylum-seeker' and for good reason. There is no such thing. It is impossible, as a point of legal fact. You can be a failed asylum seeker, of course, and indeed that is the word the press have opted for as a second-best option.

Even when told the term was inaccurate and created an "atmosphere of fear and hostility", the press continued to use it, with just five fewer usages in the period following a PCC warning than before it. Meyer had to institute a cuttings operation to follow up. He was eventually broadly successful, to his considerable credit.

What does this relentless association of 'immigrant' with 'illegal' do? It cements, in the minds of voters, an impression of immigrants as 'the other'.

I hate the phrase 'the other'. It has that unmistakable trace of academia to it, the mark of the earnest, hand-wringing liberal intelligentsia which voters can instantly spot and despise. It's all very looking-down-your-glasses-at-someone.

But it is a useful phrase. It represents a process by which we turn fellow humans into sub-humans, into a category of people who we do not need to feel compassion for. It is the mechanism which we use to eradicate empathy.

'Othering' deals with one of the annoying functions of humans – that they are typically rather nice to the people they meet. They complain about immigrants, or the French, or women, or the middle-classes, but they get on terribly well with the Polish family next door and chat about the weather with the Arab man who sells them their vegetables. This natural friendliness must be stamped out for immigrants to be suitably hated.

Last month an inquest jury found a man named Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed by G4S staff as they tried to deport him from Britain. You probably haven't heard about him. He was, after all, an illegal immigrant.

He was heavily restrained as the plane waited to take off. Passengers said he repeatedly shouted he could not breath. He cried out: "They're going to kill me." And then he died.

"The guards, we believe, would have known that they would have caused Mr Mubenga harm in their actions, if not serious harm," the jury foreman said.

Two of the guards had a string of racist "jokes" on their phone, a total of 65 messages with "very racially offensive material", according to the coroner.

This is what Emma Norton, legal officer for Liberty, had to say:

Racist jokes on their mobiles. A ludicrous account that Jimmy Mubenga somehow forced his own head between his knees, causing his own asphyxia. Unforgivable indifference to the dying cries of a man who, according to one witness, called for help around 50 times as he slowly suffocated. These are the actions of the private security guards entrusted by the Home Office to ensure the safe removal of Mr Mubenga from the UK. What utter contempt for human dignity and life.

The guards were paid extra according to whether they could keep the deportee silent until the plane took off. This way, the airline staff were less likely to cancel the deportation because of the risk of upsetting paying passengers.

Their way of achieving this is often to use restraint holds called 'carpet karaoke', because forcing the deportee's face into the floor made them scream like a bad karaoke singer.

Paying to force someone's silence. Texting racist jokes. Holding someone down until they die. Mocking their assault: It is the mentality of Abu Ghraib.

It is the process by which we dehumanise people so that we can hate them, so that we can take away their rights, so that we can kill them, and so that we don't have to feel badly about it afterwards.

Some immigrants are illegal. That is a word you can use to describe some of them. Some are mothers, or orphans, or office flirts, or spurned lovers, or alcoholics, or carers. Some are business owners. Some own football clubs. Some run theatres. When was the last time Roman Abramovich or Kevin Spacey were described as an immigrant?

Some keep the NHS ticking over. When did you last hear of immigrant nurses - because we've got plenty of those. Recent reports by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) suggest immigration is vital to paying down the deficit. Perhaps the word 'deficit defeating immigrants' should be given a little print space.

Don't hold your breath.

The press knows what it's doing. It's demonising immigrants. Its aim is to make us think of them as less than human beings. They are not humans, they are immigrants. And soon they won't even be that. They'll be 'illegals'. And then you won't have to worry about them at all anymore.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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