NUJ backs PressWise policy on treatment of refugees

11 April 2000 – Describing the UK media treatment of refugees as “a disgrace to journalism,” Britain’s National Union of Journalists gave unanimous backing at its Annual Delegate Meeting in Eire last week to a motion urging the union to launch a campaign against racist reporting.

The full text of the motion follows:

“This ADM condemns Home Secretary Jack Straw’s disgraceful outbursts against refugees and Travellers and also condemns similar references by the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O’Donoghue.

“This ADM believes that Straw’s remarks encouraged newspapers like the Sun and Dover Express, and Tory politicians such as shadow home secretary Anne Widdecombe, to whip up racism. It also believes that remarks by Ivor Callely TD, Chair of the Irish Eastern Health Board, have heightened a climate of racism in Ireland.

“ADM deplores the witch-hunt against refugees by some national tabloids and local newspapers.

“ADM believes that last summer’s vitriolic headlines such as “floods” of refugees “swamping” us and “taking us for a ride” was a disgrace to journalism.

“ADM welcomes the fact that the Press Complaints Commission has at last ruled against a local paper, the Folkestone Herald, for its coverage of refugees. ADM instructs the NEC to urge the PCC to maintain a tough line against such coverage.

“This ADM believes that refugees are not to blame for low wages, unemployment, bad housing and crumbling public services, but those responsible are the fat cat bosses, like those who own the media, and a Labour government that puts the interests of big business before those of the millions of working people who elected them.

“This ADM instructs the NEC to renew the union’s policy of opposing racist reporting by launching a campaign around the slogan “Refugees are welcome here” to give members confidence to stand up for the Code of Conduct, backed by official union action where necessary.

“ADM calls on the NEC to increase its campaigning among NUJ members urging them to debunk the myths and misleading statistics regarding refugees and to adhere to the NUJ’s Guidelines for Race Reporting.

“ADM also recognises that such coverage of immigration has helped the UK government to drive through increasingly racist policies on refugees and asylum-seekers.

“ADM affirms its opposition to measures in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which will make asylum seekers the most excluded and deprived group of people in Britain, in particular:
the introduction of total cashless support system for all asylum seekers;
the prohibition on asylum seekers working to support themselves; and
the dispersal of families around the country.

“ADM instructs the NEC to make this opposition known to the Home Office as forcefully as possible.

“ADM notes the formation by the Irish Executive Council of the NUJ Refugees and Asylum Seekers Network and instructs the NEC to provide financial support to the Network.”

Bogus media concern as refugees become political footballs
The media cannot claim to have clean hands in the row that has broken out about the use of inflammatory language by politicians. Indeed some would say that politicians have become more shrill with every new story about the ingenuity of impoverished exiles, making up policy on the hoof – from visas for Slovakians and vouchers for asylum-seekers to low-budget dispersal clusters and high security detention centres –  as the headlines become more sensational. Yet Britain is having to accommodate fewer asylum seekers than there are children living on the streets of the Indian capital – let alone the millions of refugees for whom India has become a second home.

No one could accuse the British media of consistency in coverage of refugees and asylum seekers over the last few years. According to the press some deserve our sympathy and a safe haven – ethnic Albanians from Kosovo fleeing Serb aggression, and white farmers from Zimbabwe fleeing Black land-grabbers – and some don’t – those who are so desperate they risk life and limb to be smuggled into Britain, by lorry or hijacked airplane, and of course the Roma, whom everyone is supposed to despise simply because they exist!

If past evidence is anything to go by the Press Complaints Commission is unlikely to be troubled by this latest controversy. It will only ‘entertain’ complaints about named individuals. Coverage that refers generically to whole groups of people escapes censure.

In a statement following widespread criticism of jingoistic coverage during the Euro ’96 Football Tournament, the PCC declined to adjudicate saying that the newspaper codes of practice on discrimination ‘is rightly worded in a tightly defined way to allow the British press to make pointed and critical comment about events and people in a variety of circumstances.’ (PCC Report No.35)

The same words were employed again in the PCC Statement on Vernon Coleman’s offensive comments about the Maltese (Glasgow Evening Times & The People, July 1996), adding, ‘For good reasons, (the clause) referred to individuals rather than races or nations’. (PCC Report No.36.). Typically the PCC was quick to express its ‘abhorrence at the offensiveness of language used’, but the message was clear – name an individual and you could be in trouble, attack a class of person and you are on safe grounds.

No wonder ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum-seekers’ have become terms of abuse, instead of describing desperate people who should at least be given the benefit of the doubt until their stories have been checked. No-one abandons their home and country and even their family without good reason – and grinding poverty is as good a reason as any. The PCC Code Committee were not moved to rephrase clauses dealing with discrimination, comment and conjecture four years ago. Perhaps they should now reconsider.

An indication that they may be doing so comes in the PCC adjudication of a complaint against the Folkestone Herald of May 20, 1999. The final paragraph states: “The Commission took the opportunity to remind editors of their responsibilities in covering such topics and of the danger that inaccurate or misleading reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility which is not borne out by the facts.”

We welcome this apparent awakening on the part of the PCC. It is too little, and a lot too late, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

Every ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum-seeker’ is a human being who needs food, clothing and shelter. They are more likely to suffer the indignity of exclusion and hostility when the media and the authorities pander to prejudice rather than addressing the root causes of enforced migration.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are rarely allowed a voice in the current debate, and have real fears that if they do speak out they could lose out too. It is time the PCC stepped into the fray and demonstrated its influence for good by reminding the press that the ‘long and proud tradition in the British press or robust and nationalistic comment’ has always been combined with an equally proud tradition ‘of tolerance and fair play towards others’.  (PCC Report No.35)

Refugees, Asylum-seekers and the Mass media (RAM)
Latest News
As part of the project Tammy Speers at the University of Cardiff is helping to co-ordinate an informal network of research about media coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers throughout Europe. Those wishing to contribute should may contact her via

PressWise, in conjunction with The Media Trust and Diversity On-line, is now seeking funds for a one year programme to improve communications between refugee groups and the media, including use-of-the media training. Networking and training events are being planned in the cluster areas to which refugees and asylum-seekers are to be dispersed, funds permitting.

As the delayed, partial dispersal gets underway amid operational problems and confusion, asylum-seekers face another hostile prospect: scare stories in the press and unbalanced letters pages, open prejudice on local radio phone-ins, high profile NIMBY protests featured on TV, organised campaigning by the far right, racial harassment and attacks.

Yet in media workshops and presentations across the country, including events in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Cardiff, Llandrindod Wells and London, the RAM Project has found an enormous number of local stakeholder organisations – from full scale support networks to small community agencies – ready and willing to defend the right of asylum-seekers to be here, and eager to carry out communications strategies that will advance integration and promote racial harmony.

All too often isolated, under-resourced and fearful of the media, such groups are united in one thing: they lack all the tools to do the job. They want information, advice, support and training from credible sources delivered in a coherent system so they can both react to unfair negative coverage and go out and make the case for asylum-seekers.

As the RAM Project ends its first six months, it has been engaging many other organisations in discussion about how to bring together systems and structures, staff and funding, that can deliver information, support and training to help the hundreds of organisations across the country wanting to take action about media coverage of asylum-seekers and refugees.

Building on RAM’s existing mandates and the network of contacts it has built over recent months in the UK and Europe, the aim is clear: creating national and regional systems and structures for short, medium and long term joint work by a number of organisations in media, regional support, research, journalist training and campaigning.

Concern about the media is widespread and these talks aim to complement recent discussions between members of other asylum and refugee groups about agency co-ordination to combat national media scare stories.

One of the most obvious opportunities for action is to draw on the many existing sources of information and advice on refugee and asylum-seeker issues and media skills to offer a fast, frequent and interactive service via email and web of news, background briefings, prepared articles, sample letters, contacts and media mentoring.

If you or your organisation could help with this work in building a national refugee communications network, please contact the RAM Project immediately.

Other news of PressWise Activities

PressWise in Slovakia
Fri 14 April: Bratislava
PressWise trainer Charlotte Barry is speaking about ethical problems in media coverage of domestic violence at a seminar organised by the Centre for Independent Journalism and the National Gender Centre. The event is being sponsored by the British Council, Slovakia.

Representing Lost Childhood (RLC project)
As part of the Representing Lost Childhood Project, sponsored by the Diana Princess of Wales  Memorial Fund, PressWise Director Mike Jempson and trainer Arjum Wajid are running a workshop for media professionals in Macedonia on coverage of children affected by violence, in conjunction with UNICEF (26 April – 1 May, Skopje)
Plans for similar workshops in Albania and Kosovo have been postponed for the time being, but those in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova will go ahead in May and June.

Spot On!
PressWise has just completed development of an electronic newsletter for the World Health Organisation (WHO) as part of the Spot On! project which designed to strengthen the capacity of health communicators in the 51 countries of the European region. The next phase includes a series of training workshops for media professionals from 12 Eastern European & Central Asian countries in Moldova in June, and international consultation about Ethical Guidelines for Health Communicators (watch our website).

(Bulletin No 13)

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