Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)

MR ROBIN ESSER, MR PETER HILL, MR ALAN TRAVIS AND MR TIM TOULMIN

22 JANUARY 2007

  Q260  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: What is the basis of your belief that we are trying to gag you?

  Mr Hill: Because you are discussing the idea that in some way the way the press refer to asylum seekers could infringe their human rights—or am I mistaken?

  Q261  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: You think that because we are trying to examine the problem of asylum and the contribution made by the press—

  Mr Hill: In that way.

  Q262  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: In the public understanding of the problems, that that is an attempt by this Committee, a Left-dominated committee, to censor or gag you. Is that your understanding?

  Mr Hill: That certainly was my understanding, but I am delighted to be reassured.

  Q263  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Very well. I think I can reassure you on behalf of the Committee that we have no such intention.

  Mr Hill: Thank you. Good.

  Q264  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am sure you will report our agreement with this in your newspapers, so that the public are left in no doubt that this is not some kind of Charles I censorious committee. What I would like you to tell us now is how you think your responsibilities should be discharged in striking that fair balance between your fundamental right to inform your readers of matters of fundamental concern about what you see as failed asylum policy and the abuse of the asylum system on the one hand, and being fair to a very vulnerable minority of people who are fleeing political persecution, which, as I understand it, you accept is a justification for their being admitted to this country, if they can prove they are victims. How do you secure that balance in the instructions that you give to people who write your headlines or the news reporters or otherwise, to ensure that you are fair to this highly vulnerable group of people, in your editorial responsibilities? How do you do that?

  Mr Hill: I think all my journalists are well aware that I do like the newspaper to be fair, and certainly to be truthful; but we have to report what we see. Quite frankly, there is not an awful lot of positive news on this particular subject. I am afraid most of the news is of a very negative nature.

  Q265  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: What kind of advice, guidance or instructions do you give your staff about how to handle these very sensitive problems fairly in accordance with your responsibilities?

  Mr Hill: Well, all my staff are perfectly well aware of the Press Complaints commission and its rules and guidance. They know perfectly well, and I constantly reinforce this message, that we must be truthful in what we say.

  Q266  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Have you ever had to say to one of your staff, "I really think that is most unfair to asylum seekers and I think we are in danger of exaggerating and whipping up prejudice, and I really think you should now be more balanced in the way you report or comment on this"?

  Mr Hill: I often discuss with my staff both the way they write their reports and the way they write their headlines on all manner of subjects—on everything.

  Q267  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: You have not answered my question. Have you ever had to exercise some kind of pretty strong guidance and discipline because you felt your staff—

  Mr Hill: No.

  Q268  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: You have not. Mr Esser, I do not want to prolong this, but broadly speaking is there any disagreement about principles between us, or do you accept the way I tried to express the fundamental right to free speech, the exceptions, the fair balance and the need to exercise responsibility by the press.

  Mr Esser: No, there is no area of disagreement. We believe in those principles and we try every day to make sure that we stick by them.

  Q269  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: What mechanism or guidance do you have to ensure that that is done in practice by your staff?

  Mr Esser: The first thing, I think, is to abandon the idea that journalists are brought up to rush out and write inflammatory stories; they are not; they are trained to report what has gone on in a straightforward manner. They are trained to produce the facts. The comment column, and The Daily Mail's opinion about matters, is expressed in a separate and different way. As Peter has rightly said, we stick by the principles and the excellent guidance note that the PCC produced on asylum seekers and terminology and attitudes, and all our journalists carry in their wallet a pocket-sized version of the code. The idea that they are running around looking for inflammatory things to say about asylum seekers is wrong.

  Q270  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I follow that, but one of you said you see it as your role to speak for the people of Britain, but I hope—and please correct me—you are not saying by that that the people who are not from Britain but are genuine victims of political persecution in unspeakable countries abroad, should not be spoken for as well as the people of this country.

  Mr Esser: That is an absolutely fair point, but I do not think we try and speak for the people of Britain. What we try to do is inform our readers and reflect the views of our readers, and many of our readers write to us about asylum seekers and similar matters, expressing sometimes fears and sometimes approvals. We consistently say, as Peter does in the Express, that this country has a great tradition of asylum granting; and long may that continue.

  Q271  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: How do you avoid the danger of stereotyping, of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people that are not fair to individuals within the group? You know what I mean! You can make stereotypes about women or black people or Jews or Muslims—all kinds of people. How do you avoid the obvious elementary danger that powerful generalisations are made which in fact stir up prejudices? How do you do that in practice, or maybe you think you should not do that—

  Mr Esser: It is very difficult. We do of course pick out individual examples of people who have succeeded, and run major features on them. The difficulty you express is the difficulty that, for instance, Government expresses. The Government talks about asylum seekers; it does not talk about individuals; it talks about asylum seekers and immigrants. The Government is a system of generalisations.

  Q272  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Would it be helpful if the PCC, represented here today, gave rather clearer and more positive guidance—I do not say regulation, but I say guidance—on how to handle these difficult, sensitive issues and produce some kind of further discussion document? At the moment what they have done is very short and some would say primitive on the subject. Would you think any more help from them would be a good idea?

  Mr Esser: I think the PCC constantly reviews the code and its guidance. One of the strengths of self-regulation is the lightness of regulation. That is something of which I approve, as a believer in freedom of expression and the freedom of the press and so forth.

  Q273  Chairman: Just to put the record straight, we have the ants article in front of us. The headline is: "Refugees are flooding into the UK `like ants' ...."

  Mr Hill: Yes.

  Q274  Chairman: Paragraph 1: "Hordes of immigrants pour from Channel Tunnel trains like ants from an ant hill as the tide of asylum seekers into Britain continues to rise." Paragraph 7 is a quote from the BTP spokesman who said: "This is the most illegal immigrants we have ever caught in one go. They were like ants pouring from an ant hill."

  Mr Hill: That is correct, yes, but I wanted to draw the distinction between a report of what someone else said, and the suggestion from Mr Jago Russell that this was an inflammatory comment by the Daily Express, which it was not of course.

  Chairman: Just a minute; the purpose of this hearing is to hear both sides of the story, and we will form our own views, having heard from Mr Russell and having heard your view as well.

  Q275  Dr Harris: Just on that point, though, clearly we have heard what you said and we have the original article to check—

  Mr Hill: Yes, I am glad you have the article.

  Q276  Dr Harris: We are not liable to be misled without checking the original source, but that British Transport policeman who was talking about illegal immigrants said—he was talking about how they came out of the lorry once the container was opened.

  Mr Hill: Yes.

  Q277  Dr Harris: Your headline says: "Refugees are flooding into the UK `like ants'"—not "illegal immigrants coming out of a container like ants from an ant hill". Do you accept there is a difference between refugees and illegal immigrants?

  Mr Hill: I can see what would happen there. I can see that the sub-editor could not get the expression "illegal immigrants" in the headline because it is very, very long—and, yes, that probably has resulted in the wrong term possibly in the headline, yes. I can see that.

  Dr Harris: I think that is what Mr Russell was referring to, and I am glad we have now reached agreement that that was the problem because refugees are people who are genuine and have been granted asylum, and they would feel a bit upset, I suspect, to be considered to be flooding in the first place, and being described as an image that is not human.

  Q278  Mr Carswell: A question for Mr Hill and Mr Esser: Do you think that the political establishment has dealt with the public policy challenges posed by asylum and immigration effectively, and do you sometimes get the feeling that in your newspapers you are asking the sort of questions and raising the issues that the political establishment would frankly you rather did not talk about?

  Mr Hill: I think for a very long time the Daily Express in particular was vilified by the liberal media and in particular the BBC for raising these matters about immigration and asylum, and indeed also about the associated matter of the policy of multi-culturalism. I think now everyone—or informed opinion now accepts that the policy of multi-culturalism in which people have been encouraged to set up almost separate states, almost with their own walls and certainly their own rules and behaviour, quite contrary to British behaviour—that that policy has been completely discredited. For a long time the Daily Express was the only newspaper that was raising these matters. As I say, I think these matters ought to be discussed because they are matters of enormous importance for the future of our country, and they should be discussed openly and robustly.

  Mr Esser: It is certainly true that many of the stories we have raised about the shambles are uncomfortable for the Government. I believe an all-party House of Commons committee eventually confessed that they were, and a former Home Secretary said—it was a bit of an echo of the Daily Express—that this country was swamped with immigrants of all kinds, including asylum seekers—not really a phrase that was as moderate as perhaps it should have been. Of course the Government is embarrassed and of course the thing is a shambles; and of course that does add to our readers' and the general public's worry about asylum seekers, and that must eventually produce added hostility, where it should not.

  Q279  Mr Carswell: Given the rise of political extremism in Europe—we had Pim Fortuyn in Holland, where the political elite refused to address questions of asylum and multiculturalism; Jean-Marie le Pen in France, who was runner-up in the last set of presidential elections in France—do you think there is a danger of political extremism if we do not have a political establishment and a press openly discussing and debating these issues? Do you think there is a danger that if perhaps we were to ever use human rights law and legislation to stifle debate it could lead to the rise of political extremism?

  Mr Hill: I think there is evidence that political extremism is already on the increase in this country. You have only to look at some of our local authorities where extremists are now contesting seats and winning seats. There is a grave danger, if the political elite fails to address these issues, that extremism will increase because people who care deeply about these will have nowhere else to go. They will have nowhere to turn.

  Mr Travis: Can I just comment on that? I think there are three parties dancing this particular unsavoury tango here. You have the politicians, the public and the media locked in a rather unsavoury vicious circle. Newspapers such as Mr Hill's and Mr Esser's claim they reflect the views of their readers; politicians faced that media barrage in one particular heightened period in 2003. Over a 31-day period the Daily Express ran no less than 22 front-page lead stories on the subject of asylum based mostly on guesstimates from unofficial sources. In this situation, newspapers both fuel that political prejudice and fuel that extremism. Recent Mori research in this area showed that Daily Express readers think that 21% of the British population are immigrants. The Daily Mail readers say it is about 19%. Guardian readers say it is about 11%. We are all actually exaggerating. It is only 7%. Even FT readers, who seem to be the "best informed in the country", as their slogan goes, got somewhere near at 6 or 7%. We have all exaggerated this problem in that respect, so it becomes fuelled. The idea that this is some kind of balanced, accurate reflection of public opinion on this subject is belied by the fact that Mr Hill's newspapers in the past printed manifestly false stories—fantasy land. We had from the Daily Star: "Asylum seekers have stolen nine donkeys from Greenwich Royal Parks and eaten them." It is supposedly based upon fact, you know—and police saying they think they killed them and ate them—and the only quote from the police in the story is, "we are totally baffled over what happened to the donkeys". The idea that they were seized by asylum seekers rather belies the idea that this is some kind of responsible, grown-up—

  Mr Hill: Has anybody ever found the donkeys? By the way, there have been far more articles in The Guardian about Big Brother!

  Mr Travis: Can I finish my evidence, please? It is correct to say that the problems and breakdown in the asylum system have created a political space in which this media campaign is rooted and can flourish, and without a managerial and efficient asylum system in this country—and we have a history now of 12 years of mismanagement and problems—will only continue to fuel such a campaign and provide the basis for it. These stories are not written without a grain of truth in them mostly. They are rooted in factual reporting. That is only a negative view of the situation, but I think that while there are 400,000 plus people living illegally in this country, and whilst that situation remains unresolved, then such media coverage will continue.


 
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