Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)|
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 rightsor 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
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 subjectson 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
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 hopeand please correct
meyou 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 Muslimsall 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 guidanceI do not say regulation,
but I say guidanceon 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
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 saidhe
was talking about how they came out of the lorry once the container
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 longand, 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 everyoneor
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 behaviourthat
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 saidit was a bit of an echo of
the Daily Expressthat this country was swamped with
immigrants of all kinds, including asylum seekersnot 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 Europewe 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 Francedo 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 storiesfantasy
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 knowand police saying
they think they killed them and ate themand 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 countryand we have
a history now of 12 years of mismanagement and problemswill
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