Joint Committee On Human Rights Tenth Report

7  Treatment by the media

339. The treatment of asylum seekers by the media raises questions about whether the state is fulfilling its positive obligations to protect asylum seekers from unjustified interference with their right to respect for their dignity, private life, and physical integrity, and to secure their enjoyment of Convention rights without discrimination, consistently with the right to freedom of expression. Signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which include the UK, have specific responsibility to protect people forced by a well-founded fear of persecution to flee their countries and seek asylum. The Home Office stated that "it tries to ensure that journalists use the correct terminology and will seek to correct inaccuracies where appropriate" and that it chairs a sub-group of the National Refugee Integration Forum which "is working to ensure that the media is aware of all facts relating to refugees and asylum seekers so that coverage has a greater potential to be fair and inclusive". [392]

Media coverage of asylum seekers

340. In its Report on the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, our predecessor Committee expressed concern about negative media reporting on asylum issues.[393] It recommended that media strategies should seek to counter inaccurate and inflammatory reporting of asylum issues and that the formulation and implementation of government policy on asylum must take full account of the impact on race relations.

341. We received evidence of the negative media coverage of asylum seekers and of the consequences of this coverage for individuals, communities and wider social cohesion. The UNHCR pointed to its magazine Refugees[394] for examples of dehumanising and hostile news coverage of asylum seekers and told us that asylum seekers in the UK had been subjected to particularly hostile reporting in recent years by some sections of the UK press, stating that "attempts to dehumanise asylum seekers … continue, despite a lessening in frequency since the well-documented most vitriolic reporting in 2003". [395] The UNHCR also pointed out the lack of news coverage about abuse of asylum seekers, and the lack of political leadership in dealing with the issues:

"In recent years, a number of asylum seekers and refugees have been targeted and killed despite having escaped persecution for the safety of industrialized democracies like the UK. And for each one who is murdered, hundreds are assaulted and thousands are verbally abused. Some of the murders and most savage assaults are covered by the media. Some are barely noticed. The rest of the physical and verbal abuse tends not to register on the general public. Sometimes intolerance manifests itself as simple indifference to the plight of others.

The asylum debate in many industrialised countries is essentially a public debate, with politicians responding to what they perceive to be the mood of their electorates. The numbers of both refugees and asylum seekers are at their lowest levels for 13 years. In the view of the UNHCR, the UK now has the time and the space to take a more rational approach to the management of asylum, and to make a concerted effort to dispel some of the hysteria surrounding this issue." [396]

342. Oxfam told us that "media monitoring and research on the media around asylum and refugee issues continues to show much misrepresentation and negative portrayal that is having negative effects in communities in terms of harassment and racial abuse."[397] It further stated that "asylum seekers and refugees have faced increased racial abuse, harassment and attacks throughout the country especially since the dispersal policy began in 1999. Media vilification can be shown to have increased locally, and especially nationally, through the tabloid press in the same period. This has been born out in research and acknowledged by organisations such as the CRE and ACPO issuing guidance and support in this area." [398] Oxfam also pointed out that in accordance with Article 10 ECHR, all individuals, including refugees and asylum seekers, have a right to freedom of expression and access to information and that this implies that a full range of refugee voices and information about refugees and asylum seekers should be reflected in the UK national and local media. [399]

343. Oxfam mentioned a range of good practice, including positive initiatives by press organisations such as Presswise/Mediawise, work by the NUJ in supporting refugee media support networks with the voluntary sector and the National Refugee Integration Forum. However it added that there had not been enough positive articulation, advocacy or discussion at a political level around the issues of the independence of the press, freedom of speech, balance and impartiality and objectivity.

344. The CRE believed that the reporting of asylum issues in the UK press had implications for good race relations, potentially shaping the way in which sections of the public viewed asylum seekers, refugees, new migrants and even ethnic minorities more broadly. [400] It noted that "in certain high-circulation newspapers coverage of asylum in recent years has often been disproportionate, inaccurate and hostile" and that "a significant finding of research on asylum seekers/refugees and the British media has been the repetitive use of certain terms and types of language. Asylum seekers are described as a "flood" or "wave" and as "bogus" or "fraudulent".[401] The CRE suggested that such coverage ran the risk of promoting hostility not just towards asylum seekers but new migrants in general, and even established ethnic minority communities. It also suggested that the biased reporting of tabloid newspapers influenced perceptions and engendered feelings of cynicism in immigration caseworkers which in turn affected their decision making on individual cases concerning entry and asylum.[402] The CRE drew attention to some examples of good practice, including its own Race in the Media awards scheme, and local projects, such as one run by the Leicester Mercury newspaper, which aimed to foster a more informed and positive debate on race issues.[403]

345. Liberty stated that "some sections of the media … from across the political spectrum, have misrepresented asylum seekers as a homogeneous group of scroungers, a drain on state resources, a threat to British identity and even a danger to our health and security." [404] It added that "the press has also provided an important mechanism for telling compelling stories of individual asylum seekers, vital to the pressing need to re-humanise this group of people" and that the local media had played a particularly important role in this. [405] Liberty also pointed out that the press had provided "an important mechanism for telling the compelling stories of individual asylum seekers, vital to the need to re-humanise this group of people."[406] It added that the local media in particular had played an important role in this and had provided support for groups campaigning against the destitution, detention and removal of local asylum seekers and families.[407]

346. The Scottish Refugee Policy Forum stated that "inaccurate media stories often have direct consequences for our members who are more likely to be victims of racist attacks when they are published". [408] We have seen recent newspaper stories which describe such racist attacks in Glasgow, and note that the Scottish Executive study has labelled the level of racist harassment as "shocking". [409] The Forum believed that "media outlets should recognise their own role in perpetrating human rights abuses or potential abuses. Every pogrom, every genocide depends on convincing the majority community that it is acceptable to persecute the minority. The British media need to be made to confront the extent to which they are part of this and take responsibility. Communicating the truth is all we ask." It added that "we must congratulate the media outlets who work against this trend as many do".[410] A MORI survey conducted in 2004 indicated that the media was the primary source from which Scots gained their knowledge of asylum issues, but that one in two Scots did not feel that the reporting of asylum issues by newspapers is fair and accurate.[411]

347. Recent research by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR) suggested that although coverage had improved, there was still a preoccupation with negative issues:

"there has been an overall improvement in press coverage since the Press Complaints Council Commission (PCC) introduced new guidance for journalists. The investigation found inaccurate terminology in just one per cent of articles surveyed and only a small number potentially breached existing guidelines. However, coverage in all papers suggests journalists are preoccupied with a system in "chaos" rather than (potentially more enlightening) discussion about the context of asylum - though this may be attributable to the priorities of politicians rather than international media bias."[412]

348. The UK Independent Race Monitor's report in 2005 expressed concern about the potential for hostile news coverage to affect immigration decision making:

"As indicated in my previous reports I am concerned about the effect of hostile, inaccurate and derogatory press comment and comments by a few politicians. I do not doubt that this negative atmosphere can affect decision-making on individual cases, as it makes caution and suspicion more likely. The Government has an important role to play in helping to set the tone and encouraging balanced and well-informed discussions on immigration. Repeated references to abuse and reducing the numbers of asylum applicants tend to reinforce popular misconceptions that abuse is enormous in scale when in fact it is a small proportion of people who enter the UK."

349. We are concerned about the negative impact of hostile reporting and in particular the effects that it can have on individual asylum seekers and the potential it has to influence the decision making of officials and Government policy. We are also concerned about the possibility of a link between hostile reporting by the media and physical attacks on asylum seekers.

350. Newspaper representatives told us that they believed their coverage of asylum seekers was appropriate. Mr Peter Hill, Editor, The Daily Express told us "We … approach the issue of asylum with an agenda we believe to be in the public interest and make no apology for doing so. As a newspaper we are sceptical about the impact of the asylum system on national life and indeed about the alleged benefits of continued large scale immigration in general. In this we reflect the overwhelming views of our readers." [413] Mr Robin Esser, Managing Editor, The Daily Mail stated that "It is the duty of the media to report on crimes, no matter by whom they may be committed. It is also our task to report on failures of Government, public and local government services when they have failed in their duty of care to the tax-payers who fund their activities and the voters who put them there to do a job." [414] Mr Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor, The Guardian explained that:

"We certainly not only publish letters from asylum seekers, but have interviewed them and talked about why they have come to Britain and what conditions they are living in in Britain. We also talk to people who are threatened by asylum seekers and who protest about say putting an accommodation centre in their neighbourhood. We have talked to people directly and reported their views and we print letters by them." [415]

351. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) did not accept that there was a major problem. It told us:

"The number of complaints (received by the PCC) does not reveal a huge groundswell of concern about them from people against the national press, given that they can complain about issues to do with accuracy, privacy, intrusion, discrimination about individuals and so on." [416]

The rights and responsibilities of the press

352. The Article 10 ECHR right to freedom of expression carries certain duties and responsibilities, and may be subject to restrictions, including those required for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.[417] The PCC explained that all of its work "takes place against the backdrop of the considerable rights to freedom of expression that the press rightly enjoys - which can in turn lead to instances of robust reporting on any number of public policy issues, with which people may disagree". [418] The Commission oversees a Code of Practice which acts both as a set of rules for journalists for the interpretation of such restrictions and a framework under which members of the public can complain. The PCC explained that it did not write the Code itself; there is a separate committee of editors that writes the Code, and charges the PCC with enforcing it. [419]

353. The PCC stated that Clause 1(Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice were relevant for regulation of asylum issues. The wording of those Clauses is as follows:

"Clause 1: The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published.

Clause 12: The Press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability. Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story."

The PCC also provided a copy of its Guidance Note on Refugees and Asylum Seekers which draws attention to the need for care in the terminology used when describing refugees and asylum seekers.

354. The PCC believes that the mechanisms in place work effectively. It provided two examples of upheld complaints concerning asylum seekers (issued in 1999 and 2000) which it says "gave an important signal to the whole of the press" and that "it has not been necessary to issue similar rulings for some time":

"The important thing is that there is a mechanism in place for handling complaints from anybody who is affected by inaccurate or intrusive reporting. Such complaints in turn help to raise standards generally. In the context of your inquiry, therefore, I believe that the current system fairly and effectively balances the rights of freedom of expression with other rights such as the right to respect for privacy."[420]

355. Newspaper editors told us that their staff were aware of, and abided by the PCC guidance. Mr Peter Hill told us that "all my staff are perfectly aware of the PCC and its rules and guidance. They know perfectly well, and I constantly reinforce this message, that we must be truthful in what we say." [421] Mr Robin Esser said that "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". [422]

356. The ICAR research suggested that the PCC's guidance note had been helpful, but that there was room for improvement:

"…the Guidance Note has been helpful in identifying and proscribing terms that are erroneous. However such terms were only found infrequently before the Note was introduced, and they have not been eradicated completely. In giving only one specific example the Guidance Note has missed an opportunity to prevent a range of alternative erroneous terms being used, suggesting a residue of lazy journalism and poor understanding of the legal framework governing asylum applications. Inaccuracy was more frequent in the top six papers … which would suggest PCC Guidance is having least impact on the widely circulating papers."[423]

357. The CRE did not consider that the PCC's guidance had been sufficient to prevent negative and prejudicial reporting, particularly in the tabloid media, and that it had not helped to reduce community tensions. [424] The CRE wrote to the PCC in April 2006, proposing two amendments to the Code of Practice; including "gross exaggeration" in the scope of Clause 1 and amending Clause 12 to widen the prohibition of discrimination to include racial, ethnic or religious groups. The PCC Editor's Code of Practice Committee declined to make the suggested amendments suggested by the CRE.

358. The Equality and Diversity Forum (a network of national organisations including the CRE) also wrote to the PCC in 2005 to ask that it consider "the potential to address inflammatory reporting through the Code", stating that Clauses 1 and 12 had apparently "not proved sufficient to prevent the kind of reporting we have seen for instance of Gypsies, Muslims or refugees". The Forum wrote again in February 2006, suggesting that the word "exaggerated" be added to Clause 1 (Accuracy) and proposing an additional clause in the Code:

"The press must avoid gratuitous pejorative reference to an ethnic or faith community or other section of society, where that reference is likely to generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility not justified by the facts."[425]

359. The PCC Editor's Code of Practice Committee rejected the suggestion of adding "exaggerated" to Clause 1, stating that it was already covered by the description "distortion". It also rejected the suggested additional clause because it "would effectively be allowing complaints from groups, rather than individuals":

"The Committee continues to believe that allowing complaints from groups could seriously inhibit freedom of expression, which in a diverse and plural media should be as broad as possible. We believe that it is right that in a free society editors should be left to exercise their judgment and there is ample evidence that they do so."[426]

360. Mr Tim Toulmin, Director, PCC told us the suggestion that Clause 12 might be widened so as to protect groups as well as individuals was "a very timely suggestion because representations are currently being invited by (the) committee to make suggestions about how the code might be improved", [427] but added that the issue had been considered before and that the committee had "not come up with a form of words that protects their right to freedom of expression, including the rights to make jokes about groups of people, for instance, whilst at the same time addressing the issue with which you are concerned."[428] Mr Toulmin added that "the philosophical basis of (the Code) is about protecting named individuals" and suggested[429] that objections about groups were generally better dealt with under Clause 1 (Accuracy).

361. Oxfam believed that the PCC guidance "remains too general and weak and is disappointing in its enforcement".[430] The UNHCR agreed, stating that "while the introduction of PCC guidance was welcomed, the guidance needs strengthening and should take account of new shifts in media representation".[431] It judged the guidance to have been of "mixed success" and recommended that it be reissued with an accompanying media campaign to boost awareness amongst the press, and that the language in the guidance be made more robust and wide-ranging to take into account recently emerging patterns in press coverage such as the conflation of asylum, migration and terror issues.

362. When asked whether the current system of regulation was adequate, the PCC's view was that "the specific complaints we get are the basis on which we were set up, to deal with complaints from individuals and their representatives" [432] and that the PCC would be reluctant to extend Clause 12 to cover groups as well as individuals:

"My chairman does sit on the PCC Committee of Editors. His view would also be that he would be very reluctant to see an extension of Clause 12 to cover groups as well. In matters of freedom of expression, we have to be extremely cautious. There are remedies available to deal with this problem. Perhaps the PCC could be rather more vigorous as a regulator rather than as a mediator in these cases."[433]

363. We note that other jurisdictions have included more robust protection for groups within a framework of self regulation and freedom of expression and recommend that the PCC draws on best practice from overseas. The right to free speech is sacrosanct in the USA, but has not prevented the media from working within a Code which provides protection for vulnerable groups. For example, the Code of Ethics from the US Society of Professional Journalists includes the imperatives to "Tell the story of diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so" and to "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labelled and not misrepresent fact or context". [434]

364. We cherish the fundamental right to free speech and the freedom of the press and support self regulation. As the editors who gave evidence to us recognise, the right to free speech and the freedom of the press are not absolute, but must be exercised in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of the media. The evidence we received from the PCC was not reassuring. Its existing system is not sufficiently robust to protect asylum seekers and other vulnerable minorities from the adverse effects of unfair and inflammatory media stories.

365. If the system of self regulation is to work properly, the PCC should give proper guidance on the professional standards that need to be followed in communicating information and ideas on matters of legitimate public importance and concern. This is especially important when dealing with issues involving highly vulnerable minorities, including ethnic minorities and asylum seekers, whether failed or otherwise. In the USA respected bodies of journalists have agreed upon practical guidelines in this area. The PCC has not drawn on those guidelines or issued guidelines of its own.

366. The PCC Code focuses on the individual complainant's treatment but fails to give relevant guidance. To focus solely on individual complaints ignores the vital responsibility of the press to act in accordance with proper professional standards. The notion of "responsible journalism" is well known to UK law in the context of qualified privilege and could easily be developed more generally within the Code. We therefore recommend that the PCC should reconsider its position with a view to providing practical guidance on how the profession of journalism should comply with its duties and responsibilities in reporting matters of legitimate public interest and concern. We emphasise that such guidance must not unduly restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the press any more than similar guidance does in the USA.

367. The media can reasonably claim that it is their duty to report political comment. If this comment on the subject of asylum seekers is in itself inflammatory or inaccurate, this gives cover to some newspapers to stigmatise asylum seekers in a way that is not conducive to good race relations or fair treatment of this vulnerable group.[435] We recommend that Ministers recognise their responsibility to use measured language so as not to give ammunition to those who seek to build up resentment against asylum seekers, nor to give the media the excuse to write inflammatory or misleading articles.

368. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population has stated that "it is clear that despite in principle being afforded protection under anti-discrimination and anti-racism legislation, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees remain in a situation of potential vulnerability and are often the victims of abusive and unfair representations in the media". It commented on the positive effects of "projects aimed at guaranteeing greater representation of migrants and refugees in the media" and stated that "these projects merit ongoing support and funding."[436]

369. Newspaper editors indicated their willingness to publish such stories. Mr Hill said "…if you get any of those stories I will look at them and I am quite willing to publish them … we publish many positive things about people who have come to this country and many great success stories." [437] Mr Esser, agreed, saying "we would welcome such stories and indeed we have published some. It would be a very good idea if those organisations who exist to help asylum seekers told us about them instead of writing letters of complaint, often on spurious matters. They could forget the arguments about terminology in the odd headline and tell us some good, positive stories." [438]

370. The ICAR research suggested that the Home Office could play a part in promoting more balanced reporting:

"The emerging internal media debate is a window of opportunity for the Home Office to build partnerships and engage the many stakeholders to promote a more balanced view of asylum. This would also help balance the currently one-sided use of sources that tend to reflect immigration control rather than integration. However, there may be a problem in that the tone of political debate has been criticised for being "wretched, squalid and shameful". With poor standards and strong views being concentrated in the most popular papers this means the highest standards of reporting are not reaching the widest audience. However, given that this group are often out of step with the rest of the press there may be opportunities for the Home Office and partners to exert pressure on them to act more responsibly."[439]

371. We were pleased to learn about the positive impact of projects which aim to encourage more considered reporting of asylum seeker issues, and provide a voice for asylum seekers. We are encouraged to hear that newspaper editors would be prepared to publish more such stories, and suggest their willingness to do so should be supported by those working with asylum seekers, submitting positive stories for reporting by them. We support the recent recommendation from the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees that the Home Office should encourage newspapers to act more responsibly, and we recommend that the Home Office lend its support to the networks and award schemes working in this area.

392   Appendix 69. Back

393   Fourteenth Report of Session 2004-05, The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, HL 88/HC 471, paras 59-63. Back

394   UNHCR Refugees magazine Number 142 'Victims of Intolerance'. Back

395   Appendix 73. Back

396   ibidBack

397   Appendix 66. Back

398   ibidBack

399   ibidBack

400   Appendix 10. Back

401   ibidBack

402   ibidBack

403   ibidBack

404   Appendix 75. Back

405   ibidBack

406   ibidBack

407   ibidBack

408   Appendix 71. Back

409   BBC Scotland 5 March 2007, Asylum seekers targeted by gangsBack

410   Appendix 71. Back

411   Scottish attitudes towards the reporting of asylum issues, Ipsos MORI, 16 November 2004. Back

412   Reporting Asylum: The UK Press and the Effectiveness of PCC Guidelines, ICAR, March 2006 Back

413   Appendix 81. Back

414   Appendix 79. Back

415   Q239 Back

416   Q333 Back

417   Article 10(2) ECHR expressly states that the exercise of the rights in Article 10(1) "carries with it duties and responsibilities". Back

418   Appendix 76. Back

419   Q342 Back

420   Appendix 76. Back

421   Q265. Back

422   Q269. Back

423   Reporting Asylum, ICAR, op. citBack

424   Appendix 10. Back

425   Appendix 9. Back

426   Appendix 90. Back

427   Q342. Back

428   ibidBack

429   Q343. Back

430   Appendix 66. Back

431   Appendix 73. Back

432   Q362. Back

433   Q369. Back

434 Back

435   See e.g. reports of the Home Secretary's comments on 7 March 2007. Back

436   The image of asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees in the media, Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, Back

437   Q327, Q329. Back

438   Q329. Back

439   Reporting Asylum, ICAR, op.citBack

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