Abdulwahab Tahhan is a researcher and occasionally a standup comedian, raised in Aleppo, Syria and now based in London. He’s currently doing a pilot podcast Integrate That to give a voice to the refugees and allow them to own the narrative of their stories. Abdul is an associate of the Refugee Journalism Project, an initiative that supports exiled and displaced journalists to re-build their careers in the UK.
There is much that can be said about the UK Government’s latest response to the asylum seekers who have been witnessed crossing the English Channel from France in make-shift boats over the past few weeks. Boris Johnson has called for them to be “sent back to France”, ignoring France’s poor record in offering an effective asylum process. At the time of writing, our Prime Minister is now contemplating mobilising the armed forces to assist in the fight against this so-called invasion.
Leaving aside this inflammatory and inappropriate political response, what must be called out is the way that some sectors of the press are choosing to cover these crossings. It seems as though the hot summer sun has evaporated humanity and ethical reporting. I have read too many reports where asylum seekers arriving at our shores have been described in unsavoury terms, when the truth is that most arrive with nothing but their clothes and dreams of having a better life after fleeing persecution and injustice.
What upset me the most has not been the response of the tabloids – we have unfortunately become too accustomed to their brazen othering and racist tropes when reporting on asylum seekers and refugees – it has been the response of the tax-payer funded BBC, and Sky News.
On the 10th August, BBC Breakfast News covered the story of the migrants crossing the Channel using the most sensational tactics and seemingly throwing all the ethical rules that govern journalism out of the window. The reporter – who I imagine has probably never had to flee his home in fear of persecution, imprisonment or death – was on a boat in the Channel. His vessel tracks a rubber dingy full of people, draws up alongside and starts to interrogate them. He shouts out to ask them where they are from and if they are “OK”.
From the viewers’ perspective, the vessel looks overloaded, they are struggling to keep it on course, and they can be seen emptying water with a bucket from inside the boat. This “journalistic” approach of cruising alongside a vessel carrying asylum seekers was also used by Sky News. In their report, the viewer clearly hears the migrants shout out “No camera” but the so- called journalist chooses to ignore this request and the camera continues to film at them while the journalist fires questions.
Unsurprisingly, a backlash against these sensational tactics followed on social media. The BBC’s response was that at no point did their crew put the vessel in danger and that the local coast guards were aware of the situation. I think they are missing the point.
The rule of law is almost non-existent in Syria, where I am from. It is something that I pride myself in having and being part of in the UK. However, this recent press coverage has been anything but professional or ethical. It may also be a breach of International Law not to assist a vessel in distress at sea.
The idea that you film people in this manner suggests that you have no regard for their rights as human beings. Surely a journalist should not put their interviewee in danger at any time, and by pursuing them in a dingy and ignoring their request for privacy, some codes of fair play have been breached? Asylum seekers, once again, do not seem to have the same rights as other people. They are being wilfully dehumanised.
The code of conduct set up by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) states that a journalist:
4- Differentiates between fact and opinion.
6- Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress, unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.
9- Produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.
My view is that the above guidance was broken. The Sky News reporter claimed that they were “immigrants”, which is an opinion or a speculation, not a fact. Both reports intruded in the people’s private lives and filmed their distress. The reports could also fuel hatred and discrimination against immigrants and asylum seekers and their legal status.
The press also seems to relish in the feeling of catching these assailants in the act. This is also visible in the recent reports describing the make-shift vessels the asylum seekers have been sailing in. Stories of boats made of lemonade bottles, garden shovels for paddles and floating paddling pools have been constructed in a way that can only leave readers amused by how stupid these people are, rather than understanding the wider context of migration.
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to cross from one country to another on a dingy. It is a risk that people take when they are facing very dark moments and are prepared to do whatever they can to have a better life. Asylum seekers have rights which are protected by law. Depicting them as enemies and invaders only widens societal divisions and emboldens the extreme right-wing agenda. The press has a duty and responsibility. Ignoring these responsibilities, and endangering the life of asylum seekers is despicable, dangerous and unethical.
So, what needs to be done about it?
The Ethical Journalism Network has shared a five point guideline for journalists covering migrants which emphasize on fighting hatred and showing humanity. Filming people in distress and shouting at them was a very inhuman thing to be shown recently on live TV in the UK. This guidance is very help
The industry needs to accelerate having more diverse newsrooms where people with refugee or migrant backgrounds have the ability to honestly feed into the editorial decision making and voice concerns or discontent. Some argue that they cannot find enough diverse journalists. That simply isn’t true – the UK is full of refugees and migrants who happen to be professional journalists. Newsrooms just need to look a bit harder.
Hacked Off comment:
As Abdulwahab says, there is a long history of unethical reporting on migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in some parts of the press. This has a dehumanising effect on individuals and a corrupting effect on political debate about immigration.
Initiatives like the excellent Refugee Journalism Project and others which seek to promote newsroom diversity are a critical part of the solution.
Hacked Off campaign for all newspapers to be independently regulated, which would introduce meaningful accountability for newspapers over inaccuracies and discriminatory coverage in relation to migrants and refugees.
Too often, reporters are instructed by executives and editors to work in an unethical way. Regulation is vital to raising standards.