MOST mornings, when I stroll round the corner to our newsagent, I find the owner, Mr Patel (yes, really), poring over the Daily Mail or the Telegraph. He greets me cheerily as he hands me my Guardian, and this week he offered me his latest solution to the migrants crisis. Pointing to the picture on Monday’s front page of a boatload of migrants arriving on the Greek island of Kos, his latest suggestions involved torpedoeing the boats in the Mediterranean, fire-bombing the camp in Calais, or bricking up the Channel Tunnel.
In this, he differs only by degree from some of the newspapers he sells — or, indeed, the Prime Minister, who dehumanises the refugees when he speaks of swarms; or the Foreign Secretary, who bemoans marauding migrants that threaten “our” standard of living.
The Immigration Minister, the appropriately named James Brokenshire, also revealed a hitherto unappreciated sympathy for the low paid by saying, in an interview in The Times, also on Monday, that migrants would drive down British wages. This would be if they ever get to the land of milk and honey, where, Tuesday’s Guardian reported, trafficked Lithuanian migrants are suing a Kentish gang-master for treating them like slaves as they worked on chicken farms.
IT IS no wonder that there is so much dog-whistle politicking when you see the daily coverage. Some of the sanest writing has come from the former BBC journalist Robin Lustig — what a shame he has retired from the Corporation — who pointed out the generally overlooked fact that very few of the tens of thousands of migrants arriving on the shores of southern Europe want to come to Britain, and those that do usually have a good reason for doing so, and quite often speak reasonably good English, which is why they make good interviewees.
Lustig pointed out that his parents, too, were illegal immigrants, both of them single and unskilled, and fleeing a tyrannical regime — in their case, Hitler’s. They even overstayed their leave to remain, as by then they were serving in the British army. His grandmother, aged 41, was refused entry because she was considered too old, and was later shot by the Nazis.
Lustig gently added a quote from a newspaper about “German Jews pouring into this country”, which reported a magistrate as saying: “The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage” (the Daily Mail, of course, in 1938). At least in those days they managed to reach British ports. Lustig’s column was on the Huffington Post website.
THE Church of England has left most recent comment to the Bishop of Dover — Bishop Trev, as we know him in our part of east Kent — who pleaded in The Observer for greater understanding that every human being matters, but the papers have generally happily ignored such milksoppery. That was until the news that the BBC had filmed Songs of Praise from the migrant camp, and the tabloids had a reassuringly familiar bête noire to blame. Suddenly, the migrants became victims.
“BBC accused of putting migrants’ families at risk,” boomed the Express, above a report by Rob Virtue. An Eritrean priest was quoted as saying that identifying individuals on the programmes would put their families at risk back home; so, just to make sure, the papers printed his name in full.
Naturally the Mail and Express went in, boots flying at the programme’s temerity, although they had to work hard at it. They rounded up the reliable Tory rentaquote MP Andrew Rosindell, who supplied a deliciously circumlocutory response: “The BBC should be careful not to start looking as if they are making political points out of this.”
They also resorted to quoting one David Little, who turns out to be the (defeated) UKIP candidate for Dover — not that he was identified as such — saying, naturally: “The sooner this waste of public money is scrapped the better”; and an equally obscure figure, Jo Hugh, who regretted the “loss of Songs of Praise as a hub of heartfelt, prayerful singing; now it’s performance and indoctrination”.
I bet Ms Hugh watches every week, just to be annoyed. The Mail dug deep in the cuttings to claim that the most inoffensive programme on television had courted controversy before, as recently as October 1982, when it broadcast a service from HM Prison Strangeways. These Christians, always poking themselves into everything, as Lord Melbourne told Queen Victoria.
BACK at my newsagent’s, Mr Patel is still chuntering on about “bloody immigrants”. He probably only does it to wind up bien-pensant readers of The Guardian. I murmured that, as a Ugandan Asian, he, too, had once been a migrant. “Ah, but we came by plane,” he replied, as if that made all the difference.
I may have to take my custom elsewhere — one Guardian sale a day less: that’ll teach him.
Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian. His book Royalty Inc. will be published by Aurum next month.
Andrew Brown is away.