'Absolutely outrageous' press coverage

18 March 2016

Right but impulsive: Archbishop Welby on the front of Monday’s Daily Mail

Right but impulsive: Archbishop Welby on the front of Monday’s Daily Mail

THE Archbishop of Canterbury got a brisk lesson in how the media works when he said that it was “absolutely outrageous” to suppose that all the fear of immigration in Britain was racist.

He’s right, of course. But the reaction of the right-wing press showed that some of that fear most certainly is.

The best headline was The Sun’s “God it wrong” — above the even better one on a story about Madonna apparently drunk on stage “Like a third gin”. The Sun is particularly interesting because it shows how these stories are told around and between the words.

The lead was that “Worries about mass immigration are completely reasonable and it is ‘outrageous’ to brand anxious Brits racist, the Archbishop of Canterbury said last night.” Apart from the fact that he didn’t say it “last night”, this is true as far as it goes.

But it is printed against a picture that shows a crowd of desperate brown-skinned young men in a shanty town reaching and grabbing towards the camera, either for something being handed out from a truck, or trying to climb on to it. The picture tells exactly the sort of fear which we are being told is not racist.

Of course it is racist. It is a picture of brown people trying to take what white people have. It is not an illustration the Archbishop can have had in mind.

The Express was less imaginative, as you’d expect. Its coverage consisted of extracts from the Archbishop mashed up with talking points from the paper’s editorial line. “Prime Minister David Cameron has failed in his attempt to reduce net migration to fewer than 100,000.”

This led to a particularly bizarre swerve, where the Archbishop “suggested that despite his comments on ‘fear’, Britain should be willing to take more refugees. He highlighted the number taken by Germany where there were problems of ‘Arabic’ men sexually abusing white women, forcing Angela Merkel’s government to rethink its open-door policy.”

The paper helpfully adds: “One way to tackle immigration into the UK is to leave the EU and regain control of Britain’s borders. However, Archbishop Welby refused to take sides over the referendum.”

The Express did at least acknowledge that the Archbishop had appealed for Britain to take more immigrants from Syria. No one who reads the whole interview could doubt that he raised the subject of widespread fear of immigration in a context that suggested it was unjustified, and that the Government should do more to address it, and to solve the real problems that can be caused.

The ingenious John Bingham dug up a story he’d written from 2014, which started: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned politicians who speak of immigration as a ‘deep menace’ which will ‘overwhelm’ the country for voicing un-Christian and un-British rhetoric.

“The Archbishop, whose grandfather came to Britain as a German Jew, said clergy across the country are reporting an upsurge in ‘frightening’ racist language in their communities. . . The Archbishop said it was wrong to view immigration as ‘something that is somehow going to overwhelm’ Britain.”

So what has changed? Nothing, in terms of what the Archbishop is actually saying. The only thing new in his interview, so far as I can tell, was the stress on the religious dimension of conflicts around the world, especially as most of the examples he chose involved Muslims.

But the world around has changed in the past 18 months, and so has the debate. We are in the run-up to a referendum where people’s views on the EU seem to track their views on immigration more closely than anything else. The crisis in Europe and Syria is very much greater, and shows no sign of ending soon.

As a general rule, people are interested most of all in news about themselves and those close to them. This is one reason why they spend so much more time on Facebook than on newspaper websites.

The readers of the right-wing press worry about immigration, and in that part of the interview, the Archbishop was talking about them. So, the correct decision was to pick up that as the newsworthy bit. The take-home for opponents of immigration was that it’s not necessarily racist to be afraid. So for them, the Archbishop was saying they were good people.

This is news they can use — at the same time as it was presented in a way that made it clear that lots of them do have profoundly racist objections to immigration. You can’t win.

More to the point, you can’t control how your words will be used. People are always complaining that they have been quoted out of context — but that’s almost the only way anything newsworthy ever gets quoted.

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