Book Review: Greg Philo, Emma Bryant, Pauline Donald – Bad News for Refugees
Pluto Press, 224 pp
With the passing of Nelson Mandela last week and the tributes that naturally flowed, we found ourselves venturing a few tentative steps toward the radioactive core of a subject that we generally prefer scrupulously to avoid. Racism, in most contexts, is too emotive, too awkward and difficult to discuss, openly, in polite society. Not always. In some contexts, it carries a sanitised ring, such as the initiatives of sporting bodies to ‘Show Racism The Red Card’ or with the cool gaze that history affords when we remember Rosa Parks or Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Racism can only be talked about safely when we have weakened and defanged it or imagine we have it hoisted up on poles and conveyed in triumph. Yet when we are asked if the scourge is real, alive and present, we grow diffident, our eyes rheumy with embarrassment and tongues disconnected.
It is hard to identify quite how and why racism became just so much cacology. Is it due to the colonial history of the British Empire? Is it due to our murky history of the slave trade? Was it post-colonial migration and the ‘multicultural experiment’, as much as it appears to have been effected without Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’? Is it that we fear we may all be found culpable, if pressed too closely, in some shameful Kafkaesque way?
Bad News for Refugees, published by Pluto Press in 2013, steps into territory that prima facie appears well trodden, presenting a case that the subject of forced migration and asylum serves a media agenda of scaremongering and scapegoating that conceals truth and feeds social division. Its methodology will be familiar to readers already conversant with More Bad News for Israel (2011) and the Glasgow Media Group. This holds that in any controversial arena there will exist a number of different narrative perspectives. The thematic exposition preferred by the authors is to articulate these different perspectives and examine how some are well-served by media output while others are overlooked or offered only in fragments.
Yet Bad News for Refugees goes much further than this to question how such media behaviour affects public perception and in turn informs political debate and public policy. Its power lies in its solidly researched evidence that treatment meted out to refugees and asylum seekers – the chain of legislation aimed at undermining asylum applications and imposing degrading and inhuman conditions while these applications are considered – is the direct and concrete expression of the prism on the issue that the media presents.
Earlier this year Medhi Hasan appearing on the BBC’s Question Time issued a blistering attack on the Daily Mail in the wake of their leader attacking Ralph Miliband as ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’. The full two minute salvo marks itself out as one of the stand out political media moments of 2013 and was as welcome as it was unexpected. In their coverage of the fallout, the Guardian newspaper observed how Ed Miliband, by submitting his own article, marked a departure with previous politicians in demonstrating the courage to stand up against the frequent calumnies perpetrated by that media organ, which others had routinely considered too powerful to confront.
The Labour leader will naturally have had his own reasons for doing so, yet when considering where we arrive when we fail to challenge that which we know to be wrong, the echoes of 1920s and 1930s Germany provide ample warning. Once again, from the coolroom of history we can sketch out how a population that had been led to believe it was winning the First World War was told it had been ‘sold down the river’ by a generation of politicians, was impacted by punitive reparations that contributed to hyperinflation, was radicalised by an environment where politics polarised to left and right and which led to the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
In particular the period offers a warning of what happens when liberal opinion loses its nerve, when those who abhorred Hitler and the politics he stood for and denounced him in their sitting rooms, felt cowed into silent complicity as the policies of ghettoisation and the pursuit of war and the Final Solution were put in place. The well-rehearsed epigram by Pastor Niemöller tells us as much. It is the mark of a civilised society that the strong stand up for the weak and vulnerable, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because only we can.
Bad News For Refugees demolishes the myths around asylum and forced migration, the ‘ineligibility myth’, the ‘cost myth’, the ‘social cost myth’, the ‘criminality myth’. Instead it offers us the counterpoint to these myths. The fact that forced displacement is a growing problem that impacts overwhelmingly on neighbouring countries that are ill-equipped to manage it – one need only look at the terrible conditions at refugees camps on the Turkish border with Syria. The fact that it is caused by policies, political, economic and environmental, that are the direct result of the choices our own nations make in our name. The fact that our nations can do much more to ease the plight of those whose loss of life, home and livelihood is the consequences of things we have done and continue to do.
It presents us with a choice of the kind country we wish to live in. One where our moral responsibility is embraced or is abdicated, where those in real humanitarian need are welcomed or turned away, where the future is constructed on fear and where that leads or hope and where that leads. As we remember Nelson Mandela in the next few days, if we wish to celebrate his example and emulate the choices he made for his nation when we meet ours, then this skilful and often brilliant exposé on news and media culture may provide a timely watershed.