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Comment: Press bias is dictating our response to the refugee crisis

Ilias Bartolini

The political leanings of publications are hardly kept secret. In fact, they are so widely understood that the newspapers people read are helpful indicators of how likely we are to get on with them.

And though we all realistically read bits of everything, we use our general loyalty to certain papers to subtly communicate our allegiances and biases to the world.

This is a cute and quirky aspect of our culture – however, does it have any place in situations that are legitimately life-or-death matters?

The dark side of ideologically-driven reporting is surfacing as the refugee crisis gathers steam. Interestingly, the problem isn’t just about the coverage of the current crisis, but about the role various publications have historically had in disseminating anti-immigration rhetoric.


Unfortunately, it can’t in good conscience be said that the right and left wing reporters are as bad as each other: the right wing media, with its scaremongering tactics and misreporting of crucial facts, may well be contributing to the currently stubborn cultural refusal to absorb new refugees.

Perhaps it isn’t a co-incidence that in Germany (the EU country that has been the most willing and quickest to relax its migration policies in response to the crisis), the two most popular newspapers (Die Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung) are centre-left, whereas the UK (among the slowest to respond to the crisis) boasts The Sun (a tabloid) and The Daily Mail (right-leaning) as its most widely read publications.

We can do a quick (highly unscientific but somewhat telling) assessment of how our most popular publications might be influencing public perception of the crisis: at the time of writing this article, the articles about the crisis most easily found on the Daily Mail’s website (none very prominent) are: an account of the Hungarian camerawoman caught tripping refugee children defending herself, a warning that Europe can expect “millions and millions” more refugees, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the whole situation.

(In all fairness, Cumberbatch had some very progressive and critical views on the subject – however, the public may have been better served by some hard facts or an expert take on the issue.)

However, the problem at hand is larger than current coverage of the crisis – misconceptions about the crisis are already deeply embedded into the Western psyche. Before the crisis even began, many people’s views on it were already decided – and these views were largely informed (or supported) by a long history of the subtle skewing of stories, subtle misrepresentations of the facts, and minor failures to report key issues. For instance, there is the widespread notion that illegal immigrants are “taking European jobs” (impossible, as common sense could tell anyone with even a cursory understanding of the realities of the job market), and the ongoing series of lies and uneducated guesses spewing forth from the public officials tasked with managing public policy.

David Miliband says “a single change in rhetoric could help turn the tide of public opinion in favour of refugees”– and this change in rhetoric cannot come about until the right, and its sycophantic media, repairs its complicated relationship with the truth. (NB: hyperlink is one of many examples).

Beyond Britain

This is impossible if reporting of the crisis remains anecdotal and driven by anti-immigrant ideology. It doesn’t matter if the Hungarian camerawoman isn’t normally the type of person that trips people (though, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, sometimes you really should judge a person by their one-offs). What matters is that she’s representative of the underlying tension we seem to perceive between refugees’ interests and the well-being of the European people that are already here. Her entirely ridiculous sense that she “was being attacked” and “had to defend herself” (by a man whose arms were both occupied by carrying his son, and by an eight-year-old girl – both attempting to run away from people like her) is symbolic of a greater paranoia (and, let’s face it, xenophobia) experienced by the continent at large.

While the EU may perceive its identity and economy as being threatened by refugees, the actual numbers of refugees make up a negligible percentage of the EU’s overall population – about 0.027% this year. The tension between European well-being and refugee well-being is illusory. Also, as ISIS grows stronger, other countries should be asserting their strength, and proving that they have something more substantial to offer humanity than ISIS. Turning refugees away or treating them inhumanely if they remain do not exactly project warmth and respect for human life (especially when all good decisions are made largely because of peer pressure, with an “oh, fine, then” attitude). The threat of ISIS expansion has to be countered with the two things ISIS unequivocally lacks, and will never be able to get its hands on: humanity and compassion.

A few countries have done a good job of this so far: Lebanon, for example, which is reaching its saturation point for absorbing refugees. Europe would do well to follow this example before these countries crack under pressure and become vulnerable to unsavoury influences.

Practical considerations aside, there is a moral dilemma present here: why should Western countries, with their own host of domestic problems, bother helping out in this crisis? The answer is simple: because they are partly to blame for it. Western publications (with the exception of a few, including a good summary of the issue by Vox) seem to be glossing over the West’s responsibility for this crisis (and the plethora of mini-crises that eventually collided together to form this mammoth one). Here are two aspects of Europe’s role in the immediate crisis:

  1. The EU used to pay Gadhafi to ensure that refugees did not make it into the EU through Libya. In other words, the EU literally paid for the rape, torture and myriad violent acts committed against people trying to flee from desperate circumstances. This public money could have instead gone towards absorbing some of these refugees and turning the rest away in a more humane fashion. This would have resulted in a gradual and possibly more systematic absorption of refugees. Instead, as soon as Lybia’s regime collapsed, the influx of refugeess began to arrive all at once.
  2. Predictably, Syria’s current unrest may have partly stemmed from the fact that its borders were created, as so many of the world’s countries, on a European drawing board. The borders haphazardly grouped together numerous ethnic and religious groups that may not have independently self-identified as a single nation.

No individual crisis exists in a complete vacuum. Europe must do more to deal with the crisis not only because it helped to create it, but also because, if this crisis is to take its natural course to its natural end, then it is naïve to think that Europe will somehow emerge unscathed.

Words by Sahar Shah

Picture by Ilias Bartolini

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