Several years ago, I had a short contract working in the Communications team of a charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Sorting through the postal responses to direct mail fundraising campaigns was something akin to playing Russian roulette – would the envelope contain a cheque and kind words of support? Or would it contain the apoplectic scrawls of a racist affronted by the sight of our appeal on their doormat?
I’m not sure why, but I started gathering the hate mail in a box under my desk (Pandora’s Box, as I liked to call it). This was a couple of years before the EU Referendum, so I was still somewhat naïve to the extent of anti-immigration sentiment that existed outside my echo chamber. The box came to signify the dark underbelly of the ‘tolerant’ British society we’d not long before flogged on the world stage at the 2012 Olympics.
The most unsettling contributor to Pandora’s Box was someone who regularly sent clippings of anti-refugee and migrant stories from rightwing newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun. Most of the clippings were so old the paper was yellowing, but the anonymous individual would meticulously cut out an article, scrawl their xenophobic annotations in the margins, place it in an envelope and send it in. There was something deeply disturbing about the calculated, indexed and documented nature of their hatred. I wondered about the kind of life this person might lead, surrounded by piles of ageing newspapers in their human rabbit hutch, poison drip-fed to them one rancid headline at a time.
Fast forward to the cursed year of 2020 and we have anti-anti-racist protestors (i.e. racists) marching/stumbling on the streets of London, fighting the police they claim to be fighting for and pissing next to the monuments they claim to be protecting in an imagined culture war. On its front page the next morning, the Daily Mail has the temerity to ask ‘What HAS become of the tolerant Britain we love?’
I almost combust over my cornflakes.
The damage the rightwing mainstream media has done to this country is catastrophic and they continue to do it with impunity. Demonising, dehumanising and divisive language has become common parlance among politicians and papers alike but instead of accountability, they are rewarded at the ballot box. Outright bigotry has become normalised on mainstream platforms as ‘balance’, as long as it’s dressed in expensive wrapping paper. As summarised by Owen Jones: ‘The hate preachers, recruiting sergeants and useful idiots of rightwing extremism are located in the heart of the British, European and American establishments. They are members of the political and media elite.’
‘The press does not just reflect the attitudes of its readers, it creates and shapes them’ wrote Simon Wren-Lewis in an article on how a partisan media is fuelling far-right extremism. According to the police, far-right extremism poses the fastest growing terrorist threat in Britain, accounting for a third of all major plots foiled in the past two years. Hate crimes in the UK doubled over a five-year period. Experts like Prof Matthew Feldman, director of the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, have said that far-right extremists are ‘just as likely to have been radicalised by reports in the mainstream media about immigration or politics as by ideological tracts on the internet’.
On this day in 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox – a passionate supporter of the EU and advocate for the rights of refugees – was tragically murdered by a far-right terrorist. During the brutal attack, her murderer was heard saying “This is for Britain”, “keep Britain independent”, and “Britain first”. One week later, the UK voted to leave the EU.
Despite Jo Cox’s murder being the most tragic example of how toxic the landscape had become, little appears to have been learnt since. History has shown us time and time again how deadly propaganda, scapegoating and warped narratives can be, but look at the absolute state of our current leaders and media landscape. To stave off despair and hopelessness, I’ve committed to teaching myself more about Media Accountability Systems. The work of the Ethical Journalism Network is exploring the creation of a legal and social framework to provide leadership about what constitutes ethical freedom of expression. If you know a thing or two about this kinda thing, please get in touch.
Those with the most power and influence in the land seem determined to keep Pandora’s Box open for their own ends. Is there any way of shutting it?
Image credit: “Can anyone translate bigot? This is so hard to understand” by the queen of subtle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/