Image Credit: Captured from @BBCBreakfast 07/08/2020
A BBC Breakfast reporter stands on board a coast guard boat, pointing at a small dinghy. A closer shot then shows a dozen individuals packed into this boat, riding low in the water and slipping precariously between the waves. “They’re using a plastic container to bail out the boat,” says the reporter, gesturing. “You can see why it’s dangerous”.
As Nigel Farage crawls out of his hell hole to declare “an emergency in the channel” and Priti Patel tries to deploy armed Navy vessels to intercept small rubber dinghies, what caught my eye about the recent coverage of the channel crossings wasn’t the ‘crisis’ these small boats pose to our country, but the crisis the individuals inside are being faced with.
Earlier this week, reporters from BBC Breakfast and Sky News took to the sea to go and point cameras in the faces of desperate people as they attempted to cross the channel. “Are you ok?” one of the reporters shouts at a passing boat. Obviously not mate. They’re not packed into that death trap and desperately bailing out water with tupperware for a laugh.
The reports both unfold like a sort of dystopian reality TV series or sickening nature documentary as the reporters flock around like hungry seagulls, waving microphones and shouting questions but refusing to actually help these people. There’s an eerie voyeurism to watching the whole thing, seeing these people at their most desperate and vulnerable being turned into a spectacle, exploited and dehumanised. This is not what journalism should be.
In 2020, the term journalism is more elastic than ever before and this doesn’t just include the blurred boundaries of what journalism can and can’t be, but also the sort of content the public demands. In 2020, this is shouting at refugees from your bigger boat.
This style of reporting only serves to demonise and dehumanise these individuals, exploiting their desperation and framing them as insurgents, a threat to our country. You get the distinct sense watching these reports that the news crews don’t actually care about the very real danger these people are facing, just about what they represent. This coverage isn’t really about migrants, refugees or asylum seekers and it doesn’t really care about them, it’s about adding to an already dangerous narrative of xenophobia that has come to define Britain over recent years.
The backgrounds of these people may vary as may their claims to asylum, but if they are abandoning their homes and risking their lives to make a dangerous and often fatal passage across Europe then they deserve our support - not to be treated as hostile or broadcast like contenders on the world’s shittest gameshow. This especially applies to children and teenagers being forced to make this passage unaccompanied. Rather than fussing about good migrants and bad migrants or debating what constitutes asylum or refugee status, we need to realise that these are people risking their lives and they need our help.
Unfortunately, this is not a popular sentiment.
While these reports attracted thousands of complaints, 49 per cent of Britons surveyed (YouGov) say they have little to no sympathy with those crossing the channel and this translates into a general feeling of apathy. People don’t want to know why they are coming, or what will happen to them when they eventually get here. They just want to see a ham faced presenter jam a boom-mic into the face of an exhausted refugee as he desperately bails water out of a rapidly flooding dinghy.
Journalism can serve to both feed and mirror public attitudes, in this case reflecting general apathy and feeding paranoia about migration and refugees. These fears distort the narrative, shifting the spotlight off of the individual and onto more abstract ideas of race, religion, employment, integration and whatever else people use to attack refugees, migrants or asylum seekers. It’s muddying any kind of serious conversation we should be having, and adding to an irrational fear of the ‘other’ that has defined Britain over the past decade.
As unemployment figures skyrocket and wages are shrinking at an alarming rate, it’s not hard to see why the ‘migrant crisis’ is back in the news - it’s easier to blame refugees than governments for these issues. And while I could write another piece entirely on Britain’s scapegoating of migrants and refugees, it’s worth remembering that this is a significant factor in the coverage we have seen recently.
Unfortunately, until we start seeing a wider shift in attitudes towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers then we are likely to keep seeing this sort of coverage; there’s clearly a market for it. And as these stories are lost and buried under yet more divisive rhetoric, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these individuals are actually people and not some sort of ‘swarm’ as politicians might lead you to believe. It’s much easier to ignore a statistic, or dismiss a headline - you don’t need to show any compassion.
Regardless of who they are, and where they came from - these people do not deserve to have their desperation and their trauma televised or exploited. The real crisis in the channel isn’t the threat of migrants, but the way they are being treated by our government and our press. We’ve spent the past few months arguing about whether the UK is still racist, yet we still have a systemic problem with the very discourse and coverage of race and migration that we have yet to address. While we may be a long way off making their routes safer and better supporting these individuals fleeing their home countries, we can start by tackling and challenging the problematic coverage and discourse surrounding migration and refugees and educating ourselves to better understand these issues.
And as the British media start stocking up on life jackets and flocking to Dover with their long microphones and general sense of superiority, it’s worth remembering that this is not journalism - it’s snuff reality TV.