Think of everything you know about immigration. Who is coming, why they’re coming, what they’re like, what they’ll all do when they get here. Now try to remember where you’ve learned all those things you know. My guess is very little of it will have come from your own direct experience or any hard data you have examined, and a large portion of it will have come from TV, newspapers, or the internet – in other words, the media.
Browsing through a guidebook on my recent trip to see the unique and amazing country of Cuba, I came across this historical anecdote about the Spanish-Cuban-American war in the late 1800s. The words are so thought-provoking that I will quote them here:
The ideal of ¡Cuba libre! (Free Cuba!) had support among the U.S. populace, which saw echoes of its own struggle for independence a century earlier. The public hungered for information about the war. The New York World and New York Journal, owned by Joseph Pulizter and William Randolph Hearst, respectively, started a race to see which newspaper could first reach one million subscribers. While Hearst’s hacks made up stories from Cuba, the magnate himself worked behind the scenes to orchestrate events. He sent the photographer Frederic Remington to Cuba in anticipation of the United States entering the war. At one point Remington wired Hearst: “There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst hastily replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
… Responding to public pressure, President McKinley sent a warship – the USS Maine – to Havana to protect U.S. citizens living there. On February 5, 1898, the ship mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing 258 people. Evidence suggests this was an accident, but Hearst had his coup and rushed the news out in great red headlines, beating the World to the one million mark. He blamed the Spanish, and so did the public… On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war against Spain. (Christopher P. Baker, Cuba, 2015 Moon)
Behold the power of the media. And its ruthless greed.
Unfortunately, it was easier to sell newspapers a century ago than it is now. With the arrival of the internet, we have an unlimited source of global and real-time news at our fingertips for free. More and more people are moving away from paid print news formats, and in fact a whole generation of us may never have bought a newspaper in our lives. Companies that used to make their money selling magazines and newspapers are now forced to compete with this. The same goes for TV news and television in general – like many industries, its very existence is challenged by the omnipresence of the internet.
And so the headlines they produce need to be even more sensational, even more shock-worthy than before. They need to grab our attention, and make us interested enough to pay for what we can normally get for free. Headlines like the ones below will be familiar to readers in the UK:
It’s OK for them to stretch the truth and even lie. All they have to do is issue tiny corrections somewhere within the newspaper, like this:
In fact, it is common practice in the news industry that journalists are pressured and even forced to write stories based on what headlines editors have decided will sell. An ex-employee of Britain’s Daily Star, Richard Peppiatt, in an interview with Owen Jones, is quoted as saying he would be asked to write a piece about,
‘Muslims doing X, Y and Z. You’d look at the facts and go, “they didn’t actually do that though, did they?”’ (Owen Jones, The Establishment, 2015, Penguin.)
(And there’s no wonder nobody will speak up, because after doing so Peppiatt not only lost his job but also received a barrage of death threats.)
The danger of all these sensational, shocking headlines and stories going around is that many people still believe that news equals fact. People turn on the morning TV news, take a free newspaper on their underground commute, or connect to BBC online on their smartphone because they want to stay in touch with ‘what’s going on in the world.’
Unfortunately, many people have never considered that ‘news’ is not necessarily an unbiased, factual account of events. Behind every story is a reporter, behind that reporter is an editor, and above that editor is a CEO who has their own financial and political interests. These interests often extend beyond the mere selling of newspapers.
A well-cited example is Rupert Murdoch, who was once said to own 70% of newspapers in Australia. He also owns 21st Century Fox, HarperCollins, the Wall Street Journal and most of the major British newspapers. In 2007, when Murdoch was asked, “of all the things in your business empire, what gives you the most pleasure?” he instantly replied: “being involved with the editor of a paper in a day-to-day campaign … trying to influence people”.
And he has made no secret of which political side he wants to sway voters towards. Front pages like the ones below are prime examples of the way in which his newspapers have backed the Australian Liberal National Coalition to victory in the 2013 federal election.
In the UK, after being a steadfastly loyal Tory supporter, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Sun, turned on its head to dramatically support Tony Blair in the 2007 election campaign. This eventuated right after Blair flew to Hayman Island in Australia to meet Rupert Murdoch, and this was the beginning of an ‘intimate’ relationship between this politician and the world’s most powerful media baron. He even ended up as godfather of one of Murdoch’s children. There is no impartiality in our news media when relationships like this exist.
So how does this relate to immigration and xenophobia? What does the media have to gain from turning the public against immigration? This matter is probably more complicated than it seems. Bear with me.
One possible explanation could be the influence of these huge media magnates like Murdoch. Big business stands to benefit most from right-wing governments. This is because a right-wing ideology supports reducing taxes on the rich and on corporations, reducing import tariffs, and other strategies that create a comfortable environment for business investment. In this ideology, the logic is that when businesses thrive, this creates jobs and improves ‘the economy’. Unfortunately, lowering the maximum tax rates for high-income earners and businesses, while benefiting the rich, means that governments can collect less revenue from taxes. The result is that cuts need to be made to welfare schemes, education, health services, and spending on other public utilities. The effects of this are felt by your average Joe or Jane in the general public, and particularly by the poorest in society. So who would vote for that? If only a tiny percentage of super rich people are benefiting from the policy, how can right-wing parties possibly stand a chance of being democratically elected?
Right-wing governments have been able to create some pretty convincing narratives to justify their policies. But the best way to rally people together is to get them behind a common enemy. A common enemy not only creates solidarity for the in-group (in this case, in the form of nationalism), but also provides us with someone to blame. A convenient distraction from the real source of economic or social ills. It’s not the government’s policies that are to blame – it’s the immigrants. Of course there are less jobs for us – immigrants are taking them. Of course the government can’t afford to pay for benefits – immigrants are coming here to claim everything they can. Of course the NHS needs to be privatized – immigrants exploit it. Hoards of them! They’re invading! Vote for us – we will stop the immigration problem. … aaand we’ve arrived at xenophobia again.
What perfect sensational headlines for newspapers to run! Not only do they rile people up, making them feel hard-done-by and ready to buy the newspaper that tells this ‘truth’ to the world. But they also create support for right-wing governments, which benefits big news corporations financially.
Of course this isn’t to say that all newspapers and all media corporations are unethical, or seek to exploit people’s fears and hardships for profit. But unfortunately, many seem to, and the stories they publish clearly fan the flames of public xenophobia. Is the solution to make the media more accountable for the statements it makes? Or to educate the public to make sure they are aware that scapegoating ‘news’ stories need to be read with a pinch of salt? Neither of these are easy feats. Fortunately, the internet and our new Wikipedia-age society have provided an alternative solution: create our own media. The next installment in this blog will look at how the internet, and the way it allows any person to freely and independently broadcast their views, plays its own role in xenophobia.