UKREN blog

Thursday 5 October 2017

The tail that wags the dog?

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(Lyrics, The Jam, News of the World, 1978)


This article will examine whether an anti-immigration rhetoric by the UK government and politicians reported in the news media contributed to a spike in hate crime during the two month period after the EU referendum in June 2016 (the dog that wags the tail), or whether it was the anti-migrant stance in UK tabloid newspapers that resulted in parliamentarians copying, believing this to be the opinion of the electorate (the tail that wags the dog). It will use evidence from the C.O.N.T.A.C.T. EU project to justify the conclusions.

The political rhetoric

In the first half of 2015, UK politicians’ focus had been on the informal refugee camp in Calais, France. Although the number of inhabitants were relatively small - 5,000 or less - compared to the number of refugees in for example Greek or Italian camps, it was politically important to UK politicians as most of the inhabitants wanted to move to a new life in the UK, many to join family members already there (BBC, 2016). The majority of people in the camp were fleeing persecution or conflict in Syria, Eritrea, Iran and Afghanistan. However the UK government were opposed to accepting refugees that were already in France. Government ministers therefore tried to frame the issue in a way that they felt would be appealing to the anti-foreigner UK tabloid news media and ultimately a significant part of the electorate. In July 2015 David Cameron, then British Prime Minister, described the Calais camp inhabitants as “Swarms of people” and “Africans seeking a better life as economic migrants” (ITV, 2015). Although there were some people there from Africa, the majority were from other countries and the greater majority were refugees rather than economic migrants. Using terms associated with insects was probably done to de-humanise the refugees and therefore sway the opinion of the electorate. In August 2015 Philip Hammond, then Foreign Secretary, went further with the more inflammatory language of “Migrants marauding around the area [of Calais]” (BBC, 2015).

The government slogan “Creating a hostile environment for illegal migrants” was invented when Theresa May was Home Secretary and used extensively in Home Office policies (Huffington Post, 2016). Immigration laws were changed in 2014 and in 2016 to make it a criminal act for a landlord to rent accommodation to an undocumented or overstaying migrant, or for such migrants to use medical services, or have a bank account. Victims of crime are screened by police if they are suspected of being ‘illegal migrants’. Schools are now asked to give the Home Office data on pupils and their nationalities so that they can also be checked for their immigration status.

The UN and the Council of Europe’s have deeply criticised the government rhetoric. In January 2016 Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe human rights commissioner visited the UK and in his Memorandum on the visit he accused then Prime Minister David Cameron and then Home Secretary Theresa May of “scaling up alarmist rhetoric” on migration, portraying migrants as a “threat to UK society” and fuelling a xenophobic climate in Britain (CoE, 2016). Muiznieks condemned May for her determination to “create a really hostile environment for illegal migration”, for criminalising irregular migrants and for failing to highlight the positive impact of immigration in Britain. The UN Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland accused British politicians of adopting a "xenophobic response" to the migrant movement and said their language had been "grossly excessive” (The Telegraph, 2015).

But the government rhetoric played out well with the tabloid media whose proprietors pursue anti-migrant policies in their newspapers, and with much of the population of the UK. "Words that convey an exaggerated sense of threat can fuel anti-immigration sentiment and a climate of intolerance and xenophobia," Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University said (Refugee Studies Centre, 2015). 

ECRI in its report on the UK (published October 2016) said: 

“There continues to be considerable intolerant political discourse focusing on immigration and contributing to an increase in xenophobic sentiments. Muslims are portrayed in a negative light by certain politicians and as a result of some policies. Their alleged lack of integration and opposition to “fundamental British values” is a common theme adding to a climate of mistrust and fear of Muslims. The counter- terrorism strategy, Prevent, may fuel discrimination against Muslims.

Hate speech in some traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, continues to be a problem, with biased or ill-founded information disseminated about vulnerable groups, which may contribute to perpetuating stereotypes.”

One week before the referendum vote in June 2016, Nigel Farage MEP promoted a poster ‘Breaking apart’ that illustrated a long line of refugees claiming this was about the UK (The Guardian, 2016). Farage was a prominent political member of those campaigning that the UK leaves the EU. Although the poster was condemned as racist by some MPs, it illustrated the untruthful, populist and propaganda-like hysteria of the political campaigns.  Nigel Farage MEP while addressing a Trump US Presidential rally said: 

“Immigrants; you’ve got to really lay the blame for everything at the feet of the immigrants. I mean, literally, every possible chance you get. Hell, I even used immigrants as the reason I was once late for an interview – there really is no limit to the ways you can blame immigrants.If you’ve got people out there who are unhappy – and people are always unhappy about something – just con them into thinking it’s the fault of immigrants, and they’ll vote for you. Crops failing this year?’ Immigrants. Gas prices on the rise? Immigrants. Taxes too high? Immigrants. immigrants, immigrants” (News Thump 2016).

The UK news media

The UK has a vibrant news media with 16 national daily newspapers (compared to 5 in Germany and 3 in USA). However the media is controlled by a few proprietors. Unlike other countries in Europe, hate speech is generated less from extremist political or religious leaders and much more from national newspapers.

Katie Hopkins, then columnist at The Sun (largest circulation newspaper in UK) wrote in the newspaper:

“I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care... these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof ’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.” (Huffington Post, 2015)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein condemned the article as media-inspired hatred from Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, adding that “The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches” (The Independent, 2015) 

Untrue, false stories are common in the tabloid media. The Sun ran on its front page a story ‘Swan Bake’ about East European asylum seekers killing swans for food (The Sun, 2011). Total fiction. Lord Justice Leveson conducted an inquiry into the state of the media following accusations of phone hacking in 2011-12 and found that “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained”. The Leveson Report highlights political bias in the media’s coverage of migration issues and highlighted a number of cases where the tabloid media had fabricated stories concerning migrants and minority communities. For example, the Daily Express newspaper had run 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period (National Archives, 2012)

Little has changed since the Leveson Report in November 2012. The Daily Mail headline in August 2015 read ‘Migrants: How many more can we take’ (Daily Mail, 2015). Scaremongering. Putting opinion over fact. Viewed as freedom of expression rather than hate speech, bias or prejudice. Much media attention has tapped into public uncertainty and focused on the fear of migration, on problems of security, or the threat to UK culture from ‘migrants’. Often too little attention is given to the failure of the political system to deal with a humanitarian situation, or on political failure over the last five years (and longer) to anticipate this latest crisis.

C.O.N.T.A.C.T. content analysis of UK media showed that the term ‘Muslim’ came up most frequently out of all key terms at 893 times in a three month period, with 287 of these headlines being explicitly Islamophobic or negative towards Muslims. The second most frequently appearing term was ‘Refugee’ at 556 times in a three month period, with 32% representing negative reporting.

The media has repeatedly portrayed itself as the opinion of the population, even if all it really represents are the views of the media proprietor, editor and journalists. It has also campaigned against government policies, occasionally achieving a reversal in that policy. Sometimes the news media portrays itself as the reason why election campaigns were won or lost, with an infamous front page headline in the Sun ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’ in 1992 for the Conservative Party, repeated in 1997 for the Labour Party (The Sun switched allegiance) and again in 2015 for the Conservative Party again (The Independent, 2015). Politicians are extremely wary of the tabloid news media and place a high importance on messaging, sometimes to comical effect (‘strong and stable government’ used repeatedly by Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party to almost any question by a journalist before the June 2017 elections).

Respondents in the C.O.N.T.A.C.T research on hate speech said “I think the media emits a lot of hate speech but I think it’s very difficult because the legal definition of hate speech is quite narrow and there's a lot of stuff that denigrates people because of their immigration status, and immigration status is very often a proxy for race but people find it quite difficult to articulate that certain speech about immigration is racist or might be seen as hate speech.”


Immediately following the result of the EU referendum and for a period of two months, the UK experienced an unprecedented increase in hate crime. This rose to a 58% increase year-on-year according to reports of hate crime made to the police (The Guardian, 2016). Due to significant levels of under-reporting, the real picture may well have been far worse. 

Whereas people with xenophobic or racist views had previously kept these to themselves or within their own social circles, a combination of a vote that agreed by a slim majority to leave the EU; coupled with a government and politician anti-migrant, anti-foreigner, de-humanised rhetoric; and a tabloid news media that played out a stereotyping, alarmist, anti-foreigner agenda; resulted in this minority abusing people in public places who looked or sounded ‘foreign’, telling them or physically attacking them because the abuser felt that they should have already left the UK. 


Both politicians and the news media have tried to reduce a complex discussion about immigration, its pros and cons, to a one-sided debate of slogans and framing the issue in a distorted way. They both contributed to a sentiment in the country that was anti-foreigner and anti-migrant. The media have an influence over politicians but not to the extent of seriously influencing government policies and political party manifestos. So not ‘the tail that wags the dog’. But media manipulation of its readership with untrue stories that spread fear and scaremongering is not controlled in the UK. Both politicians and the media have a responsibility to UK society to speak/report factually in the best interests of the country. As one participant in the C.O.N.T.A.C.T research on hate speech in UK noted “The government is racist and a source of hate speech itself.” The final word to another respondent “Hate speech is on the rise because our politicians and media have been spreading it for years now. People blame Brexit, Trump and a rise on the Right but even amongst Labour politicians hate speech has become mainstream.” This mainstreaming of hate speech is a serious issue for the UK to address to stop ‘the dog wagging its tail’.


Alan Anstead, Coordinator of UKREN 




BBC, 2015, Migrants threaten EU standards says Philip Hammond, available at:

BBC, 2016, The tail that wags the dogThe history of the Calais ‘jungle’ camp and how its changed since 1999, available at: 

Council of Europe, 2016, Memorandum on the Human rights of asylum seekers and immigrants in the United Kingdom, available at:

Daily Mail, 2015, How many more can we take, available at:

ECRI, 2016, ECRI report on the United Kingdom, available at:

The Guardian, 2016, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police, available at:

The Guardian, 2016, Lasting rise in hate crime after EU referendum, figures show, available at:

Huffington Post, 2015, Katie Hopkins wrote this about migrants in The Sun and now everybody is really angry, available at:

Huffington Post, 2016, Theresa May’s Home Office policies and rhetoric contributed to a rise in hate crime, available at:

ITV, 2015, Calais migrant crisis: UK-French centre to tackle traffickers, available at:

The Independent, 2015, UN’s statement on Katie Hopkin’s ‘cockroaches’ column on immigrations, available at:

The Independent, 2015, UK election results: was it ‘The Sun wot won it’ for David cameron, available at:

National Archives, 2012, Leveson inquiry: culture, practices and ethics of the press, available at:

News Thump, 2016, You need to tell more lies about immigrants if you want to win, Farage tells Trump, available at:

Refugee Studies Centre, 2015, Refugee or migrant crisis? Alexander Betts discusses the importance of language, available at:

The Sun, 2011, Swan bake, available at:

The Telegraph, 2015, Britain 'xenophobic' to demand economic migrants kept out, says UN, available at:





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