Five-star propaganda and vigilante excuses
A study in demonology from The Sun; how 'news' makes monsters of asylum seekers.
Previously: Jackboots at the despatch box and in the comment section
In the Commons and from commentators, dehumanising people seeking asylum is business as usual.
I’m dedicating today’s newsletter edition to a close reading of two stories in today’s Sun; I know this is a little like putting raw sewage under a microscope but I think it’s an interesting exercise in explaining how the tabloid frames and distorts reality.
Both pieces are about people seeking asylum in the UK and share the spread on pages 8 and 9 of the paper’s print edition.
The longer of the two — tagged as an exclusive and bylined to political editor Harry Cole, senior district reporter Rob Pattinson (not that one), chief political correspondent Natasha Clark, and deputy politcal editor Ryan Sabey — is headlined 5-STAR MIGRANTS and is introduced with the strapline “Growing cost of dealing with channel boats crisis”.
Thousands of asylum seekers and Channel migrants are living in four and five star luxury at British taxpayer’s expense, The Sun can reveal.
There’s a lot going on in those 23 words. “Thousands” is more powerful than a specific number — it allows the reader’s imagination and anger to run wild — and there can’t be anything humanising; these cannot be “people”, only “asylum seekers and Channel migrants”. It is framed as a revelation in part to amp up the sense of grievance.
Clark’s appearance on Tom Newton-Dunn’s First Edition — the former Sun political editor’s purgatorial posting on Rupert Murdoch’s tax writeoff Talk TV — gave an unguarded insight into the thought process:
So we’ve got a fantastic story in tomorrow’s Sun revealing that one-in-four of all of the hotels that the government are currently using to house asylum seekers are now four-star and five-star hotels, well beyond the reach of some of our readers…
The story continues:
One in four of the hotels used to house them are rated in the top class brackets and some high-end resorts across the country have been block booked for months.
Home Office officials are ‘sitting refreshing booking.com’ in the hunt for more capacity, a source said, pushing up prices as supply dwindles for Brits looking to go away a Christmas and the New Year.
Here’s where structure becomes important: The anonymous quote could have been followed directly by a quote from a Home Office spokesperson that says:
Many hotels are self-rated or rated on services they provide paying guests. When people are moved to hotel accomodation, most of the hotel’s facilities, like pools, spas and gyms will not be available for use.
That statement is placed later in the piece because if it directly contradicted the original anonymous claim the momentum of the story would be stalled. The aim is to provoke outrage at underserved luxury. Were the reader to start wondering how many people will be put up in a single hotel room and what they might actually have access to, that rage might start to dissipate.
Next come the ‘big’ numbers. Big numbers are a really good way of making a reader livid and it’s important they personally feel their pocket has been picked:
Taxpayers are being stung for £6.8 million a day — or £2.4 billion a year — to keep 35,000 asylum-seekers and small boat crossers awaiting deportation in hotels.
This doesn’t provide the reader with a source for these numbers, or context about their relative size compared to other expenditure or previous years, and falsely implies that all of those temporarily housed in hotels will have their asylum claims refused. To give some context to that dubious £2.4 billion, the failed Track and Trace system cost £37 billion over two years, and Trident costs about £2 billion a year.
There’s more numerical trickery and sneaky language when story gives an example:
One Home Office-hired hotel is four-star Great Hallingbury Manor at Bishop’s Stortford, Essex, where over 50 men are on full board, with some complaining about the food. The Tudor-style property has 44 double rooms, chalets in its wooded grounds and its own lake, picnic area and barbecue…
… One worker at the £120-a-night venue said last night:
“We were told late last week that refugees would be arriving and staying for up to two months. It was very sudden. There are about 50 men, all between 20 to 40 from North Africa, and two people looking after them.
They have the run of the hotel — the bedrooms are very comfortable — and three meals a day. Some have complained about the food because it’s not what they’re used to. They spend their time walking about of playing football. Language is a problem but they don’t say much. they tend to keep themselves to themsleves.
Great Hallingbury Manor has 43 rooms with a further 12 in Hallingbury House which is over the road. It is block-booked at the moment but while its suites can cost as much as £150, a standard double room is about £70. I discovered these shocking details by… checking the hotel’s website and booking system.
That The Sun reporters are reduced to mentioning the hotel has a “picnic area and barbecue” — hugely enjoyable in November — suggests how desperate they were to locate luxury. Similarly, one anonymous worker’s claim that “some” of the people at the hotel had complained about the food coupled with the terrifying vision that others were… playing football lacks the drama they were attempting to generate.
The story that people seeking asylum are being housed in some hotels that are nicer than usual was easy pickings. Once The Sun knew that more accomodation would be booked with growing attention on the horrific conditions at the facility in Manston, it was obvious that some it could frame as decadently luxurious would be among them.
Four days after the fire bombing of an immigration centre, The Sun is doing its level best to encourage more attacks. It wants its readers to be furious at the thought of foreigners getting something for nothing or, as its leader column puts it, “a golden ticket”. That the alternative at Manston is roll matts in marquees exposed to winter weather, while Covid, scabies, and diptheria spreads, is justified in its worldview.
The second story I want to look at fills a sidebar on the print spread. Bylined to Rob Pattinson — whose patch includes the Midlands — and again tagged as an exclusive, it’s headlined SCARED LOCALS MOUNT PATROLS. Assertion, innuendo, and rumour are the ingredients once again. The piece opens with this line:
Families “living in fear” of hundreds of migrants in their town have set up their own security patrols.
That “living in fear” quote is free-floating, it comes without a source and doesn’t recur in the story. Similarly the next paragraph asserts the feelings of “locals” without even one named individual offering a quote:
Locals say two hotels have been filled by 400 male migrants who they have accused of muggings, and cat-calling to women and school girls. They claim asylum-seekers are also taking and dealing drugs and defecating in a public park.
This isn’t journalism. It has the factual heft of a Nextdoor complaint or Facebook comment. It just so happens that these claims fit with the picture The Sun is looking to paint; one where the ‘good’ immigrants came a long time ago and aren’t all that keen on any new ones arriving. Pattinson continues:
Mums and dads in Sandiacre, Derbys, have now released plans for citizen patrols of the town.
There’s no evidence of these ‘plans’ online and were The Sun not excited by the idea of surburban parents going all-Batman on “the baddies”, it might well conclude that self-appointed patrols roaming the streets were vigilantes.
Pattinson’s claim to an exclusive is also dubious at best. He writes:
At a council meeting this week 80 residents turned up to voice their concerns.
One local said he had video footage of twelve men walking around “wielding bats and sticks.”
Could those men, in fact, have been from the Sandiacre Justice League?1
Either way, The Nottingham Post published its own frothing account of the parish council meeting yesterday, writing:
Residents of a town said they do not feel safe after they were told in a heated meeting that around 400 asylum seekers are currently living there. Around 80 residents packed themselves into a small hall for a Sandiacre Parish Council meeting to express their fears over a situation which they said was “dangerous” and “getting out of control”…
… One resident told the meeting he feared there was going to be “big crime” if the authorities could not control the situation. He said: “I think this is the start of something really serious. To me, these people have no respect for women. My wife was walking the dog yesterday (Monday) and there were four of five guys and she couldn’t pass them. She went running on to the road with oncoming traffic.
“I’ve also read that schoolgirls are being intimidated by them – now how serious is that? I’m telling you now, this is going to turn to big crime.”2
… Another resident said he had captured video footage of twelve men walking around “wielding bats and sticks”.
It’s almost as if Pattinson lifted the detail about the man with the shocking footage directly from the earlier reporting. Surely not.
Unlike Pattinson’s story, The Nottingham Post did at least suggest that there were differing views in the community:
However, deep into the meeting when a resident suggested a way of helping the asylum seekers by “arranging English classes”, all of the residents then suddenly left the meeting. Like a line of falling dominoes, as soon as one left they all departed from the meeting. One resident was heard saying: “That’s my queue [sic] to leave”.
The only quote with a named source in The Sun story comes from a social media post:
One resident, Elizabeth Down, said on Facebook: “We are becoming prisoners in our own homes. We have no rights left.”
That’s followed by a further claim by “locals” that “police had been called out to ‘trouble’”. Pattinson couldn’t verify that with Derbyshire Police (“the force was unable to provide details”) but includes it anyway.
A statement from the force saying there had not been “a significant rise” in reports of crime in the town is buried at the end of the piece. At that point, The Sun has achieved its aim: A horror story about migrants terrifying a small town, containing fewer facts than the average camp fire tale.
Neither of the examples I’ve looked at today are news but they are stories. Their aim is not to inform or educate but to provoke anger, disgust, envy and fear. They represent not a reflection of reality, but a fiction for political purposes. It’s an obvious thing to point out but while The Sun is quoted on broadcast media daily, it’s a necessary one: This is five-star propaganda.
Thanks for reading.
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