This comment was published on the Guardian website
24 March 2010
A non-toxic immigration debate
With an election looming, immigration will be an issue – but one that must be reported sensitively, not sensationally
Listening to the long rant of Newham citizens against "immigrants" on the Today programme this morning took me back to my early days as a BBC trainee reporter in Birmingham in the early 1970s. Vox pops, as they were called, were the easiest of wallpaper radio journalism. Out into the street with a Uher and microphone and a wave of Powellite, hate against immigrants could be recorded. Listening this morning, nothing had changed.
Then, as now, there was a silky smooth voice of an establishment grandee saying that immigration was out of control. His words are repeated today by Nick Griffin and the BNP. In the 1970s, it was John Tyndall and the National Front. Mainstream politicians did not know which way to turn. Labour brought in tougher immigration controls and Margaret Thatcher promised that the country would not be "swamped".
Today did not send its reporter into Newham health services to ask patients if they objected to being treated by doctors and nurses who may not be "white English", to use the preferred phrase of the racists, Today gave a platform to. The programme also allowed a former ambassador, Sir Andrew Green, to repeat the old canard that immigration is a "political taboo" which no mainstream party will address.
The three great lies about immigration are as follows:
• Politicians are not talking about it. I can think of no other issue that flares up so often on the doorstep. It is raised regularly at local Labour party meetings. The government has changed the law again and again. Phil Woolas and other ministers get into trouble as they talk of little else.
• It is out of control. In fact, last year there were 24,000 claims for asylum but 65,000 asylum seekers were sent or went home. The great wave of East European workers sucked in by the booming low-wage labour-intensive economy of the early century has subsided. Over decades Britain has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Irish. Now it is a different type of Catholic European – Poles and Slovaks.
• There is something easy to be done. What? Leave the EU and stop European citizens living and working here? And what if Spain, looking at 800,000 British citizens living and working there, decides to apply the same policy? Declare Britain will pull out of international treaties on refugee rights? Tell 200,000 Americans and 300,000 Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and white South Africans they have to go home? Tell British citizens who want to marry someone from far away that they cannot?
• In the 1970s, with my BBC microphone, I picked up exactly the same hate racism that the Today's reporter recorded with ease in Newham. One answer to immigration was the mass unemployment of the 1980s, which meant no one came to work here and, instead, we exported our "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" workers to richer economies.
• Some measures should be taken. I pointed out in the Commons last week that Iraqi asylum seekers can now go home. Iraq has had a successful general election. Kurdish Iraq is safe. Businesses, shops, restaurants are back along the Euphrates in Baghdad. The nation has the world's largest oil reserves. Violence occurs, just as bombs blew up and killed people in British cities during the long IRA terror campaign. But Iraqis who fled from Saddam's regime of terror or during the Shia-Sunni civil war driven by al-Qaida after 2003 can now return. The same is true of Kosovans. Kosovo is booming. There is too much corruption, as elsewhere in the Balkans, including Greece, but there is no reason to claim refugee status.
• On health grounds, we should slow down the rate of cousin marriage. The evidence of congenital defects arising from cousins marrying is now overwhelming. My friends in Britain's Kashmiri community know this, but the culture of cousin marriage remains strong – just ask Europe's royal families. There may be a case for limiting cousin marriages without full-scale medical checks and it should be discussed. It would be helpful if outfits such as the Muslim Council of Britain could take a lead on this, instead of supporting reactionary, patriarchal cultural practices, which feeds into anti-Muslim prejudice.
• In the 1970s, under the impulse of no-nonsense veteran journalists from its regions, the BBC drew up guidelines on race reporting that put some limits on the excitement of the metropolitan BBC Oxbridge elites who thought they had an exciting story about mass immigration changing the face of Britain and destroying communities. Now, Nick Griffin swells as he listens to former ambassadors, foolish MPs and London elite commentators all trying to pretend that they are telling a hidden truth on the presence of non-white, non-Christian, non-received English-speaking incomers living in our country.
• There needs to be no silence on immigration – simply a conversation about the issue that recognises there are problems and works out ways of overcoming them. That requires sensitivity and balance and not allowing the kind of three-page platform interview provided to Nick Griffin in the current Total Politics; and it means talking to MPs who deal daily with the issue.
• Nicolas Sarkozy thought he had solved the "immigrant question" in France with tough language about hosing the scum off the streets of Paris and launching a debate about national identity in France, which quickly turned into a feast of anti-Muslim prejudice. All he did was boost Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National vote last weekend. Similarly, the BNP thrives on the kind of BBC reporting we heard this morning.
• There is no simple answer. Punch-up panel debates on Newsnight between a representative of Immigration Watch and someone from the immigrant community, or between MPs with opposing views, do not help. Nor does the vox-pop racism on offer this morning. In the 1970s, serious BBC journalists working with the NUJ and others worked out rough-and-ready, deontological guidelines on reporting these issues. It is time the BBC sat down again and took a lead in raising the debate above the very low level where Nick Griffin, Migration Watch and MPs who think that claiming immigration is out of control will lessen the BNP vote want to keep it.