What has happened to ‘compassionate Britain’?

Attitudes towards refugee children by some sections of the media and some politicians in post-EU referendum Britain have raised concerns about the decline of traditional British compassionate culture.

Only a handful of the promised 200 unaccompanied refugee children who have relatives here came to Britain from the refugee camp known as the “jungle” before last week’s demolition of the camp by the French authorities. Yet, some right-wing politicians and media outlets like The Sun and The Daily Mail made a huge outcry about the age of some of these children. Not only that, celebrities like Lilly Allen and Gary Linekar, who are supportive of the refugees, have been castigated in social media as well as by some sections of the print media, and The Sun even called for the latter to be sacked by the BBC. It is astonishing that people in the media, who are not professionally competent to ascertain people’s age, could stoop to such lows as to undermine a minuscule compassionate gesture by the British government in the wake of the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

Have these people suffered anything near what these young children endured in the last few years? Do they have any idea what it means to flee a war zone and walk hundreds of miles or take the treacherous journey by a small boat towards safety in Europe? Can they even contemplate spending a single day in the manner in which these children did in the last few years? Then how can they judge how old they are? There have been rigorous age-testing procedures by our Home Office, which is not very famous for being soft towards these people by any stretch of the imagination. Fear of death, hunger, physical and mental stress all affect people’s physical appearance, and these children had undergone them all as well as being separated from their parents. A Tory MP and some of these media outlets have called for dental examination to test the age of these children when dentists themselves are saying that dental tests are not an effective method of age testing. Yet, the media publishes some photos and says with certainty that they are not children.

In my recently published book Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis (Palgrave Macmillan), I analyzed online comments on articles about different religions in the media looking at how they use language and how that can influence public opinions about religions. In one such article in The Daily Mail about gender issues in Islam, the presentation style and language led to highly offensive and prejudiced comments by its readers about Islam and Muslims. It was evident from some of the comments that they probably made those only through reading the provocative headline without going through the whole article.

Using the same approach, I looked at the first 10 comments on two articles on the child refugee issue published in The Sun, one each on singer Lilly Allen and the former footballer and current BBC TV presenter Gary Linaker. Referring to Lilly Allen’s crying on TV and apologizing on behalf of the U.K. while describing her experience of witnessing the plights of the refugee children in Calais, The Sun’s headline suggested that she was shedding “crocodile tears” and described her apology as “outrageous”. It was found that eight out of the first 10 comments on the article were very negative towards both the singer and the refugees. The Sun’s article on Gary Linaker calls him “leftie luvvie Lineker” and demanded the BBC sack him for forwarding a tweet by a charity about the identity of a child refugee. Out of the first 10 comments, nine were extremely offensive, with some readers even calling the refugees potential terrorists. 

These examples show how some sections of the media use their power of influence to provoke disenfranchised indigenous people to turn their back on a humanitarian crisis that has already spiraled out of control, but is showing no signs of abating. People are angry about politicians, and instead of playing a responsible role in convincing the public about Britain’s compassionate role in this crisis, this type of media coverage only facilitates hatred, prejudice and xenophobia. One comment by someone nicknamed “speediedixon” on another article on Lineker in the Sun encapsulates the attitude:

big ears is a clucking clown! these illegal muslim adult ………..sorry children are at an age where they are at the forefront of being the finished article of a radicalised sleeping muslim terrorist! Who will question a child about being a Muslim terrorist? We all know this is a huge risk because the net are showing primetime Muslim children and women terrorists doing their thang.

Britain moved away from its dreadful past of colonizations, invasions and slave trade a long time ago. After the Second World War, this country accepted hundreds and thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing from the persecution of Nazi Germany. It has welcomed many immigrants from around the world and helped them make a new life here and become its proud citizens. A recent survey shows that more than 93 percent of the ethnic minority population are proud to be British citizens. Here, people of all races, faiths and cultures are able to perform their religious and cultural practices without any intimidation. It is in this country that a son of an immigrant bus driver can fulfil his dreams and become the mayor of one of the greatest cities in the world. British people have been at the forefront of giving charities during humanitarian crises around the world. One of the best virtues of this nation has been its compassionate culture.

Published in The Peninsula, Qatar on 3 November 2016. url: https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/opinion/03/11/2016/What-has-happened-to-%E2%80%98compassionate-Britain%E2%80%99

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