City University in London heard strong criticism last night of the way UK newspapers have covered immigration and Muslims.
But there was no support on a discussion panel for the resolution which was passed by the Student’s Union last November saying there was no place for The Sun, Daily Express or Daily Mail on the university campus.
Speaking were former Times night editor Liz Gerard, Miqdaad Versi from the Muslim Council, former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis and deputy editor of Spiked Online Tom Slater.
Gerard said she understood the “exasperation” of students who don’t want the titles on campus.
She said: “Some of the coverage has been extreme and very flaky.
“In 2016 we had 283 lead stories in newspapers covering immigration…During the referendum debate immigration was regarded as a tool for people to get the result they wanted, you see a spike in immigration front pages in May and June.”
She said she opposed newspaper bans but added: “We need to keep the freedom of the press but somehow find way to make them respond to reasonableness.”
She added: “People are being harmed by what is being published sometimes and it’s all for an agenda that’s behind the scenes. Immigrants were used as pawns in the Brexit campaign.
“This morning there’s a story in the Daily Express about a woman who has been fined because she punched a couple of blokes in the faces because they’d been wolf whistling her. That story would never have made a national newspaper if there hadn’t been Poles involved.”
Miqdaad Versi said there have been many front pages on migrant issues which are “completely wrong”.
He said: “If we want to try to defend our free press do we not want to stop those who are tarring journalists with this brush of inaccuracy? The number of people who trust the press today is very similar to the number who trust politicians or estate agents.
“Why is it that low? If you want to have strength in our press to challenge authority, rather than castigate minorities, we have to worry about inaccuracy and about discriminating against minorities.
“It hurts people on the street. Anyone who has looked at the relationship between the way the media reports on minorities and hate has come up with the conclusion that there is a link. That the way the media reports affects the way people are treated on the street, creates an atmosphere of hostility.”
He said that this issue has been noted by the both the European Commission and the United Nations, and pointed to his own research which has show two apologies and corrections per week from national newspapers over the last two months on Muslim-related issues.
He said: “What is underpinning this? When people and newspapers are being negligent about the consequences of their actions on wider society we have to think what does that mean for us? What should happen?
“These newspapers have said we will adhere to these basic standards of accuracy, of non discrimination, of not abusing people. So when they decide to continuously breach that obligation that they themselves have chosen to adhere to does it not make sense that people might say there is something wrong here.”
While making clear that he opposed the City University ban, he said: “When you give rights to individuals and students, there is always going to be the rights of students to choose what they want to read in their areas.
“In this specific case if, for example, if the university was selling pornography the students may choose that they don’t want that in their university. I am not saying I agree or disagree but let’s recognise the right of individuals to make choices on issues that affect them.”
Speaking against the press bans motion, that was passed by a 69 votes to 54 at City University student union’s annual meeting last November, Wallis (who also formerly edited the Sunday People) said: “The cowardice, the bullying, the intimidation of it is shameful.”
He said: “It is the act of a totalitarian. It is the behaviour of tyrants and dictators everywhere. The very first act of a despot seizing power is to control the media.
“After that, burn the books, censor movies, art , music – you control so people can’t think.
“In China today you don’t get a choice over what newspaper you read. In Russia being part of a a free press can cost you your life. In Turkey today there’s an estimated 10,000 journalists in jail because they worked for newspapers and TV stations that simply did not agree with Erdogan.
“Freedom of thought is the first bulwark of democracy. Pay your fellow citizens the respect of allowing them to make up their own minds.”
Slater’s title, Spiked, closely follows campus restrictions on freedom of speech.
He said: “City is home to one of the most farcical bans of last year. Jazz hands instead of offensive clapping, bans on sombreros – I see it all on a daily basis – but the fact that student leaders at one of the most prestigious journalism courses in the country are banning newspapers is remarkable.
“The idea of banning newspapers you disagree with is a self-infantilising thing to do.
“John Stuart Mill said you can always learn something from those that you disagree with.
“Certain instances of press criminality and malfeasance are being used as an excuse to ban ideas people dislike. What I’m seeing on campus appears to be the youth wing of the Max Mosley brigade, this broader attempt to try and cut down on views that we dislike.
“There are plenty of problems with the press but none of them will be solved with making it less free.
“Grow up and have an argument, don’t ban newspapers rail against them.”
He added later: “Every step of the way you see this complete smearing of the public and particularly the people who read tabloid newspapers. You see it in the language, the idea of dog-whistle politics. Who is the dog in that situation? It’s the tabloid reader, that is how low a view these people have of them.
“Take Katie Hopkins’ Sun column where she likened migrants to cockroaches, pretty brusque ugly stuff. The fury aimed at this 300 words was incredible. All these people had been dying in the Mediterranean in their thousands for years, yet what they get upset about is the Katie Hopkins column.
“If you honestly want to do something about that sealing yourself off from it is the last thing you should do.”