Parliament has warned editors that it may urge them to rewrite their guidance to discourage newspaper headlines and coverage of asylum seekers that damage community relations.
MPs and peers on the Joint Committee on Human Rights sounded the warning when they called in Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express, Robin Esser, executive managing editor of the Daily Mail, Alan Travis, home affairs editor of The Guardian and Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, to express concern about newspaper coverage.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester of Herne Hill said the committee would consider recommending changing the Code of Practice and Toulmin conceded that this was something that editors could look at.
But Toulmin said that of the hundreds of thousands of newspaper stories over the past year, only 14 had led to the PCC reminding editors of the PCC's Guidance Note on Refugees and Asylum Seekers and the need for care in the terminology used when describing refugees and asylum seekers.
'The number of complaints, considering how many articles are published, doesn't reveal a huge groundswell of concern from people about the national newspapers,'Toulmin said.
Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli, said the committee had received evidence that regional newspapers were 'more positive in their portrayal of asylum seekers". Toulmin said he was aware that some newspapers had been singled out for praise and had received awards for stories they had carried.
Hill and Esser robustly defended their newspapers and journalists and criticised the Government. Esser said the Daily Mail's exposure of the 'shambles'of the asylum system 'had been uncomfortable for government", while he warned: 'There is a grave danger that if the political elite fails to address this issue, political extremism will increase because people have nowhere else to go.'Labour MP Andrew Dismore, the committee chairman, questioned whether newspapers 'exacerbated a climate of hostility and fear". Tory peer the Earl of Onslow also said there was concern that newspaper headlines brought odium to a group of people.
Esser said that by exposing the number of people abusing the system the Daily Mail was helping genuine asylum seekers and Hill said newspapers had a duty to tell the truth about the asylum system.
But Esser said that if they were shown to be destructive of community relations 'we would look hard and long at the construction of our headlines".
He said: 'Our readers read newspapers. They don't just see the headlines.'Hill also said he would not like to see the code rewritten to comply with political correctness so that it 'makes it difficult to use robust language".
Travers parted company with the editors and criticised tabloid coverage and said he believed newspapers had all exaggerated the problem.
Defending his newspaper, Hill said the Daily Express had been 'vilified by the liberal media and in particular the BBC for raising this issue.'He told the committee: 'I would never put any of my journalists under pressure to write anything they did not want to write.'Esser said: 'No journalist on the Daily Mail has ever been told to write a story in a particular way. All our journalists carry in their wallet a pocket sized version of the code."