You know when the Mail scaremongers about 'migrants'? Usually, that's just a dog-whistle. What the paper often really means is - come closer and I'll whisper it - brown and black people. Shocking, huh?
This has never been particularly skilful or sublte. The Mail's conflating race and immigration has always been about as deft as a man who has had his fists amputated and replaced with giant canned hams. Here's one of my favourite bits:
It's almost subliminal, isn't it? (As an added bonus, that bit headlined 'The migrant knife culture, by police chief' isn't actually by the police chief, and the only 'knife culture' she talks about is the one where it's okay to carry a pocket knife). If that one doesn't float your boat, how about this story covering the number of local authority houses taken by immigrants, illustrated by a picture of some black kids playing outside an estate?
With immigration figures consistently high, the paper had loads of figures to choose from to scare us with. Every new release of immigration statistics prompted new headlines every three months, and each summer we were treated with new scare stories about how many 'British' people were leaving the country, illustrated with pictures of nice smiley white families who were apparently leaving alongside pictures of shifty looking swarthhy men hanging about on street corners who were apparently arriving.
A couple of years ago, things began to change. With the credit crunch looming, immigration figures and the number of British citizens emigrating began to fall. Scaremongering was no longer as simple as looking at the latest stats and calling up Sir Andrew Green.
Faced with a drop in the number of British citizens leaving the country while still needing to report on a record number of something or other, Steve Doughty just dropped the citizenship figleaf and went au naturelle with ''White flight' as more than 400,000 Britons head for a new life abroad' in 2008. I covered the story in 'White shite'. I was concerned in that post about how more brazenly racist the paper seemed to be getting.
Last year, the paper would clearly be in a bit of a quandary. With figures falling, what would it do? I asked the question in 'Let's get ready to rumble', and guessed wrongly about how the paper would react in the face of figures that didn't support the narrative. I didn't anticipate quite how hard the paper would push the focus on the number of babies born to mothers who were themselves born overseas.
Despite being about 'immigrants', it was pretty clear what the papers really meant with these stories. In the Mail, we were helped along by an article written by a white immigrant counting herself quite firmly out of the 'immigrant' category and into the 'indigenous' one. I said at the time:
I wonder what makes these white women think they can count themselves firmly out as immigrants. Maybe it'll come to me.I didn't really wonder. I was doing a funny.
Last Monday, with new figures only showing a tiny rise in the number of non-British born mothers giving birth, the paper did the same as it did in the summer of 2008. Sod the subliminal 'born abroad' stuff, let's just brazenly bang on about race. The difference of course is that this time, the paper was openly scaremongering about the number of black and brown people in the country and trying to pretend that this is not racist.
That might have seemed to have been a sudden descent into racism, but it wasn't really. It was the next stage in a long campaign of pushing against the racist boundaries with nudge nudge, wink wink 'migrant' stories, not very subtle image juxtaposition and the occasional worrying about black people on TV, distorted stories about black people and knife crime and slip ups about immigrants' grandchildren being counted as immigrants. It showed us exactly what the paper has been doing for all these years, as if we didn't already know. The editorial even showed an awareness that worrying about the number of blacks, Asians and foreigners in the country might be considered racist.
For me though, that editorial raised a question I'd only wondered vaguely about before.
When the Mail (and papers like it) complain that 'you can't talk about immigration', is it doing something similar to that editorial? Is it hiding something quite specific behind something general and inoffensive in the same way the editorial hid 'worrying about the number of darker skinned people' with 'being concerned with changing demographics'?
Is it really saying, "we can't say what we want to say about immigration because it would get called out for being racist"?
As the paper nudges back the boundaries in the coming years, we may just find that out.