Refugees in Lampedusa, Italy. Image: Flickr/NBN
How do you react when some 1500 people are said to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone in their desperate efforts to escape the poverty and conflicts that they face in Africa and Asia? Do you express your horror at such a terrible human disaster and demand that search-and-rescue operations are restored immediately? Do you condemn the actions of those European governments who called for rescue operations to be scaled down in the first place? Do you reflect on the causes of the circumstances that force people to embark on such hazardous journeys in the first place?
Or do you, as Katie Hopkins did in her recent Sun column, shrug it off and say that you don’t care. ‘Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.’ Having heard that 700 people may have lost their lives in one single incident, Hopkins was granted the opportunity to host a phone-in radio show on Sunday morning where she defended her position and asked: ‘Why do we take on everyone else’s problems? We can’t afford to take on these problems. We need to push these boats back.'
Her comments have been met with outrage. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Sun to sack her as a columnist while campaigners have reported her to the police for incitement to racial hatred with columnist Owen Jones tweeting that the Sun ‘published what looks like a neo-Nazi rant.'
Others have taken a different line arguing that this is above all a question of press freedom, that Hopkins is entitled to her opinions (however abhorrent) and that the more people make a fuss, the more they simply fuel Hopkins’ desire to be noticed. As the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman put it: ‘Ignore her, and she withers away.’
Of course the most effective immediate response to the continuing tragedies of the attempted crossings has nothing to do with Hopkins’ rants. We need collective pressure to force European governments to restore comprehensive rescue operations and to make sure that this is not a burden that falls on the Italian government alone. When you think that Mare Nostrum, the Italian navy’s mission to search Mediterranean waters during the busiest months, was scaled back to a smaller mission in order to save only €6 million a month, we should demand that wealthy European states underwrite this straight away.
We should also point out the hypocrisy of a Conservative government in the UK that spent hundreds of millions of pounds bombing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime back in 2011, an assault that led directly to the current instability in Libya that is forcing ordinary people to seek safer lives in Europe. If we could afford to send Apache helicopters to bomb Libyans in 2011, how can we not send Royal Navy frigates to rescue people today whose country we helped to destabilise? We have a situation in which neoliberal politicians are protecting freedom of movement for capital through initiatives like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership while barring people who are fleeing poverty and persecution and then refusing to help them when they vanish into the sea.
But both the immediate and more long-term political response to the crisis does not at all make Hopkins’ statements any less disgusting or any less significant.
It is true that Hopkins is only amplifying the established position of the Tories she so passionately loves (while also playing into the dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric of Ukip). When she argued on the LBC phone-in that ‘if we rescue the boats we are perpetuating the problem’, she is using almost exactly the same words as the Conservative minister, Baroness Anelay, who announced the suspension of UK support for air-sea rescue operations in Parliament by insisting that such operations ‘create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossings.’
But it is also true that Hopkins’ comments will help to escalate punitive policies and to legitimise violence against migrants – either through inaction (as in leaving them to drown) or in more overt acts of aggression. When she writes in the Sun that ‘these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit like "Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb’, she is continuing a well-established practice of demonising foreigners (or Jews or Muslims or gays) in order to legimitise violence against them. As Simon Usborne wrote in the Independent: ‘When Hutu extremists used radio propaganda to invite violence against the Tutsis during the Rwandan Genocide, they called on people to “weed out the cockroaches”.' Actually Hopkins seems to have a thing about seeing the most oppressed groups as animals givenTwitter comments allegedly made by her last year that Palestinians are ‘filthy rodents burrowing beneath Israel’ and that it is now ‘time to restart the bombing campaign.'
Hopkins’ comments should not be defended on the basis of free speech but condemned as an example of hate speech. Given that we have rules against incitement to racial hatred, it is hard to see why a column in the country’s best-selling national newspaper that describes migrants as ‘feral’ and as a kind of ‘virus’ should be somehow exempted from these laws.
Perhaps this is what press freedom has come to mean under corporate control: the freedom of powerful news organisations to attack the most vulnerable and to defend the most privileged. So when liberal commentators argue that freedom of speech is some kind of absolute right, this ignores the fact that some are more able to speak and others forced to bear the brunt of this speech – especially when words are used to argue that we should punish migrants and ‘burn the boats’. Given the approaches of most European governments, this is hardly empty rhetoric.
Calls to ignore Hopkins in this context are neither brave nor tactically astute but simply naive. As a spokesperson for anti-immigrant views, Hopkins needs to be challenged precisely so that descriptions of migrants as vermin and cockroaches can never be seen as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’.
Arguing that rescue operations should be restarted immediately does not preclude demands that Hopkins should be sacked as a columnist and that Sunshould be hauled before the authorities for providing a platform for explicitly racist speech. Of course Hopkins herself isn’t the real problem. She is merely a spectacular and bombastic cipher for more ‘official’ policy approaches to issues like migration, poverty and austerity. So while we ought noisily to challenge her incitement to hatred and violence against the most vulnerable groups in society and to condemn the fact that major media outlets are providing her with the microphone to do this, we also need to organise for a different kind of politics in which those escaping war and poverty are welcomed and not left to drown in the seas that surround us.
Protest at European Union London HQ, 1-2pm Saturday 25 April, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P 3EU. Called by Movement against Xenophobia.
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Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor (with Michael Bailey) of openDemocracy'sCapitalism and the University strand that ran in 2011/12 as well as the collection of essays, The Assault on Universities (2011). He is the author of The Contradictions of Media Power (2014) and The Politics of Media Policy(2008) and secretary of Goldsmiths UCU branch.