Has the Sun set on our liberal consciences?

Media - Ian Hargreaves

For anyone of even a mildly liberal disposition, the new century has not begun well. The government's attempt to abolish Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, which discriminates against homosexuals, was blocked by the House of Lords. And now the Stansted hijacking has raised to boiling point the simmering hostility towards foreigners, especially those with dark skins, beards and oriental headgear.

According to the Daily Telegraph, "the extent of public unease about the population influx recalls the 1950s and 1960s". The former Conservative MP Michael Brown, who these days writes parliamentary sketches for the Independent, noted that when the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, came to the despatch box to tell the House that the plane's passengers would be packed off home as soon as any legal pitfalls could be negotiated, "Labour MPs who could once be relied on to pay lip-service to their liberal consciences kept silent". The headline on the piece saw Enoch Powell "smiling down" on the proceedings.

At moments like this, you tap the media barometer and wonder. Have we reached a milestone in progress towards equality, from which there must now be a forced retreat because the pace of change has outstripped public will? Or are the revived voices of racial and sexual hostility no more than a troubling anachronism?

On the one hand, the Daily Mail distinguished itself in the Stephen Lawrence case. On the other, no one can be surprised that the paper is now at the head of the queue demanding a sharp reduction in Britain's willingness to receive asylum-seekers. The Mail is normally pretty good at reading the mood of Moreton-in-Marsh.

Likewise, the Sun tends to know its readers' minds on these matters. It may have purged itself of references to "Pakis" and "shirt-lifters", but it still appears to believe that Britain is in the grip of a "gay mafia" and it was the first to conclude that the hijacking had been exposed as "Scamsted". The paper's proposed remedy, that the fraudulent human cargo should be "packed off immediately", might have been avoided had the government taken the advice of the Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn and shot down the aircraft once it had reached British airspace.

Perhaps more significant was the voice from the Mirror titles and the Express. Neither flagship title really got into its stride on the story.

Carole Malone in the Sunday Mirror complained about asylum-seekers getting "the kind of five-star medical treatment that's never available to Brits and a nice little (free) house with enough money to keep you and all your relatives in the lap of luxury for ever".

One of the few papers that actually inspected the home of an asylum case, the Sunday Times, discovered a rather different picture. Two of the Iraqis involved in a hijacking in 1996, whose conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal, were found living in "squalid bedsits" and subsisting on £46 and £39 a week respectively. A third was lambasted by the Mail on Sunday for trying to sell his story - a practice that does not occasion protest when the Mail titles are writing the cheque, as they did in the Louise Woodward case.

But accurate reporting was not at a premium on this story. The primary basis for the belief that the entire hijack was a sophisticated cover for an asylum fraud was put down to "immigration sources" - presumably not a million miles from the Immigration Services Union, which campaigns openly for tougher powers for its officers to boot out suspect asylum-seekers on sight.

By Saturday, the papers were sure that at least 112 of the 164 passengers and crew had demanded asylum in Britain. By Monday, 73 were on their way back to Kabul.

The prospects for calm, factual reasoning about asylum are not, we may conclude, very bright. There was not much mention in recent days that Britain's immigration laws are tougher than those of most European countries, or that the trend in asylum applications scarcely shows the exponential growth of the leader writers' imaginations - 44,800 cases in 1991, 29,600 in 1996 and 46,000 in 1998, before the recent increases caused by the war in Kosovo.

As Nick Hardwick, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, argued in the Guardian: "To those who want a credible asylum system which produces fair decisions quickly, this whole affair and its media coverage is a body blow."

To judge by the media, however, we are on the brink of mob justice. The Telegraph thinks that none of the political parties, Conservatives included, have "the will to tackle the refugee crisis".

The Mail, praising Straw's rhetoric, fears he will be thwarted by "a judiciary riddled to the core with political correctness - and only too willing to be swayed by the clamour of the immigrant lobby". David Mellor, not so very long ago a minister of state at the Home Office, but today enjoying a higher calling as a columnist for the People, inveighed against "a fifth column called judges".

It has come to something when Conservative newspapers and politicians advocate contempt for the rule of law and those responsible for dispensing justice. Especially so when this comes within days of the same people declaring the Lords vote on Clause 28 a "victory for democracy".

Try to look on the bright side. Perhaps it's a sign that they're even deeper into the political wilderness than you thought.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end