Pulled advertising, university newspaper bans: is backlash against UK tabloids justified?

Stop Funding Hate, a campaign to persuade companies not to advertise in right-wing papers, coincides with City University’s campus ban of the Sun and Express.

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Last week, the Daily Mail once again found itself under fire after the student union at City University, home to one of the UK’s best journalism schools, symbolically banned the paper from campus alongside the Sun and the Daily Express as part of a motion “opposing fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media”.

This came only a week following Lego’s announcement that they were “not planning any future promotional activity” with the Mail after heeding calls to boycott newspapers that promoted “demonisation and division” during the Brexit debate from the Stop Funding Hate campaign group.

As a former student at City, although I don’t believe the paper should actually be banned from campus – students should consume as much media from a variety of sources and come to their own decisions on its content – I do think a serious conversation needs to take place at journalism schools up and down the country about why they push so many of their best and brightest into taking jobs at papers that continue to stoke the flames of racism, xenophobia and homophobia with their relentless bold-caps headlines.

In line with Stop Funding Hate, I also believe that companies shouldn’t be condemned for striving to make ethical decisions regarding who they advertise with.

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford disagrees. He wrote a convincing piece about how the boycott of the Mail amounts to censorship of the press and why Britain’s most popular newspaper shouldn’t have its editorial content dictated by a minority of non-readers.

“Those seeking to silence the Daily Mail should perhaps also remember,” he argued, “that in addition to its hard line stance on immigration, it has successfully campaigned to get justice for Stephen Lawrence, ban free supermarket plastic bags and to get the last UK Guantanama [sic] Bay inmate, Shaker Aamer, freed.”

I’m not debating that the Mail, and maybe even the Sun and Express have produced, and continue to produce, excellent journalism. But to hold up a few examples of their populist campaigns in the full knowledge that they are still in the habit of labelling immigrants as “cockroaches” and not recognise their hypocrisy seems to me to be wilfully obtuse.

You cannot congratulate them for the influence of their attempts at social justice, and then, like so many journalists do, dismiss the impact that their “hard-line” stance on immigration has on the UK’s visible ethnic minorities (a massive rise in hate crimes since Brexit should make us question the way some papers characterise migrants).

Ponsford’s article serves to elucidate something that I became aware of when studying for my journalism qualification: the total vacuum of responsibility within the journalism world when it comes to how our content is going to affect our audience. I struggle to believe that all the right-wing tabloids do is reflect national prejudices already held. The Daily Mail itself published a triumphalist piece in 2015 following the results of a poll that found that it was the UK’s most influential paper.

On an everyday level, I remember one of my closest friends growing up in Scotland came from a household of right-wing tabloid readers. She had a knack for making friends with outsiders, people who were a bit different; which of course included the very few ethnic minorities at our school. But, when we were 14, she came out with the statement that she believed that any immigrant or refugee who committed even a minor misdemeanour should be “sent back”. If she hadn’t had her immigrant – or, in my case, third-generation immigrant – friends to challenge her, would her views about us have mutated into something worse?

In my mixed-race household it was never an option to become a fan of the right-wing tabloids. My parents, musicians, ominously told me a story about the time one of their roadies was unceremoniously fired after he repeatedly brought copies of the Sun into the recording studio. As one of the few black, female journalists in the industry, I’m not ashamed to shout about how the content of papers like the Mail is more personally offensive to me, and my family, than most.

It’s easy not to care about the latest racially insensitive cartoon the Mail has published, if, like 94 per cent of journalists, you are white (and probably middle-class). You are unlikely to have a visceral reaction to seeing black and brown people depicted as savages, or understand the deep sense of pain I feel when these papers continue to publish misleading headlines that could lead to me hearing about another friend being told to “go home” or having their hijab ripped off their head.

For a while when studying at City, I felt coddled into having respect for the work of the Mail et al. But since Brexit, and now Donald Trump, my opinion of the right-wing media has swerved back to what it once was: pure distaste and fear of the messages they peddle. Journalists – please stand up.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a freelance journalist and deputy editor of gal-dem magazine.