This thoughtful post by Left Outside on the coverage given to immigration in the papers has got me thinking. At times in the past I've thought of the press as deliberately giving their readers a scare, like a rollercoaster ride or a Ghost Train, tapping into that primitive fight-or-flight part that makes you pleased to have the adrenalin pumping around your bloodstream: Whoooh look, the bogeyman! And you run away and hide behind the settee, then are relieved to find out that everything's OK, that your Muslim neighbours aren't plotting to bomb your house, that thousands of Poles haven't yet streamed into your street, that life isn't as scary as you might have been led to believe.
I wonder if there isn't something different going on, though. It struck me while watching England's tedious football friendly against Slovenia yesterday that commentators are more often than not pretty nonsensically partisan when the national team's in action - or even when 'our' club sides are taking on Johnny Foreigner in the Champions League or whatever. We have eyes and we can see when fouls are committed and when players take to the ground like a sack of spuds that's been dumped off the back of a van - yet the commentators try and tell us that we haven't seen what we've seen. When Wayne Rooney, for example, kicks another player in the shins, we're expected to believe that he hasn't done it; or when one of 'our' lads goes stacking into the turf at a great rate of knots under a powder-puff challenge we're expected to think that it hasn't happened.
Partisan commentators want us to think in terms of heroes and villains. We can't have the narrative being one in which both England and opposition players are equally capable of searing fouls or dirty cheating dives; it has to be implied that those 'continental' shysters are somehow more naughty at cheating than our brave battlers - that our boys get stuck in and play honestly, whereas the sly tricksters from overseas are always trying to con the ref with feigning injury and plummeting to the ground, things that 'we' would never do. (It's even more bizarre to see this kind of commentary played out on those occasions when an English team made up of immigrants - French, Spanish, Ivory Coast, whatever - takes on an Italian, or French, or Spanish team made up of immigrants. Of course English boys would never feign injury or dive or cheat or foul - and neither would our adopted heroes!)
I was thinking at the time of why football commentators frequently spin these silly narratives about matches, when the fans can see in very stark terms that that isn't what's going on. They can see English players cheat, dive and foul all game long, and they know it's happening. Sure, they roar their disapproval when the other side do it, but that's the way it is. That's the part you have to play. I don't know whether it makes as much sense for commentators to make out that English players are always angels and those foreign types are always out to cheat their way to victory, since they're meant to be telling you what's happening rather than what you'd like to be happening - but then maybe that is their role?
Maybe if you just saw it with your eyes you wouldn't be as patriotic about it? Maybe if you didn't have the bellowing voice of Peter Drury, John Motson or whoever telling you that we're getting a raw deal because we're playing fair you wouldn't enjoy it as much? I don't know. All I do know is that England have cheated as well as the best of them down the years - v Cameroon in Italia 90, v Argentina in 2002. Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don't, but I think everyone does it.
And then I thought about wrestling. The world of wrestling has always (in this country at least) been divided into 'blue-eyes' and 'heels', those characters you're there to cheer for and those you're meant to boo to the rafters (especially when they're cheating behind the referee's back!), and the lines are fairly delineated. It's important for the theatre of the whole thing, and it doesn't work otherwise. Just a couple of blokes chucking each other around a ring isn't as entertaining as one guy who's going to try and cheat his way to victory, conning the oblivious referee who always happens to be looking the wrong way in the process, fighting against someone else who's going to play fair. That's the set-up, and that's how you react as a participant in the theatre, as a ringside spectator: roaring your disapproval at the unfairness of it all.
A friend of mine once told a story of going to all-in wrestling as a child, when it was at its peak of popularity, and seeing two guys going at each other like they really hated each other in the ring, like there was a real feud going on between them. Then being shocked and disappointed afterwards to see them laughing at joking at the bar. All that anger he'd screamed from the audience seemed entirely wasted.
Which brings me to the newspapers and to immigration. The story they tell is no more real than the one the football commentators would have you believe, and no more real than the tableaux acted out in the wrestling ring. But it presses the same buttons. Not those that spark fear, so much, but those which prompt outrage; those which make you demand justice against a lack of fairness.
Immigration stories are, as Left Outside points out, fairly commonly fitting into a template of sorts. Generally we are led to believe that we are being overwhelmed by too many immigrants, that those immigrants are stealing British jobs, that if they aren't doing that they're going to the front of the housing queue and siphoning off benefits from what our friends at the BNP would call the 'indigenous' population, that whatever they're doing that some of them are here to commit murder in the name of their savage religion; and, above all, that it's all either (a) tacitly accepted by the Government in order to bring in cheap labour or even (b) actively encouraged because for some reason they think that all immigrants/Muslims/whatever will vote in their favour.
That's where the rage comes from. The referee's looking the wrong way! He's been conned by the heels! He's been deceived by those chippy foreigners! And there's nothing we can do about it except holler from the stands!
Except it's not true. I've said many times before that I don't know whether people really care whether these immigration stories are true or not. What they want is that chance to rant, to roar, to shout and scream about what they reckon is unfair.
Which would be fine if the Mail and Express and the others marketed their stories as being like wrestling - you know and I know what's going on, but let's just enjoy ourselves in the heat of the rage for a half-hour or so. But they don't: they market themselves as the tellers of truths and the people who reveal what is really going on. That's where the difference comes. You can scoff at a bit of biased football commentary and think, ah well, I guess it's all about creating a bit of heat and light; and you can shrug your shoulders at a bit of wrestling - it's a bit of fun, and the outrage quickly dies down.
But telling lies about immigrants is something entirely different. It creates that feeling of rage, gets the hackles up and creates a splutter for the spectators, in this case your readers. But it's fundamentally dishonest, and unfair, and needs to be dismantled. If you want to get angry over something, get angry over a football match, or over some real injustices. Because this kind of lying leads to aggression, to hatred, to prejudice and in extreme cases to violence. And it's not a bit of fun; it's deadly serious.