The tragedy of Aylan

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I hope that both The Sun and Katie Hopkins are deeply ashamed of themselves. Those words and the decision to publish them were both not only wrong but immoral. And this week those words have become haunting. Does Katie look at Aylan’s body and still not care? And what of The Sun’s editor? Does The Sun feel any responsibility for any of this?

The image of Aylan Kurdi has dominated the front pages of newspapers this week, including with some extraordinary hypocrisy, The Sun itself. The heartbreaking picture of his small body lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey is powerful and made all the more powerful when it first appeared on social media alongside hundreds of photos of smiling children on their first day at school.

It is one of the most distressing and painful images that we’ve seen for years. He could have been my son or anyone’s son. And subsequent photos of him with his older brother and an interview with his dad paints a picture of a happy little boy which helps make this tragedy all the more real for all of us.

His death is a direct challenge to the position taken by the UK Government and by governments across Europe. It is a test for Cameron and it is a test for Europe. And it speaks volumes of the crisis of leadership across our continent that Germany appears to be the only state that recognises the scale of the response needed. It is a crisis of morality in our society, in our media and in our politics.

In Aylan’s death I hope that we will all face, and try to answer, the question as to why are we so resistant to the idea of taking people to our homes and protecting them from extreme violence? Surely this is at the heart of our humanity and who we believe ourselves to be as a nation and as a country?

Our history is one where we have welcomed people to our shores and offered them the protection and support that they need and that we can share. Such headlines attacking the kinder transport in the thirties would have been inconceivable so why is escaping from Kobane so different today? Clearly the scale and the numbers are huge, but we are richer today, we have the experience of the past and we have the structures of European governance that we didn’t have 80 years ago.

This summer has been one where our screens and papers have been filled with the human impact of the wars in the Middle East and Africa. As we’d expect parts of the press have been most guilty of creating a an image of desperate people trying to escape war, slaughter and genocide as a threat to our holiday plans. But I can think of no part of the media that has emerged from this summer with much integrity.

Where was the public outcry when the article described above was published in The Sun? At what point did describing human beings as “cockroaches” become an acceptable part of our public discourse? At one level it’s possible to dismiss Katie Hopkins and The Sun as examples of the worst parts of the gutter press, but what of David Cameron describing people in Calais as a “swarm”? In terms of creating a national mood are they really so different? What is certainly different is that David Cameron should know better than to play to this particular gallery.

But why are we surprised? The events and coverage of this summer are not new. For too long we have allowed a debate on immigration which has been largely driven by anti-Europeans and the rest of the right wing all fuelled by their cheerleaders in The Sun, Daily Mail and the rest. And their hypocrisy when confronted with the reality of the atmosphere that they themselves have helped create is simply sickening. Rather than confront and challenge this debate, all too often we have run away from the difficult choices involved in taking on these arguments and winning a public debate based on principle, doing the right thing and our basic humanitarian instincts.

It’s nearly 70 years since Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language and it is striking how his invective against weasel words and opaque phraseology would be true today and never so true as now. We have used terms like “migrant” or “Asylum-seeker” as pejorative terms to disguise the real human impact of policies that have been pursued by the government in our name and on our behalf. The media have, either through idleness or intent, also made use of the same language to perpetuate a story that poor people who are risking everything to survive the horrors of Syria and escape the genocidal Islamic State are a threat to our lives and our communities. Again language is defining not only the terms of the debate but helping to create a nasty intolerant culture which has dehumanised both them and us.

And Alylan’s death is the direct consequence of this culture and this political failure.

And the political failure is profound. For far too long we have run away from challenging the rhetoric of UKIP and their friends on the far-right. We have become accustomed to the language of chauvinism and the fear and intolerance of those people who are not from around here or who are different to us. We blamed Eastern European nurses and African cleaners for the depth of the economic crisis because its easier than asking the really tough questions. It’s no wonder that we haven’t heard from Farage over the last few days.

The language and tone of the UK Government and particularly Cameron over the last 24 hours has been appalling. Ironically the UK’s approach to securing safety and security for people close to their homes is not intrinsically wrong or bad. But their failure to recognise that approach is a wholly inadequate response is criminal. My fear is that the reality of this policy is that it is driven by fear of the press and the right wing than it is driven by the desire to do the right thing

It is telling that it is Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon as First Ministers in Wales and Scotland who are making clear that both countries are ready and willing to play our part. The optimist inside me believes that is a further example of how the politics of Wales and Scotland are becoming increasingly different and more tolerant than that of the hot-house of Westminster. I hope that since some Conservatives, all the candidates for the Labour leadership and other backbenchers are also demanding urgent action that the culture of that place may change as well.

Given the scale of the media coverage of Aylan’s death it appears that in death he will be accorded more respect than in life. But it is a real tragedy that it has taken this little boy’s terrible death to galvanise European leaders to take action and to shame the UK press into silence. Why is it always this way? I remember witnessing at first hand the human impact of genocide in Rwanda and again in the Balkans. In both cases it took a public outcry over the deaths of thousands of people before politicians took action. As politicians we really must live up to the post-Rwanda slogan of “Never Again” and to make it real.

But let us be clear. Doing the right thing today means going beyond refugee quotas and protection of the aid budget. It means a determined challenge to those chauvinists who have stigmatised and demonised other people because of where they were born, their language or their customs.

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