The role media should play in the refugee crisis was a bone of contention among a top panel from broadcast, digital and print at last night’s Polis-London Press Club debate – but they were united on the need to get better at talking to people who are concerned about rising immigration.

Polis director Charlie Beckett chaired a panel of Independent columnist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum; Today Programme chief correspondent Matthew Price; Buzzfeed senior reporter Rossalyn Warren; and Telegraph photo and video journalist William Wintercross, who set up a charity to help Syrian refugees after covering the story.


When it came to the emotional involvement of journalists and what the purpose of their reporting was, the panel expressed differing views. Answering a question from the audience about whether there was a role for the media in conflict resolution, Hilsum, citing her own lack of policy experience, did not mince her words. “No – the media are there to find out what’s going on, tell it accurately and leave it at that.”

Alibhai-Brown disagreed. “I don’t think we should be so modest; press images of Vietnam changed the American psyche and brought the war to an end. As a columnist, my job is to say to people in power, you must do something.” Wintercross used the example of the picture of Alan Kurdi that was featured on the front page of The Independent and sparked much debate. “It captured the imagination because it was so incongruous to see a dead toddler on a beach used by tourists; it was no longer ‘the other’.”

Asked about how he responds to the crisis as both a journalist and an individual, Price said: “I see no conflict in it, no need to be distanced from human emotion. Social media gives more avenues too say ‘I find this bloody awful’.” Wintercross cited the experience of being shown a picture of a refugee’s dead child and being told ‘when my son died, my heart died’ as a moment of clarity which saw him establish the Syrian Refugee Relief Fund. “It sounds glib, but my mentor always said, you’re a human being first, a journalist second.”


There was however consensus amongst the panel that while journalists – and broadcast media in particular – were doing a good job at telling and humanising the story, more needs to be done to get the message across, especially to those who are afraid about what higher levels of immigration. “ The far right and right-wing media are leading the conversation, the biggest challenge is to reach people online,” warned Warren. “The social media response to my stories about women refugees is that it’s all lies.” Alibhai-Brown added: “There is a deep fear that is not just economic but also cultural – and it is justifiable.” Price agreed: “I try and engage with people who don’t like my reports because they’re scared and we need to understand that. I agree with Lindsey that we should do much more talking to those people who are afraid.”

Supported by the London Evening Standard and The Independent, Migrants, Terror and the Media: reporting and responsibilities on the front line drew a capacity crowd drew a capacity crowd at LSE’s largest auditorium Sheikh Zayed Theatre, ranging from students and young journalist to senior figures from broadcast and print journalism. It was the third sell-out debate of 2016 for the London Press Club, following ones on press freedom and the US election; next up is the Hugh Cudlipp Lecture on March 1, to be delivered at the Museum of London by Kevin Maguire.

Photos by Julia Liborio