Rightwing tabloids first used punctuation and then pictures to pour scorn on the the ages of the youngsters brought to London from Calais this week, or “children” (inverted commas included) as they are known in the Sun and Mail.
It was the Sun that led the way in putting pictures of three refugees on the front page on Tuesday under the headline “Are you kidding?”: Calais “children” arrive in UK”. A page nine story reported on the “row” over the childrens’ “true age”.
By Wednesday’s editions the Mail and Express had caught up, turning inside-the-paper stories questioning the ages of unidentified migrants into front-page stories. The Mail used the top half of its front page to promote another double page spread inside on the “child refugees” debate.
The front page of the Sun plastered the picture of one particular refugee to illustrate a call by a backbench Tory MP, David Davies, for dental x-rays to be used to check ages, under a banner headline “Tell us the tooth: migrant children look 40”. The tabloid’s top team, including editor Tony Gallagher, are understood to have used an app that used facial recognition technology to guess the ages of the refugees – and then to raise questions about them.
Such coverage prompted an interview with a backbench Tory MP, David Davies, on Radio 4’s Today programme, which fed into an online row about how a few pictures were being used to criticise a programme to admit just 100 refugees with relatives in the UK before the Calais camp’s closure.
Nobody is expecting the refugees who arrived this week to have to go through dental tests to prove they should remain in the UK, not even Sun executives. So why has the issue become such a live one?
“This completely undermines the case to take them in,” said one tabloid executive, pointing out that none of the unidentified but quite possibly traumatised refugees had written to complain about the coverage to date. Besides, editors had looked at the pictures expecting to see young children and girls, and were taken aback by the young men in hoodies.
All this ignored the fact that photographers cannot take pictures of minors without the consent of a guardian. Indeed by Wednesday, when pictures of far younger-looking children were made available by agency photographers, tabloid editors cited press regulation for making their use too difficult. “We would probably have to pixellate them,” said one.
Sun executives in particular, claiming to be cockahoop at having “led the way” on the story, seized on the pictures on Monday as proving the fears they had had all along about the resettlement scheme for unaccompanied children in Calais. “With those crows feet at 17, he’s obviously been using the wrong moisturiser!” hooted one.
However, the story, which was on the print front page two days in a row, was far lower down in the Sun’s online edition. While tabloid editors congratulated themselves, the reaction on social media was far more mixed, with some people tweeting out pictures of themselves at 16 to show how hard it is to determine a teenager’s age from an image alone.
Alastair Harper, who works for Unicef, began a hashtag #Refugeeswelcome, with a picture of himself as a 16-year-old.
Journalist Diane Lebel joined in on Twitter
But, as the reaction to the concerns for the refugees raised by Gary Lineker
and Lily Allen showed #refugeeswelcome was not universally popular.