In 2016, Britain’s headlines were filled with hate. Following a spike in race-hate crimes in June, after the result of the E.U. Referendum, experts at the University of Leicester noted that the intolerance had been “fueled and legitimized” by the media. For several years, with increasing frequency, three popular tabloids in particular — The Sun, The Daily Mail, and the Daily Express — have been using divisive rhetoric to demonize refugees and generally stir anti-immigrant, racist attitudes in the U.K. This summer, a small group of campaigners decided that it was time to take action.
Stop Funding Hate rests on a simple idea: get consumers to speak to the billion-pound corporations that they buy from, and ask them to stop advertising in these newspapers. It may be a straightforward method, but it’s effective. Right now, thousands are using the #StopFundingHate hashtag to tell brands that they want them to pull the plug on the racist, divisive press.
It might seem idealistic to believe that lots of people shouting on a hashtag could have a true impact, but this week the campaign gained real traction. Lego announced that they had ended their promotional ties with The Daily Mail. British retail group The Co-op, meanwhile, are “reviewing their advertising policies,” and soccer commentator Gary Lineker, who has long been the face of Walker’s potato chips, is reportedly in conversation with the brand about its relationship with the controversial tabloids. And now they're focused on department store John Lewis, which usually makes headlines in the U.K. at this time of year for its big-budget, feel-good Christmas adverts.
Below, Stop Funding Hate’s founding organizer Richard Wilson speaks about freedom of the press, freedom of the people, and why this campaign matters so much right now.
Who’s behind the Stop Funding Hate campaign?
RICHARD WILSON: We all have different backgrounds. I started the campaign with my friend Rosey Ellum. We both work in charities professionally. There's a core team of six or seven. We're all doing this as volunteers, but we've got people with media experience, people with PR experience, people coming at it from a community organizing point of a view, and technical people helping develop a website. Effectively we are a small but a diverse group of volunteers who are all bringing our own professional skills to work on an issue, in our spare time, that we're all concerned about.
Our top priority is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I've personally been involved in freedom of speech campaigning myself for a while [Wilson worked for Amnesty International]. We want the media to work well, but alongside that, we think people have a right to live safely in their communities without fear. A big concern for us is the increase in hate crime that we've seen this year. We think press freedom goes hand in hand with consumer freedom, and that people have a right to speak out and express their concerns if they’re seeing anything happening that they're not happy about. The reason we set the campaign up now is, if you look at the numbers of these hostile, aggressive front pages demonizing migrants and refugees, it seems to be getting worse. We're also seeing an increase in prejudice, racism and xenophobia in our society. It feels like it's coming to a head.
What was the catalyst that made you set up the campaign?
For me, it's been a long time coming. My mum was a teacher of refugees when I was a teenager, and I remember seeing how affected she was by the kind of stories that her students would tell her; she was teaching people who had survived the Rwandan genocide and fled from Bosnia. And then she was seeing how the Daily Mail [negatively] portrayed asylum seekers at that time. But the real wake up call for me was last year in 2015, when there was an article in The Sun in which [columnist Katie Hopkins] described African migrants as “cockroaches,” which is the same language that [the Rwandan ruling party] used [to incite] the Rwandan genocide. That triggered a response from the United Nations, who actually put out a statement raising concerns about the behavior and the language of The Sun in particular, and they also mentioned the Daily Express.
What is “brandjamming”?
It’s joining in the conversation with the brand, but taking it to a different direction. It's like saying, "You wanna talk about Christmas? That's great, we love Christmas, we love stories. Here's our story." [You can point out that] there's a bit of contradiction here between this really nice story that [the brand] tells which we love, and this other issue which we'd really like them to address.
[The campaign is] not really about us, this little group of volunteers. The reason it got to where it is, is because it's given a space for thousands of people to have their own say. Like, this guy Bob Jones, who wrote this message to Lego [that went viral and caused the brand to respond], has nothing to do with us. We didn't even know he'd done it. He saw the campaign and was like, "Well, I've got something to say." That friendly message was the thing that finally got a big brand on board.
How did you decide which brands to target first?
We looked at the way that a company is presenting itself; the language that it’s using, the values that it’s tapping into. The Co-op is recognized by almost everyone as one of the leading ethical brands in the U.K. Yet, they've been regularly advertising in the Daily Express, which is a newspaper that was called out by the United Nations last year as extremist media. Also, [department store chain] John Lewis is recognized as being a very responsible, family-friendly company. It feels like the obvious place to start, with companies who say they stand for certain issues and certain principles.
“We don’t accept the idea that only people from a certain political perspective are concerned about racism, xenophobia, hate, demonization. All of those things are issues of basic common decency.”
Consumers have a lot of power in our society, and maybe that's something that people need to be reminded of every now and then. Is that something that you were thinking about, in terms of the campaign?
Completely. There's a lot of despair about things that are happening, and people feel powerless. The reality is, if enough people exercise their rights and their freedom of choice as consumers, it can have an impact. This is a method that's been used time and again. It was used by the civil rights movement in America, it was used against Apartheid in South Africa. This is a tried and constructive way of trying to bring about change: voting with your wallet.
We are an ethical campaign and not a political campaign. We started after the [E.U.] referendum, but we're not about the referendum. We're about the wider cultural and social issues; our focus is much more the media rather than politics. It goes beyond, Do I like this paper or not? It's not about whether you agree or disagree with them politically, it's about this very extreme kind of coverage that goes beyond “left” and “right.” It’s about dehumanization. It’s about [newspapers that present] people in a wholly negative way, to the degree that it's inaccurate. For example, the Daily Express has published at least 60 front pages in the past year about migrants or migration, and [they’ve] been overwhelmingly negative. If you talk about one particular group in society and you only ever do it in a negative way, that's discrimination. So we see ourselves as partly an anti-discrimination campaign as well.
We think that these issues transcend politics and they are for everybody. We don't accept the idea that only people from a certain political perspective are concerned about racism, xenophobia, hate, demonization — this is bigger than any political affiliation. All of those things are issues of basic common decency.
What is the most effective thing people can do if they want to get involved?
Sending emails [to brands], and if anyone fancies being a bit old school, sending letters to John Lewis and also the Co-op. We’re focusing on those two brands right now. The Co-op is really important, because it seems that they're open to a bit more of a discussion, so there's an opportunity here to influence the cause. If you're a Co-op member then it's time to make your voice heard.
Follow the #StopFundingHate campaign on Twitter and Facebook.