The murder of MP Jo Cox this summer was one of the most tragic events in Britain’s modern political history. Gunned down and stabbed to death in the street, her killing took place in a political climate rife with hyper-nationalism, xenophobia, and hatred just a week before Britons cast their vote in the referendum, known as “Brexit,” and decided to leave the EU. An exemplary politician and human being, Cox was targeted for her ideals, in what was an unambiguous, politically-motivated attack.
Last week, her killer, Thomas Mair, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mair is alleged to have shouted “Britain First,” the name of a far-right political party, during the attack, and while in court, confirmed his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” In issuing the verdict, the judge sentencing Mair said: “There is no doubt that this murder was done for the purpose of advancing a political, racial and ideological cause namely that of violent white supremacism and exclusive nationalism most associated with Nazism and its modern forms.”
Rather than engaging in considered analysis and carefully labeling of Mair’s ideals and motivations, some parts of Britain’s right-wing press have depoliticized Cox’s killing and reverted to the scare-mongering and scapegoating so prevalent in the run-up to Brexit. In an article which has caused widespread outrage, the Daily Mail blamed immigrants for Mair’s actions, suggesting he decided to kill the MP out of fear he would lose his public housing to ‘foreigners.’
The verdict on Britain’s first political assassination in twenty-six years didn’t even make the Daily Mail’s front-page, and was, instead, buried on page thirty amidst a host of banal stories, including a news report on ‘laughing migrants.’ The Sun, meanwhile, implied that Cox’s killer became a Neo-Nazi because his mother had a black boyfriend, in effect, also blaming minorities for white supremacy.
Fringe social media chatter has long claimed Cox’s killing was a “false flag” operation organized by “globalists” and “leftists.” Indeed, there were some 50,000 tweets celebrating her killing and praising Mair as a “hero,” and “patriot.” But, the Daily Mail and The Sun are not fringe publications. They are, rather, Britain’s most-read newspapers, informing millions of people every day. Their influence in norm-setting, from ideas to rhetoric to social values, is enormous.
Turns out there really is nothing the Daily Mail can't blame on immigrants. pic.twitter.com/5jLMr5Ic9k
— James Chalmers (@ProfChalmers) November 24, 2016
In a report on hate speech in the British press, published last month, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance singled out both papers for “fueling prejudice.” During the EU referendum, the two tabloids spread fear and misinformation by demonizing immigrants and refugees. One article in The Sun even likened refugees to “cockroaches”.
Thanks to pieces like that there was a predictable surge in hate crimes following Brexit, as xenophobia went mainstream. It was in this environment that Jo Cox’s killer acted. Prosecutors in the case privately acknowledged that the political climate surrounding the referendum campaign fueled Mair’s actions.
As a similar atmosphere sweeps across America now, the press in both countries has an added civic responsibility to produce fact-driven, non-partisan journalism and take the obvious threat of far-right, white nationalist extremism seriously. Instead of acting on this obligation, however, Britain’s tabloids chose to cover Mair’s conviction by reproducing the same sensationalist, anti-immigrant fear-mongering, which fanned the flames of hatred in the first place.