Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Swine flu and immigrants: Express heaven

Here's the Express' fourth swine flu front page in five days - the same paper that was telling everyone to 'keep calm' about swine flu on 17 July.

But now it's managed to take two of its favourite type of stories - health scares, anti-immigrant lies - and put them into one article.

The idea that 'migrants man swine flu helpline' should surely be seen as a positive thing. But of course it isn't - this is the Express after all.

The story starts:

Immigrants who can barely speak English will be used to man the phones at emergency swine flu call centres, it was revealed yesterday.

Which, after the headline, makes it sound as if immigrants who don't speak English will be the only people you can speak to if you call the swine flu helpline. It goes on to say:

hundreds of people with few English language skills and no medical training will join the 1,500 team taking calls from the public.

So now it's only hundreds and not all? And is that hundreds 'with few English language skills' and hundreds with 'no medical training'? This whole story, incidentally, is based on quotes from anonymous sources, so it is of course entirely reliable.

But no English and no medical training? Sounds serious. At which point, you start to wonder: if the helpline needs 1,500 operators, where is it going to find that many people with 'medical training' in a few days? Wouldn't they be doing their medical jobs? And is medical knowledge really necessary - surely it's only asking what symptoms a caller has from a prepared list?

Then an 'insider' involved in the recruitment process reveals:

hundreds of immigrants were being signed up to offer a swine flu diagnosis to the public because the posts had to be filled quickly.

'Hundreds of immigrants' and 'hundreds of people' who can't speak English and with no medical training. Must be the same people, right?

Well, not quite.

Once you turn to the page 5 continuation, it becomes very clear that the claims of 'taking anyone off the street' and having no 'medical background' actually applies to everyone. Indeed, the second half of the story doesn't mention immigrants at all.

And then there's the pictures on the story. Both are very blurry and both credit the BBC as the source. It seems they have been very selectively chosen to focus on bits of a queue where there are a few foreign looking people in order to bolster the slant they have put on the story. In fact the front page picture of the back of some heads - one of the least revealing pictures ever seen on a front page - could be taken from a queue from anywhere for anything.

But if we take the pictures at face value - the caption says they are queuing 'to be interviewed for jobs at the call centre in Watford' - how does that square with one of their source's statements that:

As long as they can provide proof of their date of birth, they can get through the recruitment process. When I speak to them on the phone they can barely understand what I’m saying and even those who can speak English are very difficult to understand.

They're queueing to be interviewed but he's talking to them on the phone? And anyway, in the current economic climate, it seems highly unlikely that there aren't lots of people who would be willing to do the job.

If he (as the anonymous person involved in recruiting) is recruiting people who can't speak English very well, it seems it's him who's not doing his job very well. Yet he's still reliable enough to be the source of a front page story...

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