“BREAKING POINT” screams the red lettering on an anti-immigration poster from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
The poster was released days before Thursday’s EU Referendum, when Britons will decide whether to remain in or leave the European Union.
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Set over an image of thousands of refugees in Slovenia in 2015 who had just crossed the border with Croatia on their perilous journey, many of whom were fleeing war and persecution, the poster has been likened to anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s and been condemned by a number of politicians and observers.
A caption calling on voters to tick “Leave the European Union” on June 23 reads: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.”
— Brendan Harkin (@brendanjharkin) June 16, 2016
British Prime Minister David Cameron of the ruling Conservative Party, who is leading the Remain campaign, said the poster was “wrong in fact and in motivation”.
Opposition Labour MP Chuka Umunna said UKIP’s poster “stands contrary to the values Britain has fought for”.
Jo Cox, the pro-Remain Labour MP who was stabbed and shot dead in her constituency one week ago by a suspect with links to the anti-immigration far-right Britain First group, would have “responded with outrage” to the poster, said Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP.
Her husband, political activist Brendan Cox, called the poster “vile“, just a day before she was killed.
UKIP did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Aside from condemnation, the poster raises questions of ethics.
Is it fair to depict vulnerable people in a political campaign without their explicit consent? Can the photographer object to the use of the image? What is the purpose of documenting the refugee crisis? And does it incite hatred?
The image was taken by Jeff Mitchell of Getty Images, who refused to comment directly to Al Jazeera.
“It is always uncomfortable when an objective news photograph is used to deliver any political message or subjective agenda, however the image in question has been licensed legitimately,” said Getty Images, but did not comment further.
Al Jazeera asked a few experts to weigh in.
|Diego Cupolo, photojournalist on the refugee crisis|
[If it were my photo] at first I would feel terrible, since any decent journalist produces work to present a situation as it happens. In my work, I try to present the viewer with an image of reality and leave it up to them to decide how they perceive the image.
It is something else, to present an image and tell the viewer what they are seeing. By linking cause and effect, migration and your country’s economic hardship, is to misguide the audience because real life is much more complicated than A equals B … It takes the blame off our shoulders, but to use my own photos to misguide the public, no, that would be offensive and counter to everything I stand for as not just a journalist, but as a human being.
In documenting the refugee crisis for English-language media and trying to present what is happening in refugee camps, I find myself constantly countering the toxic rhetoric coming from so many British papers and tabloids, which are full of hateful talking points and easy-to-swallow slices of racism that bit by bit can render a casual news consumer completely insane.
[As for consent], there is a difference between being vulnerable in private and in the public. In general, each photojournalist must set their own ethics in regards to consent and if they feel they are doing something wrong, then they probably are.
Can the photojournalist complain about the use of this photo? Probably not, stock photo agencies have photographers sign lengthy contracts to cover themselves in case of such issues.
|Marius Luedicke, professor focused on brands with regards to moralism|
When I saw the poster I was not pleased at all. The EU Referendum campaign has been all about limiting immigration to a certain extent; this is inherently unethical but unavoidable in a world divided by nation states. It’s not a humanistic idea.
The refugee crisis is one thing – it is massively different from economic migration. Mixing the two is not fair, it’s terrible. We are talking about two immoral issues – the nation state can never be fair to humans.
Using that imagery of refugees to refer to gradual immigration that happens over the years as a threat is plain wrong. It’s a provocation, part of a strategy.
The problem we have with the Brexit campaign is that it has a clear image, a very drastic image which appeals to fears such as overcrowded cities, feeling like a foreigner in your own country. The In campaign has nothing to counter, in terms of powerful images. They are working with the economic consequences of leaving the EU – how can a normal person imagine that?
I wasn’t surprised that the rhetoric got more extreme towards the last days. UKIP’s poster wasn’t surprising given the rhetoric they have used before – plain tasteless.
In Austria [and elsewhere across Europe] you see the same rhetoric from the far-right parties. It’s all about immigration – those people born in the country are by birth better. It goes down the nation-state route. This is a difficult moral dilemma we are facing.
|Mel Bunce, journalism lecturer and ethics researcher at City University London|
UKIP’s use of refugee images in their campaign is extremely unethical. The photo demonises refugees, a vulnerable group who deserve our compassion and empathy not our blame.
The image suggests that refugees are somehow to blame for financial issues in the United Kingdom and this is simply not the case. Framing the photo in this way turns the image into a piece of political propaganda. It fuels race-based discrimination and hatred.
The UKIP image has important similarities with some Nazi propaganda from the 1930s. Both use images to suggest that foreigners are coming in overwhelming numbers and they threaten our culture, our way of life and our economic prosperity. They are both based on the same core lie. The lie at the heart of much Nazi propaganda was that “Others” – Jewish citizens, foreigners, and minority groups – were to blame for Germany’s problems. The same lie is at the heart of the UKIP [poster].
There are important differences as well. It’s important not to overstate the similarity. Nazi propaganda rarely held back from blatant racial stereotyping and vilification. UKIP images work on a more subtle level to suggest that foreigners should be feared.
|Tom van Laer, marketing lecturer at Sir John Cass Business School|
Ethics become a great concern when storytelling is adopted for the promotion of political views … It is unlikely that already vulnerable voters will resist the power of stories in general and political, mediates stories in particular. This reinforces the need to restrict voters’ exposure to this type of political advertising, especially in situations in which these vulnerable people are likely to be lost in the story.
[But] political advertising has been exempt from the Advertising Code of the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK’s independent regulator for advertising across all media.
The Electoral Commission, which oversees British elections and referenda, has rejected the idea of regulating political ads.
[As for privacy of the refugees depicted], a right to privacy exists in the UK law, ironically as a consequence of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, it is legal to photograph anyone on any public property. A photographer at Getty Images took the picture. Getty Images has licensed the picture to UKIP legitimately.
Neither side of the debate has really covered itself in much glory. The arguments to remain part of the European Union or to leave have been aggressive, poisonous and based largely on fear-mongering storytelling, rather than facts.
Whether they contributed to the murder of [Jo Cox], an elected Member of Parliament , which in itself is an affront to democracy, as well as a human tragedy, it is too early to speculate. However, sadly, the awful scenes in Birstall, West Yorkshire, seem to sum up a country that has been tearing itself apart, spurred on by negative storytelling.
While these stories were temporarily suspended following Cox’s death, and before the vote on Thursday, there is a strong argument that political storytelling should be stopped for good.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla