The Tide Has Turned for the RNLI—But Britain’s Xenophobic Media Remains the Same

17 September 2019

Country: United Kingdom

by: Anna Lekas Miller

Screen_Shot_2019-09-17_at_4.09.24_PMEarlier this week, Britain’s anti-immigrant rightwing readership had a field day when the Sunday Times and Mail Online “revealed” that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) spends £3.3 million pounds on overseas projects, while 95 British jobs are on the line.

“The fact that the RNLI are cutting staff in the UK but boosting spending on these international projects begs the question of what the priority of the organization is,” the paper quoted Tory MP Nigel Evans as saying.

“I would say that 99 percent of the British public giving money to them haven’t the faintest idea that its being diverted to projects overseas.”

Except the problem with the “revelations” is that they didn’t actually “reveal” anything. As the charity stated in a tweet, their overseas activities (which includes providing Muslim women in Zimbabwe with burkinis and swimming lessons and building daycare centers near rivers in Bangladesh) are publicly available information. It accounts for only 2 percent of the charity’s total spending, and has a proven track record of reducing drownings in parts of the world where sea levels—and water deaths—are particularly high.


Nevertheless, readers took to social media to express their outrage, saying that they would “immediately be pulling their donations from the RNLI” and that “Sharia Islam is not why we fundraise.”

However, while many have since condemned the racist outpouring on social media, few have directed their outrage towards the media outlets—namely the journalists, editors and sub-editors—that authored and approved these articles for publication in the first place. Both the Mail Online and the Sunday Times lead their articles with dog whistle Islamophobic headlines—namely implying that the RNLI is axing British jobs to buy burkinis for Africa, with little context to what this actually means.

Resting on these tropes is problematic for many reasons. While a burkini is technically no more than a swimsuit that adheres to Islamic dress codes, it has been leveraged into a symbol of the “Islamization” of Europe. We have chronicled numerous instances where media outlets have turned it into a subject of an unapologetically Islamophobic debate over whether or not women should be able to wear it to public pools and beaches; highlighting that the RNLI funds “burkinis” is like pouring gasoline on the already smoldering embers of this Islamophobic narrative.

What is more, both headlines summarize the RNLI’s activities as funding burkinis in “Africa”—which makes it seem that the charity is randomly handing out swimwear across the continent. In reality, the only African country that the RNLI is working in is Zanzibar, a Muslim-majority island country where women are often discouraged from learning how to swim due to modesty reasons—hence the urgent need for swimming lessons and burkinis.

It is safe to say that these journalists know exactly what they are doing. As media professionals working in Europe during events like Brexit and the political rise of the far right, they know how inflammatory topics like the “burkini” can be—and how to use it to their advantage. Worse yet, it is clear that they opted for sensationalist media coverage and “click bait” over providing accurate information and relevant context for any given story.

Instead of resorting to dog whistle language about the RNLI’s activities, why not link to this article about a Zanzibarian woman who learned to swim with the program, and is now training to be a swimming instructor herself? Why not provide essential context about how Bangladesh’s geography makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels, two factors that make Bangladeshi children far more vulnerable to drowning than they would be otherwise?

Fortunately for the RNLI and the lifesaving work that they do around the world, social media has turned the tide on the negative press, with many showing support for the charity’s international activities, or simply wanting to shut the racists up. Just yesterday, the RNLI’s donations page actually crashed, because too many people were trying to show their support.

However, Britain still has the problem of a racist mainstream media that values xenophobic clickbait over accurate reporting.

To read more about our ongoing campaign against IPSO, the independent press standards organisation that regulates most British media, click here. For our anti-racism toolkit, click here.