On the morning of September 2, 2015, pictures began to circulate on social media showing the body of a small boy, a Syrian refugee, who had been washed up dead on a Turkish beach. It was a graphic and tragic example of the many refugee deaths, which were being roundly ignored by most European governments and many media outlets.
One or two news outlets showed the images heavily pixelated, without particular prominence. The Independent’s digital team, recognising that perhaps a tipping point had been reached, reacted differently and with real boldness.
First, we made the decision to show the most harrowing of the pictures — Aylan Kurdi, lying in the shallows, face turned to the camera — and to do so without any attempt to hide its horror by blurring or pixelating.
Next, we ran the image prominently on our Web site home page under a stark and provocative headline: “If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?”
As our report went viral on Twitter and Facebook, expertly promoted by our social media desk, we realised there was a need to harness the reaction of our audience.
To accomplish this, we set up an online petition that very day at Change.org, calling on the British Prime Minister to recognise the crisis and pledge to accept a fair share of refugees. We ran further reports on our Web site, as well as an evening editorial urging action.
The following morning the print edition of The Independent ran the image of Aylan Kurdi uncensored on its front page. We were the only national title to do so. It had the simple headline: “Somebody’s child.”
The editorial, first published online, appeared in the leader column, and readers were urged to call on the government to show empathy.
Sharing our coverage on Twitter with the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, we encouraged readers, politicians, and public figures to back our campaign by tweeting pictures of themselves holding placards displaying the hashtag. Those images then formed the basis for further reports, showing the coordinated nature of our efforts.
Our petition, calling on David Cameron to recognise the crisis and pledge that Britain would accept its fair share of refugees, attracted almost 400,000 signatures in four days.
The Independent brand has always been synonymous with liberal values: It has a concern for human rights and expounds the belief that humanity must be the key driver of government policy. The campaign we launched in response to the harrowing images of Aylan Kurdi was emblematic of the company’s editorial outlook and demonstrated very clearly how that outlook is as relevant in our digital offering as it has always been in print.
In one sense, the campaign’s objective was clear-cut: to put pressure on the Prime Minister to show more compassion and accept more refugees. By harnessing the power of our brand, by encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to sign our petition, we achieved that aim.
The Independent was at the forefront of a news coverage, social media, and public response which ultimately led the government to change its policy. On September 7, the Prime Minister confirmed that Britain would take 20,000 refugees, a considerable increase from previous commitments.
More broadly, the success of our campaign assisted the Independent brand to gain global visibility and attract new readers from around the world. Our decision to show the most upsetting of the images, uncensored, saw The Independent widely discussed in third-party media, as representatives were asked to discuss our approach in numerous interviews.
Not only had our campaign struck a chord, but we had shown once again how The Independent’s success is so often predicated on an innovative and brave approach to subjects that others are dealing with in more traditional ways.