Overview of this campaign
On the morning of 2 September 2015, our online news team were one of the first to spot a set of images on social media that would go on to travel the world. The pictures showed the body of a small boy, a 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 desk, recognising that a tipping point had been reached, reacted differently and with real boldness.
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. The image ran under a forcefully 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 social media, we set up an online petition – with the help of change.org – calling on the British Prime Minister to recognise the crises and pledge to accept a fair share of refugees. We ran further reports on our website, as well as an editorial that evening which urged action.
The following morning the print edition of The Independent ran the image of Aylan Kurdi uncensored on its front page – the only national title to do so – with 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 some compassion.
Later than day, via social media, we urged people to support the hashtag 'refugeewelcome' - the resulting images provided a further front page and increased the pressure further.
Results for this campaign
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, while thousands more tweeted, facebooked and instagrammed pictures of themselves holding signs reading '#refugeeswelcome'. The Independent's campaign was at the forefront of the push for improvements to government policy. Eventually, the Prime Minister confirmed on 7 September that Britain would take 20,000 refugees, a considerable increase on previous commitments.
The Independent brand is synonymous with liberal, decent 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.
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 people in their hundreds of thousands to sign our petition, we achieved that aim. The Independent provoked, then led a response which ultimately led the government to act.
More broadly, the success of our coverage and our campaign assisted the Independent brand gain global visibility and attract new readers from around the world. Our decision both to show the most upsetting of the images, uncensored, saw the Independent widely discussed in third party media – 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 deal with in more traditional ways.