A highly mobile global population demands measured and well informed debate surrounding immigration. The British press has so far failed in their charge as public facilitator of debate and will continue to do so unless some kind of change is instigated.
Negative portrayal of immigrants in the British press came to a head toward the end of the year. Various outlets touted doomsday predictions of migration meltdown and Eastern Europeans flocking to our shores to feed on the carcasses of Britain’s young unemployed. It was a disgracefully shabby and misinformed end to 2013 that held a mirror up to a similarly rotten performance throughout the year. Cue the moaning about the Mail, the Sun, The Express and other muck shovelling publications. But stop! Actually don’t, please do carry on, but let me also draw your attention to other, more reputable newspapers, such as the Telegraph or The Times which have carried headlines such as ‘Iain Duncan Smith: Britain's benefits system being threatened by immigrants’ or ‘Influx of 50,000 migrants ‘inevitable’ because of higher wages and benefits’. Nothing like some responsible reportage to see in a new year. Indeed a study by the Migration observatory, from 2010 to 2012 found that the most common descriptor for the word immigrants across all newspaper types was "illegal, which was used in 10% of mid market stories, 6.6% of tabloid stories and 5% of broadsheet stories." It doesn’t stop there, words referring to movement such as "into, stay and stop as well as those surrounding security or legality such as terrorist, suspected and sham, featured heavily in tabloid coverage." Language used has a direct effect on the direction of pubic discussion and not a week of 2013 passed by without a damaging portrayal of migrants in the media. Asylum seekers are often assumed to be bogus, and the term economic migrant has been corrupted with negative meaning.
I hear you ask “surely this must reflect some aspect of reality? If reports are so widespread in the press it must be based on some kind of fact?” Well no, it doesn’t. A UCL study released in November (2013) revealed that recent migrants make a positive net contribution to the UK. More than can be said for the relentless peddling of hatred and intolerance that seems to have become a tradition of a large segment of the British press. A Scottish analysis of press ‘ethnic coverage’ found that coverage tends to distract public opinion to take attention away from real problems by manufacturing events, and focussing on the more unusual elements of minority communities such as youth gangs or interracial violence. The literary equivalent of Nigel Farage pointing at a picture of a naked lady to distract from the fact he’s kicking a Frenchman.
Some areas of the British press and some politicians have tried to hold back the tide. However it’s a bit of a David and Goliath story (if David was armed with a sponge and Goliath rode on a death unicorn with laser vision). It doesn’t help that some attempts to illustrate that migrants aren’t the antichrist have been nothing less that cringe worthy. Keith Vaz, for example stationed himself in the arrivals hall at Luton to welcome the first plane of arrivals as though they were escapees from the 1960s Eastern bloc. This understadably attracted mockery from the Romanian ambassador who compared them to characters from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. While this show of solidarity was well meant, it was, lets face it, pretty tragic. However, it did serve the purpose of highlighting that only two new entrants arrived, both of whom already had jobs. This was a far cry from the warnings of chaos. Both The Guardian and The Independent have also run stories that demonstrate how incredible some of the claims by politicians as well as the right wing press have been.
We cannot continue to use the need to sell copy as a crutch to justify unnecessarily antagonistic reportage. Such an important topic demands sensible coverage to facilitate a measured public debate that leads to well thought out political policies. This demand was not met in the coverage that proliferated in 2013. In 2014 the press must retake its position as responsible informer of the British public conscience, and work against the pressures that are threatening to divide the country along lines of race, religion and class.
In an increasingly globalised world system, migration is inevitable, but also overwhelmingly positive both idealistically and economically. People need to know this. This way cultural boundaries can be dismantled and misunderstandings understood. Maybe this is a bit soppy, a bit idealistic. But who cares? What’s wrong with a bit of naivety or positive thinking going into a new year? Unfortunately with politicians continuing to use immigration to score cheap political points (see Nigel Farage’s and Boris Johnson’s latest posturing), a balanced, calm, grown-up discussion seems extremely unlikely.
Graham Stothard is a postgraduate student on the MA in Multimedia Journalism