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MIGRANTS are deeply vilified by the British press, despite frequently having fled war and persecution, faced life-threatening situations in pursuit of safety and been prevented from forging a meaningful existence in Britain.
Coverage of migration is not only immensely hostile, but strikingly one-sided and totally lacking in alternative perspectives.
Those who shape the narrative both dehumanise migrants and depict them as the source of society’s ills.
All too often we hear the myth that migrants take from the country and give nothing back in return. It is unjust and needs to change.
The language used by journalists is what creates this injustice. When displaced people are described collectively as a “flood” – a metaphor that reduces human beings to mere water – the anti-migrant hostility is clear for all to see.
However, calling out the biased nature of language alone will not rectify the situation. To do this, its root causes must be both identified and understood, as only then can the injustice be effectively combatted.
And it is impossible to discuss the prevalence of right-wing bias in the media without discussing media ownership.
At present, our newspapers are concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. Research conducted by the Media Reform Coalition estimates that 71 per cent of the market is owned by three companies.
This statistic alone sheds light on why one-sided coverage is so prevalent – the agenda of those in charge will always take precedence over alternative voices. When three companies are in control of almost three-quarters of the market, there is very little room for challenging the dominant discourse.
While migrants are subjected to an immoral level of hostility, it is important to note that they are not the only targets. Anything or anyone linked to progressive ideas or the creation of a tolerant and fair society receives similar levels of derision.
Jeremy Corbyn was repeatedly and viciously hounded by the media. Why? Because he challenged the dominant discourse. Scottish independence was strongly opposed for the same reason. The one thing that becomes clear from looking at the British press critically is that anything that challenges the status quo is vehemently campaigned against.
The media’s antipathy towards migrants was particularly relentless in the build-up to the EU referendum. Research conducted in 2016 revealed that the Daily Express alone carried 179 anti-migrant front page headlines in a five-year period.
Not only did the issue of immigration dominate column inches, but the language used to describe migrants plumbed new depths of indecency. Correspondingly, the public’s level of concern reached a high point around this time, evidencing the interconnected relationship between media coverage and public opinion.
Headlines that proclaim the dangers of immigration have reduced in frequency since the referendum, yet the media’s antipathy towards migrants is still just as strong.
This is shown in the following headline taken from The Sun on January 2 2020, a publication with a penchant for hateful and reactionary headlines: “MIGRANT CRISIS – Priti Patel wants to deport illegal immigrants crossing channel faster after numbers soar in run-up to Brexit.”
In one headline, migrants are framed in a negative light in a number of different ways. Firstly, we are told that we are in crisis as a result of migration. Secondly, immigrants are portrayed as “illegal” and therefore a security threat. And thirdly, we are told that the number of migrants attempting to enter Britain is “soaring,” suggesting the country is being overwhelmed.
All three of these frames are commonly seen across all newspaper types. Just one month before the 2019 election, the Telegraph featured the headline: “There are 1.2 million illegal immigrants in the UK – a quarter of the entire total in Europe.”
Here we see a further example of a journalist accentuating the number of migrants in Britain, creating inaccurate perceptions of the size of the Britain’s migrant population. Research from Ipsos Mori found that the general public’s average guess was 24 per cent, when the reality is just 14 per cent.
A Migration Observatory study found that terms such as “immigrants” frequently feature alongside words such as “thousands” and “millions,” evidencing a fixation on numbers. Both headlines are also linked in that they depict migrants as illegal. The same study found “illegal” to be the most common descriptor of “immigrants” across all newspaper types – with one headline from a broadsheet and the other a tabloid, this is likely still the case.
It is important to question why there is such homogeneity in the way migration is framed. The evidence points to the existence of a calculated attempt to portray migrants negatively.
Yet why would there be an institutional bias against this particular group? The answer may lie in that, by pointing the finger of blame at migrants, attention is diverted from those truly responsible for the inequality in our society – powerful elites. With this in mind, it is only when our media is democratically owned and run that events will be represented with decency and fairness.
The culture of newsrooms has also been pinpointed as a key cause of biased migration coverage. The working environment has been described as highly authoritarian, with one journalist remarking that “when you send the troops out to capture the flag, you can’t have a discussion about whether you want to capture the flag.”
Taking this into account, it becomes possible to see how the processes of news production marginalises alternative voices. The above quote indicates that in many cases, what the management says goes, leading to journalists being forced to comply with the overall editorial perspective.
With regard to how migrants are framed, those working in the newspaper industry have overtly stated that a conscious effort is made to depict migrants in a negative light. In the words of one journalist: “It’s more newsworthy if people are abusing the system or exploiting loopholes … because that triggers a reaction in readers.”
When media professionals admit that anti-migrant narratives are deemed more newsworthy, it is clear that action is needed.
The culture of the industry needs to change. At present, there is very little diversity in newsrooms – employees have discussed the existence of white male cliques that “pass around big jobs between them.” Increasing the number of migrants that both work in the industry and actively contribute to news production will play a key role in changing the narrative.
A major reason why reporting is so skewed is because the thoughts and feelings of migrants are given a startlingly low amount of coverage. Research from Statewatch found that migrant voices featured in only 15 per cent of the 648 articles that were analysed.
When so little effort is made to include a wide range of perspectives, it is very difficult for events to be represented in a fair and accurate way. Migrants need to be given a route into the industry – a way to achieve this is through traineeship and study to work schemes.
But above all, our newspaper industry needs to be democratised and outdated norms need to be challenged. It is only then that the vicious attacks on some of our most vulnerable will begin to cease.
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service iasservices.org.uk
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