Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Distorted media take on immigration may sell papers but it also has pernicious repercussions on the street

“Lurid immigration front pages sell papers,” said a fellow journalist, who had just joined a mainstream tabloid. This was many years ago, when the journalist in question responded to my question as to how he could join such a newspaper at a time, when it seemed to be running as many front page asylum scare stories as it could get away with. The response was dispiriting, namely that every time an asylum front page was run, sales increased. The argument was difficult to refute in economic terms but when it comes to the other roles of the media such as to educate and inform, it represented a clear failure.

So today sitting in a country that has just voted to leave the EU, primarily on the premise of the need to reduce immigration, it can be argued that Britain has reaped what it has sown. The consequences could be dire for a country that has skill shortages in vital areas and a rapidly ageing population, so needs a significant inflow of migrant labour every year to retain present standards of living. 

It has been the positive side of immigration that has failed to register in the public consciousness as a result of the way in which the subject has been covered in the media.

Let’s make no claims that everything about migration is positive. Migration over the past 20 years has been badly handled by successive governments of both political persuasions. The Labour government allowed migrants from the EU accession countries to come into the UK in the early noughties with very little control. There were no minimum standards of pay, terms or conditions of work, so migrant labour could come in and undercut the indigenous workforce. The failure to set and enforce minimum standards meant that migration effectively became an incomes policy to keep wages down. This bred resentment in many areas of the country.  Many of the problems today could have been avoided had those minimum standards been enforced. Also migrants should have been encouraged to join trade unions. In addition, the revenues being generated from the migrant workforce should have been used for public services, including importantly housing provision. 

Politicians have also singularly failed to tell a positive story about the benefits of migration. The government’s own figures show that net migration of 250,000 a year boosts annual GDP by 0.5%. This growth means more jobs, higher tax revenues, more funding for schools and hospitals and a lower deficit. Many of the jobs created over recent years have been done by migrants, with figures from the Office of National Statistics showing that three quarters of employment growth for the year to August 2015 being accounted for by non-UK citizens. So the economic boom, pre Brexit vote, was largely migrant driven.

Migrants tend to be younger, contributing more tax revenue than they consume in public services, and the majority leave before they get older when they would become more reliant.

According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, migrants contribute 64% more in taxes than they take out in benefits. A study by University College London found that EU migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK finances between 2000 and 2011

A large part of the migrant population of recent years have been students coming to study. A study for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that since 2011, students had contributed more than £14 billion to the economy. 

These though are facts that you won’t find in much of our media, determined as it seems to be to present a totally negative view of migration.

So many tabloid papers will put the fact that a migrant has committed some crime up in lights on the front page, sending a subliminal message that migrant equals criminal. There is more negative coverage about migrants getting benefits. What is lacking is any balancing good news on migration. The net tax revenues that migrants provide to the exchequer, the huge benefits flowing to the education sector, diversity, the positive stories every day of different migrant workers contributing to our health, education and social services. This failure to present a balanced view on migration means that many of the readers have a totally negative view of immigrants.

The disconnect was well illustrated during the EU referendum campaign, when BBC home affairs editor Mark Easton got together a group of old and young voters in Eastbourne.  The concern of many in the older group was migration, yet they live in a town where the care homes, hospitals and social services are propped up by migrant labour. The disconnect between perceptions and reality was breath taking to behold.

Equally, if a nationwide view is taken, we find the somewhat ludicrous notion of high hostility to migrants in areas where there are very few actually living. So Clacton elects UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, on that parties anti-migrant ticket, yet levels of migrant workers in that town are low. Comparatively, in London, where many of the migrant workers who come to the UK to live and work, anti-migrant sentiment is lower.

The result of a public debate on immigration driven by a media trying to sell its products and pander to racism in the process has been to poison the public well on the subject. It has resulted in the starting point for any public discussion on migration being the reduction of numbers. Success on migration is apparently to be judged according to how many migrants can be stopped from coming to the UK.

The Conservative government has not helped matters in this respect, setting unachievable targets of cutting migration to the 10,000s, then palpably failing to get anywhere near that target.

The only way migration will decline is if the economy plunges into recession because then there will not be the jobs available in the UK for migrants to come here to do. And this is where another one of our media myths kicks in. The total misrepresentation of the immigration question has led to a public perception that migrants come here to get benefits not work.

Prime Minister David Cameron made great play of his attaining changes relating to benefits for migrants as party of his renegotiation of membership of the EU. This did not seem to make any difference to the populace, no doubt only underlining the false premise that migrants come to the UK for benefits.

The reality is somewhat different, most come here to work. If there is no work because the British economy has bombed then there will be fewer migrants – the archetypal perfect storm.

Those of us who work in the media have now to question the role played by our sector over recent years in totally failing to represent a balanced and informative picture on migration. Newspapers, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, have helped build the anti-migrant atmosphere that exploded following the EU vote to leave. Broadcast media have also played their part, adopting the anti-migrant lexicon for its coverage also. The wobbling lid that has been kept on anti-migrant racism over recent years has blown off revealing a particularly ugly side of society.  Responsibility for much of the violent racist incidents seen on our streets resides in the editor’s offices up and down the land. Politicians too have been complicit in creating this situation by failing to speak positively about immigration.
The responsibility now moving forward is to repel that anti-migrant racism. One way of doing such a thing is to start telling a more positive story about migrants, not the simple lopsided hysterical view that may sell papers but also has pernicious consequences. The media has a responsibility to tell the good news on immigration, whilst the politicians must join that discussion. The politicians too must stop migrant labour being used to under cut indigenous workers and encourage migrants  to join trade unions. They must also use the revenues coming in from migrant labour to provide the services that the migrants and the wider community need and deserve – including housing. It is no doubt late to be making these moves with to a large degree the racist genie already out of the bottle but a start has to be made, otherwise we will all be staring into a particularly unpleasant looking abyss

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